Mississippi’s Race to the Bottom

The rest of the South might have the same kind of racist customs, but they were worst in the swamps and cities of Mississippi. In fact, the state had fewer Jim Crow laws than it’s neighbors; they just weren’t needed. Instead, there was a status quo of violence and ruthless suppression. Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings—539 between Reconstruction and the civil rights era—and the most severe convict leasing, where it became a kind of neoslavery.

Where they existed, public services were sparse and utterly segregated. Anything public had to be kept separate from Blacks, or degraded, if that wasn’t possible. To get a sense of the scale of White resistance in Mississippi, consider this: During the civil rights movement, White supremacists built a network of state and private agencies to wreak havoc on Black activists with surveillance, economic reprisals, and extreme violence. One of them was the Mississippi Citizens Council, and it, writes historian Joseph Crespino, “[P]oliced a white racial authoritarianism that ran roughshod over the civil and political rights of White and Black Mississippians both. Because of the Council’s influence, no place in the United States … came closer to resembling the repressiveness of apartheid South Africa than did Mississippi.

More than a half-century later, and all of this is dead. But the ideas and culture it built are not. And why would they be? For nearly a 100 years, Mississippi was a White supremacist police state. Of course this made a mark on its culture. Of course these ideas of exclusion—and specifically, of racial hostility to outside interference and public goods—are still embedded in the structure of its politics.





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