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The Mississippi Imbroglio

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

What success the Americans will have in forcing their unripe standards upon the reluctant state of Mississippi, how long the battle will last, and what its consequences may reveal are subjects for exciting conjecture. For the state of Mississippi is a bulwark of passive resistance. It is a prey to internal desuetude ; its power of expression, as it were, is held in abeyance between antiquity on the one hand and immaturity on the other. Most remote of the Southern states from the present centers of kinetic radiation, it remains a neglected outpost of the quiet splendors of the old regime, while its comparative lack of industrial materials has presented no land of promise for the new.

Although many Americans in the midst of plenty are pursued by a paradoxical fear that they will be unable to make a livelihood from one day to the next, the Mississippians are singularly free from any such consuming dread. They are infidels in the fold of good business; they cling to an agnostic faith in a sort of irresponsibility, which limits community endeavors. Everlasting familiarity with debt has bred in them a contempt for its power. Through years of direful conflict with mortgages, diminishing collateral, and foreclosures, the planters of Mississippi have emerged at least moral victors. Even though the total value of agricultural products in the state sank to $134,460,000 in 1930, which is only fifty-one per cent of the corresponding figure ($262,-469,000) for 1929—and while banks are closing their doors in disconcerting numbers—planters and tenants alike pursue the even tenor of their ways with remarkable equanimity. Nor do they match the nation’s somewhat intrusive concern with their own trepidations about present educational conditions in Mississippi. Are there not some free spirits in America who, momentarily dropping their masks of conformity, are able to descry a quality of hardihood in these people; a sinewy stiffness of character which, if quixotic in a measure, is still not without a kind of stark and lonely grandeur in this docile world?

From the northwestern corner of Mississippi an elevated range extends directly southward through about two-thirds of the state; and at nearly the same point the Great River, on its way from Memphis to New Orleans, bends slightly, westward. The river and the mountainous range come together again near Vicksburg. Parts of about twelve western counties have been included in the region which they have enclosed, and this area is known as the delta land. It has always been the dwelling place of “the quality.” The land itself is of that rich loamy texture usually associated with delta areas; this results from the fact that the immediate basin, or valley, of the river is extended beyond its average width because the restraining mountains are here farther removed from the water. As well as from the nature of the land, the region derives its name also from the fact that the Yazoo River, which flows along the western edge of the mountain range, empties into the Mississippi River through a series of deltas just above Vicksburg. Clarksdale, Greenville, Greenwood, Hazelhurst, and Natchez are among the towns in the favored area, while Jackson, which lies but the width of two counties east of Vicksburg, marks the termination of any feeling of kinship which the delta people cherish for the remaining population of the state.

Of the seventy other counties in the state, about ten are included in the prairie region. This area, which is made up of softly rolling hills and rather grassy surfaces, extends along the extreme eastern boundary. Aberdeen, Columbus, and Meridian are towns in the prairie section, while Laurel and Hattiesburg lie along the southwestern edge of it. The inhabitants of this area lean somewhat in sympathy towards the delta people, but their basic interests and pursuits are so different as to exclude any strong tie between the eastern and western extremities of the state.

In the southernmost counties, where Mississippi verges into Louisiana on the southwest and protrudes a shelf into the Gulf of Mexico on the southeast, the general tone of life is colored by a mixture of influences which lie rather apart from the rest of the state. From Laurel and Hattiesburg down to the Gulf Coast there has been considerable development of the long-leaf pine industries; aside from the cutting of lumber, the manufacture of synthetic wood and naval stores has been partly substituted for single-minded dependence upon cotton. Pecans and vegetables for distant markets are also widely cultivated. The beauty of the Gulf Coast itself and the suitability of the waters of Mississippi Sound for swimming and fishing have transformed a seventy-five-mile strip into a famous playground.

At Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi the shore is lined with sumptuous vacation residences, which stand far back from the beach in clusters of luxuriant trees hung with festoons of Spanish moss. These places were originally the almost exclusive property of the Mississippi delta folk; but promotion campaigns in recent years have brought to portions of Bay St. Louis and Biloxi suggestions of the type of exploitation usually associated with Atlantic City. Even so, this Coast region has no special connection with the rest of Mississippi. Most of its railroads lead to Mobile and New Orleans, and travelers on that marvelous thoroughfare, the Old Spanish Trail, seldom turn inland at any of the Mississippi towns.

From the coastal plain to the northern boundary and between the delta and the prairie, lies that major portion of Mississippi known as the hill country. The hills are not marked geographical formations; but the slightly, irregular contour of the land is exaggerated by comparison with the flatness of the delta, prairie, and coast. In the hill country live the great masses of the under-privileged people of the state. Their domain stretches over nearly three-fourths of the total area of Mississippi, and they compose an undisputed majority of the electorate. While farms of several thousand acres are the rule in the delta land, the average size of farms in Mississippi in 1928 was 66.9 acres; and sixty-six per cent of all the farms in the state were operated by tenants. The small farms are generally in the hill country. Along with their struggles against the unfertile and eroding soil, the white men of the hill country have retained their old enmity against the Negro race, which composes more than one-half the population of the state in general and about four-fifths of the population of the delta. To the hill folk the main trouble with education in Mississippi is that one is compelled by law to purchase text-books for school children. Apparently oblivious to developments of the past six months, representatives of these people recently gathered at Jackson to hear with avidity, the age-old complaints expressed by members of the Calvinistic clergy: “Millions of pagans are coming up in our public schools. . . . America is on its way to heathenism unless means can be provided to reach public school children with the Bible.” Between hill and delta there have been natural differences which have seehied insurmountable. Much of the recent political, educational, and economic history, of the state may be explained on grounds of these inevitable conflicts.

That movement in American history usually designated as “the rise of the common man” did not reach Mississippi until about 1890. Previous to that time the barons of the delta had ruled the state with unchallenged sovereignty. It was not that the inhabitants of the delta craved political power. They were content with life within their own pleasant domain. With Memphis and New Orleans as their social and economic capitals, and in the security of their own principalities, they were far more interested in maintaining exclusiveness within their own borders than in extending their reach into the outside world. People of wide (but not scholarly) education, with taste, travel, and comparative wealth, they desired stability rather than change. But unfortunately their economic system was too shallow to stand the test of time. Long ago their borrowings exhausted the resources of the state banks; foreign capital was brought into the delta. Money-lenders of obvious types amassed fortunes at the hands of the unwary planters. Today an English syndicate owns and operates a delta tract of eight thousand acres with the aim of making each acre yield a bale of that long-fibre cotton which brought a dollar a pound during the World War. To the native planters only the status of renter involved disgrace; the accumulation of debts, even to the point of final capitulation, could be borne with honor. And even at the moment when the prestige of the planters was tottering, there came to Mississippi the swelling shouts and challenging cries of the democratic rebellion.

That phase of resentment and revenge which identifies the present political period in Mississippi had its incipiency in the constitutional convention of 1890. At that time the masses of the people from the red-clay hill country first began to express their revolt against the English system of rule by the land-owning classes. The governor’s term was fixed at four years, and his re-election for another consecutive term was made illegal. Provisions were made for a board of trustees, consisting of seven men appointed by the governor, to have absolute control of all matters pertaining to the three principal state educational institutions. Since, as a general rule, the tenure of one of the trustees expires each year, it has usually been possible for a dexterous governor to obtain control of the board, through filling vacancies with his own appointees, during the last year of the gubernatorial term, if not before. Since the state colleges offer one of the most fruitful fields for patronage, it is only natural that recent governors should have taken advantage of their opportunities. One must understand, of course, that scholarship and higher education as such have not built up in Mississippi any prestige which could make them sacrosanct against political pillage. School people in the state at the moment are much concerned over their friends’ losses of positions in the various colleges; but the implied assault upon the integrity of education and learning in the abstract is usually a bit beyond the field of their imagination.

The present political regime in Mississippi is generally thought of within the state as having been instituted by that amazing figure, James Kimble Vardaman. Mr. Vardaman was born in Texas in 1861; moving to Mississippi at an early age, he read law and was admitted to the Mississippi bar in 1882. He was without formal education and perhaps lacking in other special qualifications for social acceptance in the delta region where he settled. Into his columns of The Enterprise, which he edited at Greenwood, there began to creep suggestions of that social resentment and incono-clastic nature which were to come into full flower in his later career. After establishing The Commonwealth at Greenwood, he two years later became editor of The Issue, a political organ published at Jackson. Already he had begun to hold a series of political posts in the state, having come into his first office in 1890, the year of the’constitutional convention which marked the rise of the hill people against the delta. Mr, Vardaman was governor from 1904 to 1908 and United States Senator from 1913 to 1919. At Washington he was distinguished in the public mind, first, because of his long flowing hair (which he is said to have worn to conceal a wen on the back of his neck) and, secondly, because of his bitter stand with Senators Reed and La Follette against the war policies of President Woodrow Wilson.

In Mississippi a frequent interpretation is that Mr. Vardaman, while governor, formed a tacit alliance with two younger men—Lee Maurice Russell and Theodore Gilmore Bilbo. These were to constitute a triumvirate in the new democracy of the state. A graduate of the University of Nashville, Mr. Bilbo studied law at Vanderbilt and Michigan. His lasting interest in the school system of Mississippi was possibly initiated during the years, immediately after his graduation, when he was a teacher in the rural district schools. He has also served as a preacher of an evangelical faith and as the editor of the Mississippi Free Lance, a weekly political newspaper. As a member of the law firm of Bilbo and Shipman, he established his permanent home in Poplarville, a village in the lower hill country on one of the main railroads and highways to New Orleans. Entering public service in 1908, he retained state offices continuously for twelve years, including his first term as governor from 1916 to 1920.

Born at Oxford, the seat of the University of Mississippi, Mr. Russell won academic and law degrees at that institution. After practicing law at Oxford, he, following the interim of his political career, entered the real estate business at Gulfport, where he now resides. He was lieutenant-governor during Mr. Bilbo’s first term, and was governor of the state from 1920 to 1924.

During the term of Mr. Russell as governor, the rising tide of democracy in Mississippi began to show grotesque evidences of the irrepressible conflict which it represented. This was the period in which the more advanced sections of the South were making every effort to utilize new economic forces in order to balance the old complete reliance upon a toppling agriculture. Mississippi was not able to fall into step with this general movement because her energies at the moment were being consumed by internal struggles. Violent resentments against all “enemies of the people”—deep jealousies and hatreds, inhibited for years—sprang savagely to the surface and held the stage against constructive programs. In Mississippi that wave of partly demagogic denuneiation of “the interests,” which had swept the country a decade or so before, was just then taking form. In the minds of the newly, powerful hill people of Mississippi, the large corporations and “trusts” became confused with their old masters, the delta folk. Several strong groups in Governor Russell’s legislature were arrayed against the industrial interests. Corporations were vehemently prosecuted under the anti-trust laws, Under a temporary injunction, all Ford dealers in the state were compelled to cease operations for six weeks. Likewise, all insurance companies, except a few small local ones, were restrained from selling policies in the state for a certain period; as a result, a number of the larger companies withdrew their agencies.

Control of the state schools has been an issue between factions of the Democratic Party in Mississippi for at least forty years; it may be said with accuracy that the issue has been a sensitive and pressing one since the term of Governor Russell. If such a situation appears outlandish and almost barbaric to the citizens of other states, one must realize that Mississippi presents in a highly magnified form the political jeopardy of all state educational institutions; the scoffer must also bear in mind the fact that state and other public school systems offer one of the most obvious and potentially powerful sources of political organization. That Mississippi happens to have embraced this particular form of political alignment is patently unfortunate for the general cause of education; yet it may be held with some assurance that alignments based upon industrial and religious competitions, such as other states have now and then exhibited, are fraught with quite as much danger to the welfare of the fields represented.

At any rate, among the dismissals supposedly, engineered by Governor Russell was that of Henry Whitfield, who had for years been president of the Mississippi State College for Women at Columbus. As head of M. S. C. W., Mr. Whitfield had attempted to make use of a rather remarkable device to unify the conflicting factions of his state. Of the four state colleges in Mississippi, M. S. C. W., with about one thousand, five hundred students, is the largest. Each county in the state has an established quota of students eligible for the institution. Since the University of Mississippi at Oxford has always maintained a reputation for catering mainly to the delta people, and since the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Starkville is primarily designed to fill the needs of the inhabitants of the hill country, Mr. Whitfield conceived the idea of trying to minimize social strife in the state by creating common interests and sympathies among the women students of all classes who should attend M. S. C. W. Towards this end, exclusive social organizations were never allowed; all students occupied similar quarters in dormitories; and all were required to wear simple uniforms of navy blue suits with black hats.

How conspicuous the colleges have been in the class warfare of Mississippi can be illustrated by two stories well known to people of the state. The A. and M. College has never allowed social fraternities, while the University, of Mississippi—”Ole Miss”—has always desired to encourage them. During the governorship of Mr. Russell fraternities at the University were abolished. It is generally said that during his college days at the Univtrsity Mr. Russell had so resented the air of superiority assumed by fraternity members that he, a leader of the non-fraternity element, had taken oath that he would some day become a governor of Mississippi and destroy the caste system at his Alma Mater. There is a second story to the effect that Mr. Russell harbored a deep antipathy against a fellow-student who was supposed to have “black-balled” young Russell’s name when it was presented for membership in one of the organizations. When Mr. Russell reached the governor’s chair, so the story goes, this old school enemy, of his had become regional representative of one of the large school-book concerns. As his revenge for the college incident, Mr. Russell is said to have removed all this company’s books from the Mississippi schools and to have replaced them with the wares of a rival publisher. While these interpretations may be partly the figments of partisan politics, their very currency indicates a trend of thought which is of deep significance.

At the expiration of Mr. Russell’s term in 1924, Mr. Whitfield, the deposed president of M. S. C. W., announced his candidacy for governor to oppose Mr. Bilbo, who was in a position to return to the capital. The election of Mr. Whitfield was attributed to the campaign of retribution conducted in his favor by the alumnae of M. S. C. W. and the friends of other schoolmen who had been ousted by Mr. Russell. Upon his accession Governor Whitfield dutifully readjusted the personnel of the educational institutions; he also took pains to re-establish fraternities and sororities at the University of Mississippi. When Mr. Whitfield died in office he was succeeded by Lieutenant-Governor Dennis Murphree. In 1928 Mr. Murphree ran for governor against Mr. Bilbo. By this time Mr. Bilbo had reorganized his political machine well enough to win the race, although the fierceness of the Murphree campaign during the ten days prior to the election cut down Mr. Bilbo’s majority to a meagre seven thousand votes.

Last summer, two years after his return to the governor’s chair, Mr. Bilbo had gained sufficient control over the school board of trustees to enable him to dismiss and replace one hundred and seventy-nine officials and faculty members of the four state colleges. He is quoted as having said to the newspaper reporters, “Boys, we have just hung up a new record.” The reverberations of horror and official denunciations over the country are well known. The American Medical Association, the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States, and the American Association of University Professors are among the organizations which have disqualified the Mississippi colleges. Though I venture no defense of Governor Bilbo, I submit that his action is humanly understandable. In the light of precedents clearly established in his state, his onslaught upon the schools controlled by his enemies was to be expected. Granted that his gesture was climactic in sweep, one must consider that he had suffered considerable aggravation by his defeat at the hands of Mr. Whitfield and by his narrow escape from the Murphree opposition. Further, it must be held in mind that Mr. Bilbo is a politician; that, as such, he must act in accordance with the peculiarities of his electorate.

Already four men have announced their candidacies to succeed Governor Bilbo in 1932. Some are Bilbo men, while others belong to the opposing factions. Since under the law he cannot stand for re-election, it is generally taken for granted that he will seek to follow in the path of the late Mr. Vardaman to the United States Senate. Whether the national scandal which he has brought to Mississippi will distress him at the next election remains to be seen. At any rate, his ability as a campaigner is not likely to be diminished. No doubt he will continue to promise a state printing plant from which the masses of the hill people will be able to obtain free school books for their children, and thereby, not be embarrassed too much by that pestiferous law which seems to regard education as a virtue. And he may be expected to repeat his ingenious program for covering the state with paved roads without a penny of cost to the tax-payers; this interesting procedure, his audiences will probably again toss their hats to hear, may be consummated by causing the Negro convicts of Mississippi to turn the red-clay hills of the state into brick paving blocks. When such roads, Mr. Bilbo points out, become worn on one side, nothing would be simpler than to turn the bricks over in order to form a brand new surface. Again, his audiences will be pleased to hear once more his contemptuous denunciation of that hateful protege of the delta people, the multitudinous Negro.

On the whole I am not sure that Governor Bilbo will have great difficulty with the school turmoil at the next election.

If he is defeated, his downfall may be attributable mainly, to the Mississippi bank failures, the cotton prices, the mortgages and foreclosures which have accompanied his administration—scenes for which, ironically enough, Governor Bilbo perhaps bears no special responsibility. At the same time, it may be, as I suggested at the outset, that the Mis-sissippians have perfected an immunity to the terrors of debt and economic frustration. If that be true, perhaps it may behoove them to set their present leader—bedecked in red neck-tie and diamond horse-shoe pin—on more permanent and public exhibition in Washington.

Thus the state of Mississippi is complicated by a ramified mechanism of internal conflict. Young college graduates, °nvisioning no opportunities at home, are seeking careers afield. The hill people, during their period at the reins, have as yet produced no leadership commanding unified respect ; possibly they have been too much absorbed in maintaining their own ascendancy; it may be, after all, that Mississippi will have to turn again to the delta for competent guidance. Such delightful scenes of delta life as fall from the pen of Stark Young are beautiful and true; yet the objective eye must be aware of some intrusions of decay about the edges of the picture frames. While undeniable advances in secondary education, road building, and in the varied pursuits of agriculture are visible in the foreground, Mississippi is by. no means ready to hoist a banner in the contemporary march. And I feel a steady conviction that there are certain households in the neighborhood of Natchez and Greenwood which are not greatly concerned over the sluggishness of their state. There is, to be sure, a generous strength—and one may well be reminded of certain inlaid values, as well—in antiquated things. Indeed, if the delta people ever chance to catch an inkling, through the Memphis Commercial Appeal, of the current reputation of Mis-sissippians, the outside world may expect a surprising example of indifference and self-sufficiency.


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