Centennial Celebration of the New Capitol

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Return to Capitals and Capitols: The Places and Spaces of Mississippi's Seat of Government






As we gather here today to commemorate the centennial of the New Capitol, we can also celebrate a New Mississippi. And just as we honor the architects and craftsmen who built this majestic building a century ago, I want to recognize the architects and craftsmen of the New Mississippi. Many of them are in this audience today, and some are on this platform.

At the dedication of this building in 1903 Bishop Charles Galloway said, “My ardent ambition for [Mississippi] is, that she will not sit forever on the opposition benches, but develop a generation of...creative and constructive [leaders] and I...insist that the Negro should have equal opportunity with every American...to fulfill in himself the highest purposes of an all-wise and beneficent Providence.”

We have taken too long, far too long, but I believe Bishop Galloway’s “ardent ambition” has at last been fulfilled.Mississippians now sit in the highest councils of government, business, education, and arts and letters.And any Mississippian can fulfill their loftiest aspirations. If they can dream it, they can do it.

When we dedicated this building one hundred years ago, there were two men living in Mississippi whose lives are worthy of note.One you have probably never heard of, the other is one of Mississippi’s favorite sons.One was a black man, born in obscurity deep in the Piney Woods of south Mississippi.The other was a white man, born on the northern edge of the Pontotoc Ridge, the son and grandson of prominent men.

The black man, Thelma Andrews, was a cook in a college cafeteria. At least that’s how he started. He later became the Director of Food Services at Perkinston Junior College. He was a man of quiet dignity, there was something noble about him in his simple devotion to duty and in his goodness.In the 1960s after Perkinston was integrated he was a role model and mentor to students and faculty alike and in his own way he was as much a teacher as I was.Mr. Andrews, as far as I have been able to ascertain, was the first African American for whom a building was named on one of our traditionally white college campuses.

The white man, William Faulkner, has been acclaimed throughout the world for his literary genius. Faulkner produced some of the world’s great literature and won every important literary award.

Thelma Andrews and William Faulkner did not know each other, yet their lives were ineradicably linked in that seamless flow of time we call history and they, with many others like them, built the New Mississippi.Andrews and Faulkner are typical of the goodness and the genius of our people.

Mississippians are an intriguing and almost baffling blend of goodness and genius.Someone asked Faulkner once what he wrote about and he said, “I write about the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Mississippi, like the human heart, is often in conflict with itself.Our hospitality is legendary, but so too is our hostility to outsiders.We have a high rate of illiteracy, but there are more Pulitzer Prize winners per square mile in Mississippi than any other state.

Mississippi is a sad and lonely place, it was here the blues were born and we gave the world B. B. King.But we are also happy and exuberant and we gave the world Elvis Presley, the boy wonder of rock and roll.

For every trait that is typical of Mississippi, there seems to be a correspondingly opposite trait that is equally typical.Perhaps that is why people are so fascinated with us. Mississippians are amused by the attention we get when we visit other parts of the country, especially “up north.”People seem somehow intrigued to find a real live Mississippian outside its natural habitat.To be a Mississippian is an existential predicament and it may be that there is just no other place in America quite like Mississippi.

Just as there is a blend of goodness and genius in Mississippi there is also a blend of good and bad. There will be time enough to speak of the bad. Today, we will talk only of the good. And there is much to say.In the century since the dedication of this New Capitol there has been a sea change, a seismic shift in Mississippi.

One of the most enduring changes came in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment extending the franchise to women. With their newly won right to vote our mothers and grandmothers, aunts, wives and sisters refreshed American democracy and brought an earnestness to politics and public policy that the Republic had not known before.This was the prelude to the New Mississippi.

Perhaps the fount from which almost all of the other changes flowed were the economic forces that industrialized and urbanized Mississippi. Early in the twentieth century the legislature, meeting in this spanking new building, passed laws encouraging industry to move to Mississippi, but the embrace of industry by a rural people was slow and halting. The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, called for a bold and innovative remedy to the deepening poverty that held a nation in its grip.

The Balance Agriculture With Industry, the BAWI, program, was Mississippi’s gift to the south and to the nation. The benefits of attracting industry to the rural south were obvious and widespread, but the strategy for achieving that goal was conceived and implemented by Mississippi’s political, business and educational leadership.

In the election of 1935 Mississippians gave Hugh White a mandate to inaugurate the BAWI program. Thirty years later in March 1965 in a quiet ceremony in his office, in this building, Governor Paul Johnson, Jr. announced that industrial employment exceeded agricultural employment for the first time in the state’s history.

Now, 38 years later many of the world’s greatest performing artists who use high tech acoustical equipment, buy instruments and sound systems made in Mississippi, by Mississippians.Last week, here in the heartland of Mississippi, was dedicated one of the largest automobile assembly plants in the world. Almost two thousand cars a day, will roll off an assembly line in Canton.

Economic development and opportunity have brought an ethnic diversity to Mississippi that is quite remarkable. In the hotel where I stayed last night the safety instructions on the elevator were recorded in seven languages.And those instructions did not include the language of Native Americans that can still be heard in parts of our state.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaws are virtually a sovereign nation within our midst, and under the leadership of Chief Phillip Martin they have produced a model social and economic development program that enables them to live in independence and dignity on their ancestral land.

Industrialization and urbanization have also produced a transportation revolution that will take us from dusty country roads to the far reaches of outer space. The Stennis Space Center in Hancock County has long been an important site in America’s space program.And how proud we all are, that William Parsons, a Mississippian, is now in command of NASA’s shuttle program.

For decades an out-migration deprived Mississippi of the energy and intellect of some of our best and brightest. But we have stemmed the Brain Drain and have reversed the Black Exodus.We accomplished this because we have transformed public education from K through 12, and I want to salute Mississippi’s classroom teachers, in both the public and private schools.They are the foot soldiers in the army of the New Mississippi. And they, perhaps more than anyone else, have builded the New Mississippi.We have also developed a system of higher education that compares favorably with those in other parts of the country.

And there are many prestigious and valuable scholarships, generously funded by Mississippians, that make it attractive for our best and brightest to stay at home for their collegiate education. If they don’t go away, we don’t have to worry about them coming back.

Since 1955 the University of Mississippi Medical Center has provided superior medical education to Mississippi students who formerly went out of state for their training. Many of them never came back.It would be almost impossible for me to overestimate the contribution that the Medical Center has made to the health and well-being of Mississippi.In our Medical Center one of the first human organ transplants was performed.

All of these marvelous achievements occurred during a cultural flourishing that I call the Mississippi Renaissance.In the century since the dedication of this New Capitol we have taught the world to sing. Three major genres of American music have their roots in Mississippi.

The Blues were born here. Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Son Thomas, Mississippi John Hurt and B. B. King are from Mississippi and they first made their music here.

Country Music, the most popular singing style in America, was raised to an art form by Mississippi’s Jimmie Rodgers, the first singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His progeny is numberless and I can mention only two: our own Charley Pride, who has won virtually every award given by the industry, and Marty Stuart, an artist of international renown and one of the great pickers of all time.

And who does not know that rock and roll began here in Mississippi with “Heartbreak Hotel,” and that Elvis was “King” and that he changed the style of American music.

But let us not forget, Mississippi’s Grand Lady of Opera, Leontyne Price who, in her 1961 Metropolitan Opera debut, received a 42 minute standing ovation.

We may not have taught the world to dance, but every four years the world of dance comes to Mississippi when the International Ballet Competition showcases the world’s most talented young dancers.

In the performing arts Mississippians have reached the heights in perhaps the most competitive industry in America. Our stars are too numerous even to list, so I will note only four who can represent the many: Gerald McRaney and Morgan Freeman, two of the nation’s premier actors, and Oprah Winfrey, one of the most influential women in America, and Jim Henson, who created the Muppets who live on Sesame Street.

During the Mississippi Renaissance some of America’s great writers found their voice. Among them were Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty.

Inaugurated by these four great writers, Mississippi’s literary tradition is a marvel in the world of letters. A partial list of Mississippi writers would include:

Margaret Walker, Shelby Foote, William Alexander Percy,
Hodding Carter, Ira Harkey, Hazel Brannon Smith, Turner Catledge,
Leronne Bennett, Dumas Malone, David Donald,
Willie Morris, Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Beth Henley,
Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Sterling Plumpp,
Larry Brown, Clifton Taulbot, Thomas Harris
Greg Iles, Nevada Barr, and John Grisham.

In 1903 local newspapers estimated the attendance at the dedication of the New Capitol at 20,000. One report said that everyone in Brandon attended the ceremony, except the constable. The state’s population was only about a million and a half, which means that more than one out of every ten Mississippians attended the dedication. That says something rather remarkable about that generation.

Mississippians had suffered and were still suffering from the devastation of Civil War and the lingering depression of the 1890s. But amid that gloom there was a brief shining moment when Mississippi paused to dedicate this grand and towering structure, that was unexcelled by any state capitol between Richmond, Virginia and Austin, Texas.In that moment of pride Mississippians caught a glimpse of what could be, of what might be, and the New Mississippi was aborning.

Like Bishop Galloway I, too, have an ardent ambition for Mississippi.Not in my wildest flights of fantasy can I imagine what Mississippi will be like in 2103.But I know this, the future belongs to those who prepare for it. Too many white Mississippians still celebrate the past, and remember what was. Too many black Mississippians will not forgive, or forget the sins of our fathers. William Faulkner said we can not get beyond the reach of our past. That may be true, but we can break its hold on us. We can not rewrite the past, but we can chart our future.

My most ardent ambition for Mississippi is that we will let go of yesterday, so we can take hold of tomorrow. The future is ours, it is our Promised Land. And I can see it with my heart, if not my eyes,

It is over there, just beyond the rise.
Come. And go with me.
Thank you, and God Bless Mississippi.

The author wishes to thank Paul Breazeale, Bernard Cotton, Robert Khayat, Aubrey Lucas, Jack McLarty, Andrew Mullins, Charles Sallis, and William Winter for their assistance in the preparation of this address.