updated 7/16/2008 5:11:51 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:11:51

Mississippi, burdened with a tragic history, has been taking quickening steps toward the future—and quickly got up off the ground and started rebuilding after the central force of Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. This green land was settled in a rush in Jacksonian America, mostly by small farmers heading west from Georgia and south from Tennessee—and also by a few big planters, who made and sometimes lost vast fortunes, built grand mansions and sent their sons to fight in the Civil War. For a century afterward, as planters and engineers drained the Delta lands, Mississippi with its racial segregation, subsistence farmers and sharecroppers and low wages, lived apart from most of America. Faulkner’s Mississippi never knew the Homestead Act, the giant factories, the rushes of immigration, the rise of suburbs that were the indispensable backdrop of most of 20th century American life. Mississippi never developed great cities—its two commercial metropolises are just outside its borders, Memphis and New Orleans. But if it did not excel at commerce, it did produce great art. Mississippi gave us the music of the blues and Elvis Presley. It gave the world William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote; the state with the highest illiteracy rate has also produced the most Pulitzer Prizes for literature. Their work was informed by a sense of the tragic missing or forgotten in most of America, where life is a triumphant sales pitch or a labor-saving invention. For years no other state had such a painful contrast between image and reality, between an ideal sincerely strived for and the tawdry facts of everyday life. Magnolia trees on the lawns of antebellum mansions, golden-haired young women in white dresses on the veranda, faithful black servants and retainers: This was once the ideal. And behind it stood loose-jointed frame houses and unpainted back-country stores, cabins without indoor plumbing and poor white crossroads clustered with askew advertising signs. As David Sansing writes, “We at one time have the scent of magnolias and the smell of burning crosses.”

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Today Mississippi still ranks 49th or 50th on many scales, but the gulf between Mississippi and the rest of America has narrowed enormously. In 1940, Mississippi had an economy based on low-wage, subsistence or sharecropper agriculture and a system of racial segregation enforced often by violence. If history is, as Sir Henry Maine wrote, the story of the progress from status to contract, then old Mississippi was still at the beginning, for status—race—meant just about everything. In the years since, Mississippi has moved, not always willingly, from status to contract, in its economy and in race relations. Per capita income in Mississippi was 36% of the national average in 1940; in 1990 it was 67% and in 2005 it was 73%, well below average but, given the lower cost of living here, a level recognizably American. Most Mississippians of 50 years ago would be astonished by the physical comforts and mechanical marvels their grandchildren take for granted today: Nearly every classroom in the state is air-conditioned and is being wired to the Internet. They would be astonished as well by relations between whites and blacks, who are 36% of the population, the highest of any state. As Mississippi native William Raspberry wrote in the Washington Post, “There is an easiness to relationships, a mutual respect and a willingness to move beyond race that, quite frankly, didn’t exist during my years in the state. Mississippi is finally a good place to be.” Forty years ago, blacks held no public offices in Mississippi; now the state has more black elected officials than any other, including 47 of 174 state legislators; black mayors have been elected in Vicksburg, Jackson, Hattiesburg, Greenville and Natchez. The Mississippi traditions of friendliness and courtesy seem to be trumping the historical tradition of racism: Mississippi may rank 50th in per capita income, but for a decade it has ranked number one or two in charitable giving. Mississippi has not forgotten the past, and in April 2001 65% of voters chose to retain the Confederate battle cross in the state flag. But prosecutors have also hunted down the KKK members who killed civil rights activists in the 1960s: one was convicted in June 2005 and another charged in January 2007. Governor Haley Barbour joined Jackson state Senator Hillman Frazier in support of building a Mississippi civil rights museum.

Mississippi’s economy once depended on cotton; now its growth comes from other things. Manufacturing jobs have declined here, as elsewhere, in recent years, but northeast Mississippi around Tupelo remains the center of the nation’s upholstered furniture industry, and there has been rapid growth along the new Interstate 22 from Tupelo to the fast-growing suburbs of DeSoto County just south of Memphis. Growth has also been rapid around the $1.4 billion Nissan auto plant opened in May 2003 in Canton, just north of Jackson, attracted by $363 million in state aid and incentives, with 4,000 jobs and thousands more from nearby suppliers, building 278,000 vehicles a year. Highland Colony Parkway heading north from Jackson in Madison County and Lakeland Drive heading east into Rankin County have become boom areas. In February 2007 Toyota announced that it would build a new plant in Blue Springs, 10 miles northwest of Tupelo, with 2,000 jobs, to produce 150,000 Highlanders a year starting in 2010. That state offered $296 million in incentives and a sales pitch by Governor Haley Barbour, as described by a Toyota official: “He described to me the character and the resiliency of the folks who were involved in the Katrina disaster and it showed a strength of character where they came together and helped each other in a way that obviously makes the workforce very desirable.” Other sources of growth: Northrop Grumman’s huge shipyard in Senator Trent Lott’s hometown of Pascagoula and the Richton salt dome, which is being developed for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at a cost of $1 billion, generating 1,000 jobs.

Then there is gambling. Mississippi approved gambling in 1990, and in 1992 riverboat and dockside casinos started to open. Big gambling companies built some 29 casinos, nine in once-impoverished Tunica County, just south of Memphis, 12 on the Gulf Coast and the rest scattered along the Mississippi River, all technically on boats and barges but tied to land. Mississippi is number three in gambling revenue, behind Nevada and New Jersey; gambling has produced 40,000 service jobs, at above-average wages, and some $500 million in state revenues a year. Then in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The main force of the hurricane was directed at Hancock County, Mississippi, not New Orleans, and the towns of Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian were totally wiped out. In a few hours waves up to 55 feet destroyed one-quarter of the structures in Biloxi and Gulfport; the homes of Congressman Gene Taylor in Bay St. Louis and Senator Trent Lott in Pascagoula, the latter more than a century old, were totally swept away, as were many houses a quarter mile away from the Gulf. Floodwaters swept 10 miles inland. Some casinos, connected to the shore by plankways, were utterly destroyed and others severely damaged. Federal emergency plans rest on the assumption that local officials and first responders will cope for the first three days, but city halls were without power and the roads to hospitals blocked by felled trees. In New Orleans many first responders fled; in Mississippi they went to work, on 24-hour shifts and with Barbour quickly taking charge. Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway later described his people’s response. “Our people have been good, too. You know, they shed some tears, work a little bit, cry again and go back to work. We’re not sitting on our behinds and waiting for someone to give us a hand.”

Recovery was helped by federal money secured by the Mississippi delegation, and it did not hurt that Senator Thad Cochran was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Barbour administered grants and low interest loans to home and business owners who suffered uninsured losses, even as FEMA shelled out $1.8 billion for National Flood Insurance Program claims. In September and October, as the closed casinos were costing the state $500,000 a day in revenue, the state House and Senate changed the gambling law to allow casinos to be built on land within 800 feet of the shore. The casino owners moved in rapidly to rebuild and some did groundbreaking for new casinos. Hispanic workers streamed in to clean up the damage and work on new construction. By June 2006 the state had gained 30,000 jobs over 2005 and wages were up, despite Katrina; many of the casinos were back in business, generating state revenue. Developers made plans for gentrifying what used to be low-income Gulf Coast neighborhoods.

Politically, Mississippi is increasingly a Republican state, carried by Republicans in the last seven presidential elections. Republicans have held both U.S. Senate seats since John Stennis retired in 1988 and have generally done well in House elections. But Mississippi Democrats with good old boy personas can be competitive, like Gene Taylor who was elected in the heavily Republican Gulf Coast House seat in 1989 and has won by wide margins ever since. In 2002 Haley Barbour returned to Yazoo City, where he had always kept a home during a career as a Washington lobbyist and Republican national chairman during the first Clinton term, to run against Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove. One big issue was tort law. By 2002 the state had become a trial lawyer’s paradise, with seven product liability judgments of $100 million or more in six years; medical malpractice lawsuits raised insurance premiums so much that 73 doctors left the state, an obstetric clinic in the Delta closed down temporarily and there was only one neurosurgeon left on the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of cases were brought in tiny, impoverished Jefferson County where juries awarded huge judgments; there were more plaintiffs in court than the county had people. Musgrove, though supported by trial lawyers, called a special session of the legislature in September 2002 which placed some limits on medical malpractice and product liability cases and on forum-shopping. Barbour promised more and won 53%-46%. Barbour called a special session in May 2004 and in June signed a bill capping pain and suffering damages generally to $1 million and to $500,000 in medical malpractice cases, further limiting forum-shopping and protecting “innocent sellers” of faulty products.

In August 2005, before Katrina hit, Barbour’s positive job rating in a SurveyUSA poll was 43%. In September it zoomed to 58% and up through November 2006 it averaged 55% in monthly SurveyUSA polls. There was a clear contrast here with Louisiana, where Governor Kathleen Blanco’s job rating zoomed downward in September 2005 and stayed there, to the point that she declined to seek a second term. Barbour, also approaching a 2007 election, seemed in much better political shape. He took credit for converting a $700 million deficit to a $70 million surplus by cutting spending requests. Republicans seem to be on the rise as well in state politics. In 2003 Tim Ford, the Democratic Speaker of the House for 16 years, retired, and Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck, who presides over the Senate, switched to the Republican party in December 2002. In January 2007, Republicans trailed Democrats 27–25 in the state Senate but after two Democrats switched parties, Republicans led 27–25 going into the 2007 election. However, Democrats still led (75–47) in the state House.

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