Sometimes they make me cry. The alternative newspaper I helped start just over a year ago in Jackson, Miss., is a welcoming place for people to discuss progressive ideas -- everything from opposition to the death penalty to re-segregation of public schools to the legacy of lynching to the local media's sensationalism of crime, which plays off lingering racist fears. We have balls: We even put WAR on a blood-red cover as the Iraqi War started with a story laying out myths of war (including WMD) that would surface in the mainstream media months later. We only lost three distribution points for our free alternative. We didn't lose a single advertiser.
You see, there's a little secret about Mississippi that seldom makes the national media, although the GOP knows it. Many progressives live here. They are various ages and races (we have the highest percentage of blacks of any state). Many are beaten down and believe they are alone. They often don't vote. But they are here. In fact, they came within one percentage point of electing our first statewide elected black official since Reconstruction in November. We don't get much credit for it, but we also made Haley Barbour bring in the entire GOP machine, including nearly every major official of the Bush administration, during his gubernatorial campaign. He won 54% of the vote to the rather unpopular Democratic incumbent's 46%. That ain't so shabby for these parts.
Still we're ignored.
We Mississippi progressives, though, are trying to change that. People of all sorts who want good public education, progressive taxation, better race relations, strong local business, adequate health care, relief for our relentless poverty rates, crime prevention, prison reform, personal liberties (including both religion clauses) and other populist ideals are coming together to speak out.
I've seen more Howard Dean stickers here in Jackson than along the entire length of the Eastern seaboard I drove last week. There is a growing Green party. We have lots of vegetarians, and dedicated civil-rights attorneys, and a truly tenacious spirit when it comes to overcoming adversity. We even have a very famous rapper from here who still lives in Jackson and proudly wears MISSISSIPPI jerseys and burns the Confederate flag on MTV. He helps with the progressive movement; so do white folks who live in trailer parks and talk like they're on Hee-Haw.
Still we're ignored. You see, like poor black kids in the inner-city (which we know something about here), Mississippi is considered hopeless by much of the country, even as the state is filled with compassionate, caring people. A recent column in the Washington Post advised Democrats to just write off the South. You can't possibly squeeze enough electoral votes out of us rednecks to count. After all, Mississippians voted 2-to-1 to keep the Confederate battle emblem in our state flag. Why bother spending valuable resources here?
I'll tell you why. You can't win without us. No, I don't mean that progressives can't unseat George W. Bush without the state of Mississippi; I am talking about the bigger picture. You cannot build a progressive movement without us: As goes Mississippi, so goes the nation. You can't heal the rifts that divide the country by ignoring the most stubborn state. We are the country's weakest link. The worst racial violence happened here. And the least has been done here to make up for it and the poverty that resulted. Progressive Mississippians are doing what we can -- but we can't do it alone. We need your faith. Like during Freedom Summer 40 years ago, we need you to at least pretend we matter.
Growing up here in the stereotypical trailer park, being called a "nigger lover" by nasty folks, I needed "outsiders" to look for the nobility in me, my family and my surroundings. I needed to matter. Fortunately, I got that in a few good mentors and from educated relatives who had left, who brought me books and ideas beyond our "closed society," as James Silver called my state decades ago, and who asked me for my opinion. And listened. Those glimmers changed my life.
Many of us want to stay home and help our state and region pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The state's evolution really does have to come from within. It can be hastened by loud national candidates who come here on the straight-talk stump, talk up to us about our needs, and target us with TV and newspaper ads. By more authors and performance artists and comics and thinkers passing through the state. By our older, thinking, educated relatives, those who took their brains and fled, now coming home and cheering us on.
We're doing what we can to help ourselves. The Jackson Free Press website is very active, mostly with free thinkers who still live here, and who used to. We celebrate what's great about the old Mississippi girl (and it's so much), and we discuss and argue ways to steadily ascend away from No. 50. But we're also visited by a smattering of throwbacks to a less-glorious past, like the pseudo-intellectual who excuses racism and trots out Hannity-isms to ridicule all us on the "lunatic fringe." This week, I blogged about a local newspaper, which only covers majority-white 'hoods, routinely describing criminals as a "young black man" (with no other descriptors) on its front page -- a practice most US newspapers abandoned back in the '70s. Pshaw, he said, "Some people care that the man who snatched a purse in their apartment complex parking lot is black." The barrage of insults was quick; I was "namby-pamby"; "pathetic"; and "spewing B.S."
I had a short cry after that -- but not because of the insults; I've crossed paths with idiots before. I cried because this yuck-yuck is the guy the national media will seek out when they come down for the 40th anniversary of Freedom Summer next year. He will, once again, make us look ignorant and uncaring just as he and his clones have for decades; in response, the world will roll its eyes at it. The cycle continues. Meantime, all the tireless, progressive, dogged spirit I know so well in this state will go unnoticed nationally. Candidates and activists will deride Howard's Dean's advice to talk to the guys with rebel flags. They will ignore Jackson and the Delta and the Coast and college towns where votes and ears await. They will, once again, write off the state that could change the whole game. Hopeless, they'll say.
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Except if it's not.
Donna Ladd is editor of the Jackson Free Press. Join the conversation at www.jacksonfreepress.com.