Drivers entering the Magnolia State in the mid-1990s received a hearty welcome at the border, followed by a curious admonition: “Only Positive Mississippi Spoken Here.”
The postscript originated with then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, who had adopted “Positive Mississippi” as something of a political mantra. Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Fordice brought a new attitude to the governor’s mansion, as well as a new diagnosis of Mississippi’s problems.
He took over from a succession of moderate-to-progressive governors had sought to fix the state’s schools, root out good-ole-boy cronyism, and redress Mississippi’s grievous racial history. Some were more successful than others, but they all aspired to bring backwards Mississippi in line with national norms. Fordice’s immediate predecessor, the young Harvard-trained lawyer Ray Mabus, culminated the era of reform with a famous promise: “Mississippi Will Never Be Last Again.” However, by the time Mabus came up for reelection in 1991, Mississippi still languished at the bottom of nearly every national ranking.
No state was more desperate for praise, for respect, but the rest of the country still used Mississippi as an avatar for poverty, ignorance, and bigotry. The lack of tangible progress frustrated many Mississippians who thought the state could finally outrun the legacy of Mississippi Burning and win acceptance in the eyes of the nation.
Fordice offered change – not measured in rankings, but in perception. He believed Mississippians had been conditioned to feel ashamed of their state, or at least chastened in their expressions of pride. Fordice argued that Mississippi’s obsession with its problems, and its past, overshadowed the progress it had made since the 1960s. He felt such focus only appeased the sanctimonious liberal elites who hoped to run the state down while stirring up old resentments among Mississippians who had quietly moved on.
“Only Positive Mississippi Spoken Here” was Fordice’s way of saying that Mississippi had aired its dirty drawers long enough. As long as others fixated on Mississippi’s negatives, Mississippians had every right to emphasize their positives. In practice, Positive Mississippi simply meant changing the subject.
Mississippi may have illiteracy, but Positive Mississippi has a pantheon of great writers. Mississippi may have obesity, but Positive Mississippi has scores of Hall-of-Fame plaques in Canton and Cooperstown. Mississippi may have poverty and prejudice, but Positive Mississippi has countless legendary musicians who learned to play in humble sharecropper shacks.
Today, long after the highway signs came down, Mississippians still rely on this formula when confronted with our collective problems. Its resonance could be explained by what Willie Morris described as, “the eternal juxtaposition of my state’s hate and love, the apposition of its severity and tenderness.” For many, Positive Mississippi is no different from that old “if you can’t say anything nice” adage. As America’s leader in kind words per capita – see how easy Positive Mississippi is –– Mississippians have been practicing it for years.
But Positive Mississippi also tapped into a vein of defiance that has always run underneath Mississippi’s gentile epidermis. When exposed, it has driven the state to armed insurrection. In today’s less-violent times, our defiant nature leads us to lash out against criticism, whether from journalists or comedians or loose-lipped politicians. Our response is the same no matter how valid the critique.
References to our problems usually only come in hopes of disclaiming ownership: our problems are the same as everyone else’s, we just get blamed for them more. As with all of Positive Mississippi, there’s truth in that sentiment, just not the whole truth. No part of the country (perhaps the world) is immune from the plagues of racism, poverty, ignorance, and their entangled social ills. But while Mississippi’s problems bear this common DNA, we have let them grow to a scale and scope unmatched anywhere else in America.
Neglect has made failing schools and poor health seem intractable. It has made the cycle of poverty seem inevitable. To acknowledge that our living standards are on par with Romania’s, or that the Mississippians live an average of six years shorter than Hawaiians, or that one in five Mississippi families went hungry at some point last year, is to take responsibility for these intractable inevitabilities. That is a burden that a declining number of Mississippi’s leaders have accepted.
Perhaps the best explanation for Positive Mississippi’s endurance is the simplest: doing nothing is easier than doing something. It is easier to conjure a sunny replica of the state that tells, at best, a half-story — the warm, friendly, sweet-tea-on-a-white-porch story. To preserve the illusion, Positive Mississippi must stand guard against any mention of the surrounding grit and privation. Paradoxically, Positive Mississippi is both mantra and omerta: say something nice or (as Fordice would threaten reporters and Democrats) “I’ll whip your ass.”
Honest discussions about the state’s endemic problems are deemed to be part of the problem. Those who start them are told about sleeping dogs and dead horses. Ultimately, they are commanded to love it or leave it. Many who’ve loved the state have left, because love it or leave it is a false choice. One can love all of a place while hating some of it — those were Faulkner’s words. He wrote about a mature, ripened love that understands, “you don’t love because, you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.” That quotation has been repeated about many places in many contexts, but he was referring to Mississippi, his native soil.
For as much as Positive Mississippi writes about Faulkner, Faulkner never could have been accused of writing about Positive Mississippi. Neither could Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Barry Hannah, or Willie Morris. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Robert Johnson didn’t sing Positive Mississippi. Each of these great Mississippians found purpose in the state’s complexities. Their art exports Mississippi’s unique sensory textures to millions of people around the world, a fair amount of whom are intrigued enough to come see, hear, and taste Mississippi for themselves. Next to nobody leaves the state with a worse impression than they came. Many fall in love; a few even decide to stay.
Mississippi’s political discussions should seek the same degree of honesty as our art. Our discussions should embrace the state’s complexity, grapple with it, find purpose in it — because until we acknowledge what Mississippi is, we settle for far less than what Mississippi could be.
By prioritizing the state’s image problems over our underlying deficiencies, the Positive Mississippi narrative has become its own worst enemy. Mississippi’s reputation will not improve until it catches up with the rest of the country on the things that can be summed up and ranked. No amount of money or energy trumpeting our positive attributes can overcome the stigmatizing effect of the number 50.
Rather than hiding from our problems, we must focus relentlessly on finding solutions. We need to take stock of the state without shame or blame. This is the place we love, and love not only withstands honesty, it demands it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate Mississippi’s positives — far from it. But we must understand that virtue is not incompatible with fault, and that acknowledgment does not imply judgment.
In short, we must ditch Positive Mississippi for Honest Mississippi. Mississippi’s emerging generation of leaders have an opportunity to rethink our approaches to the state’s entrenched problems. That process requires the people who plan to make a difference to begin a vigorous public discourse about the state we aspire to create. Rethink Mississippi seeks to provide a constructive outlet to refine and disseminate new ideas among the people who are committed to the state’s future. Please read this companion article to learn more about the site and what we hope to accomplish.
In the meantime, welcome to Rethink Mississippi. Only Honest Mississippi Spoken Here.