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Mississippi

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Before the Civil War, when cotton was king and slavery remained unchallenged, MISSISSIPPI was the nation’s fifth wealthiest state. Since that war, it has consistently been the poorest, its dependence on cotton a handicap that leaves it victim to the vagaries of the commodities market. From Reconstruction onwards, it was also renowned as the greatest bastion of segregation in the South. It witnessed some of the most notorious incidents of the civil rights era, from the lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955 to the murder of three activists during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, which exposed the intimate connections between the Ku Klux Klan and the state’s law enforcement officers. Not until the Seventies did the church bombings and murders end.

The legalization of gambling in the 1990s stimulated the economy somewhat, with the hulking casinos of Biloxi and Tunica sucking considerable revenues across the state line from Tennessee and Alabama. The Gulf shoreline suffered appalling devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, however, and though most of the casinos had re-opened, the coast was still undergoing reconstruction when hit by the BP oil spill in 2010. Mississippi’s poverty, hidden down rural backroads – or clearly visible just across the railroad tracks – can be truly shocking for visitors, but the state has an undeniable pull, also – especially for blues fans, drawn to sleepy Delta settlements such as Alligator or Yazoo City. Clarksdale is heaven for music fans, with its juke joints, festivals and atmospheric accommodation lending it a vibrancy rare in these parts. The largest city is the capital, Jackson, but there’s little reason to stop here when you could stay in historic river towns like Vicksburg and Natchez instead. In the north, literary Oxford has a lively college scene; Elvis fans should make a beeline for Tupelo and the King’s humble birthhome.

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