During his twelve years as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled three times to Mississippi. From choreographed celebration to clandestine meeting, Roosevelt’s visits attested to the importance of the state amid the economic upheaval and global conflicts of the era.
In his first visit to the Magnolia State in 1934, the president came to celebrate two early New Deal accomplishments: an experimental homesteading program and the successful beginnings of the rural electrification juggernaut known as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Corinth and Tupelo shared the honors as first beneficiaries of the TVA, while Tupelo had the further distinction of being one of the sites for the construction of new affordable housing known as Subsistence Homesteads.
While the Subsistence Homestead project—which intended to provide inexpensive homes and small farming plots to struggling families—never flourished, the TVA became a resounding success that electrified vast swaths of the region, and survives to this day. The “Corinth Experiment,” as it was known in these early stages, offered citizens the opportunity to join an electricity cooperative funded by the members’ monthly fees generated from base commitments and actual usage. With their geographic proximity to the TVA’s new power-generating Muscle Shoals Dam, Tupelo and Corinth comprised an ideal area for testing this model.
In honor of the role Corinth played as a test site for the newly created TVA system, Roosevelt made a stop there on November 17, 1934, to speak to an enthusiastic crowd from the platform of his train. “I want to congratulate you,” Roosevelt said, “and tell you how happy I am in hearing about the fine public spirit that Corinth and Alcorn County are showing to the United States of America.” The TVA, a “friend of the people,” as Roosevelt saw it, brought about a more equitable society, thanks to the pioneering early adoption by county residents.
The following afternoon, as many as 75,000 citizens of Tupelo and surrounding communities overflowed city streets and Robins Field, an athletic facility, to watch a parade featuring the president and first lady. Speaking to the assembled masses, Roosevelt proclaimed that the TVA’s positive showing was “not coming from Washington. It is coming from you. You are not being federalized. We still believe in the community; and things are going to advance in this country exactly in proportion to the community effort. This is not regimentation; it is community rugged individualism.” After the stop in Tupelo, the Roosevelt train traveled to Amory for a short address to honor congressman John Rankin, a coauthor of the bill that created the TVA.
Roosevelt returned to the state briefly on April 27, 1937, for the more modest purpose of traveling through on his way to a weeklong fishing trip in Texas. Accompanied by the governor, the president stopped in Biloxi in the morning to inspect a Veteran’s Administration facility and then proceeded to Gulfport to speak with local dignitaries and greet a throng of well-wishers. His train departed Mississippi by midafternoon.
Of greater import—though virtually unknown at the time—was Roosevelt’s final visit to Mississippi on September 29, 1942. That fall, the commander in chief traveled to inspect selected strategic industrial and military sites related to the war effort; these installations occupied locations across several states in the eastern half of the country. The trip went unpublicized, presumably for purposes of security and to avoid giving any information to the nation’s enemies. One of the places on the president’s schedule was Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg. Locals were not made aware of the president’s visit for more than a decade; in the Jackson Daily News for March 22, 1953, was this revelation: “President Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . made a secret visit to this state during World War II and inspected Camp Shelby.”
Much more enlightening is this account from a soldier at Camp Shelby who witnessed the president’s visit: “Early one morning in September 1942, orders were passed down to the eighty-fifth division to begin an immediate police-up and check the neatness of the entire camp. A review of the troops was scheduled in the afternoon. Something big was about to happen. Obviously someone of importance was coming. [. . .] [After lunch] a long, black limousine arrived. [. . .] President FD Roosevelt stepped out, as the general saluted his commander in chief. Then General Haslip [sic, General Wade H. Haislip] accompanied the president as they reviewed the troops in the limo. The president had stopped by during one of his ‘secret’ tours of the nation and the industrial plants.”
While Roosevelt’s visits to the state were few, his presidency impacted Mississippi in ways that remain observable. The TVA’s impact throughout the rural Tennessee River Valley is difficult to overstate, having brought electricity and modern conveniences that hastened both economic development and cultural progress in the state and across the broader region, and the president sought to build early public enthusiasm for its continued support and development. His return the following decade to inspect Camp Shelby further demonstrates the importance of the state as a contributor both to the nation’s development, and its defense.
- John Hilpert and Zachary Hilpert, Campaigns and Hurricanes: A History of Presidential Visits to Mississippi, 2018