Low levels of adult literacy have plagued Mississippi since the state’s founding. Though Mississippi’s illiteracy rate decreased considerably during the twentieth century, pockets of illiteracy have endured in the state’s rural, African American, and impoverished communities, and the state currently ranks dead last in national literacy statistics.
Between 1870 and 1920 Mississippi’s illiteracy rate declined from 53.9 percent to 17.2 percent; nevertheless, only Louisiana’s rate was worse. Moreover, improving literacy figures for the state as a whole obscured the endurance of illiteracy in the state’s poorest, blackest, and most rural counties. In 1940, for example, a full sixty years after the state’s illiteracy rate had dropped below 50 percent, a survey of 220 heads of farm-labor households in the Delta showed a 53 percent illiteracy rate.
In 1990 the Mississippi Employment Security Commission and the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University sponsored the Mississippi Literacy Assessment Project (MLAP), a study designed to produce the first set of comprehensive data on literacy levels throughout the state. The project’s 1991 report concluded that significant numbers of Mississippians lacked the reading skills necessary to complete everyday tasks such as reading a bus schedule, understanding a newspaper article, or filling out paperwork. The report also highlighted the pervasive discrepancies in literacy levels between black and white Mississippians, between residents in rural areas and those in suburban or college-town communities, and between poor and middle-class Mississippians. Literacy levels remained lowest in the Delta counties. In short, the MLAP confirmed that Mississippi had made little progress in ameliorating illiteracy in the places that suffered the most from it.
Mississippi carried the nation’s worst literacy rates into the twenty-first century: a 1998 study estimated that 30 percent of the state’s inhabitants did not possess functional literacy skills and that another 34 percent possessed extremely low reading skills. In 2000 James L. Barksdale, a native of Jackson, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, and the founder of Netscape, a computer services company, donated one hundred million dollars to fight illiteracy in the state. While Barksdale’s gift allowed the University of Mississippi and schools throughout the state to establish an ambitious set of programs to teach reading skills, it also continued a Mississippi tradition of private donations taking the place of public welfare programs and highlighted the state government’s failure to provide the necessary funds to address Mississippi’s endemic poverty.
The MLAP and other literacy studies suggest a direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy. An inability to file paperwork or complete an application makes achieving in school, acquiring a better job, or voting knowledgeably in an election very difficult, and cycles of poverty and illiteracy appear to perpetuate themselves. A legitimate effort to combat illiteracy thus would have to grow from a comprehensive government program to eliminate poverty. As long as Mississippi remains the poorest state in the country, it will likely remain the most illiterate state in the country.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Arthur G. Cosby et al., The Mississippi Literacy Assessment: A Report to the Mississippi Employment Security Commission and the Governor’s Office for Literacy, State of Mississippi (1991)
- Kevin Sack, New York Times (20 January 2000)
- Sanford Winston, Illiteracy in the United States (1930)