Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act on 18 May 1933, during the first one hundred days of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The act chartered a federally owned corporation to improve navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and social and economic conditions in the Tennessee River Valley. Although the Tennessee River watershed includes only the northeastern corner of Mississippi, on 7 February 1934 the city of Tupelo became the first municipality to receive TVA power. As the nation’s largest producer of electric power, largest user of coal, and the leading investor in nuclear power, the TVA has evolved into an encompassing social, political, and economic institution. It has persisted through a tumultuous and divisive history in the region and in the Magnolia State.
Despite its legacy as one of the most significant New Deal programs, the TVA has been highly controversial from its inception. In performing what Roosevelt called a “great national experiment,” the TVA Act developed a system of multipurpose navigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power production. The TVA offered programs encouraging soil conservation, the production and use of fertilizers, and regional economic planning. On the heels of the Great Depression, the TVA was central to the literal and symbolic creation of the Tennessee Valley watershed as a unified region of the South.
Following passage of the TVA Act, public officials and agency representatives eagerly sought to bring TVA power to the state. Mississippi politicians—particularly Sen. Pat Harrison and Rep. John Rankin—were firm TVA supporters, arguing strenuously for the general and equitable distribution of power to the Magnolia State. Debate surrounding the TVA emphasized that Mississippi was devoid of both coal and water power. Hence, the state’s industrial growth would depend on equalization of the water-power resources of the South. TVA chair David Lilienthal furiously marketed power in northern Mississippi, promoting the TVA as a source of cheap electricity, grassroots regional democracy, environmental conservation, and peaceful use of energy. Lilienthal created a rural electrification program that Roosevelt copied on a national scale with the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration, which Congress made permanent in 1936. Lilienthal’s work attracted Roosevelt to Tupelo, where he told four thousand residents, “What you are doing here is to be copied in every state of the union before we get through.”
Hoping to alleviate the socioeconomic woes of the Great Depression, most Mississippians enthusiastically accepted the TVA and its programs. As was true across the South, the depression greatly affected the most important industries in Mississippi—agriculture, forest products, and mining. Dire economic needs, effective public promotion, widespread and affordable distribution of power, and the regional (rather than federal) nature of TVA helped conservative Mississippians reconcile themselves to the “socialistic” characteristics often cited by its critics.
The Alcorn County Electric Power Association (ACEPA) was the first organization the TVA subsumed for the purpose of acquiring and operating distribution systems in Mississippi. ACEPA exemplifies the reciprocal relationships forged between the TVA and regional political and economic entities. Interested citizens organized the ACEPA and other private nonprofit membership corporations, usually on a county basis, to acquire and operate distribution systems. Members who paid the hundred-dollar fee received electricity purchased by their associations from the TVA at wholesale rates. ACEPA was the first organization of this type, chartered under Mississippi law as a nonprofit civic improvement corporation on 17 January 1934. The following June ACEPA entered into a contract with TVA for the purchase of the electrical properties in the county that the TVA had acquired from the Mississippi Power Company.
A 1934 TVA contract extension with the Alabama Power Company provided for the agency to purchase several of the company’s municipal power distribution systems in Mississippi. The TVA ultimately provided power for almost one-third of Mississippi’s land area, though less than 1 percent of the state was included in the Tennessee River watershed. Sales from the subsidiaries of Alabama Power Company to TVA included the entire generating, transmission, and distribution properties of the Mississippi Power Company in nine counties in northeastern Mississippi for $850,000. This first contract included all of the company’s properties in Pontotoc, Lee, Itawamba, Union, Benton, Tippah, Prentiss, Tishomingo, and Alcorn Counties, and the purchase was completed on 1 June 1934. The TVA’s power policy was initially developed in northeastern Mississippi. Residents receiving TVA power functioned as an test group for FDR’s “great national experiment.” Distribution of TVA electricity to the All-America City proved to be the first step in the agency’s venture into the power business.
A town of roughly six thousand people in 1934, Tupelo had previously owned its distribution system but purchased power from a private company. TVA service began on 7 February 1934, when the city’s franchise with the Mississippi Power Company expired. Mayor J. P. Manney announced that the city had been paying 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour but under the TVA would pay only .7 cents per kilowatt hour. Reductions in domestic rates for the city were estimated at a minimum of 67.7 percent, while commercial rates were 50 percent lower. In the first six months that Tupelo received power from the TVA, the amount of electricity used in the city’s homes increased by 83 percent.
In addition to the benefits provided to Tupelo and other towns and cities of the valley, rural electrification greatly benefited Mississippi farmers, generating nearly instantaneous improvements in the regional economy. The TVA also served social and environmental purposes, as administrators worked with farmers to eliminate malaria and improve water quality in the region. Experimental “test farms” helped conserve soil and forest resources, and social programs built mobile libraries and schools.
The TVA’s construction of the Pickwick Lock and Dam in the bordering counties of Mississippi (Tishomingo), Tennessee, and Alabama began in 1934 and was completed in 1938. The TVA’s 1,611 employees cleared 16,000 acres of land and 382 miles of riverbank, removed and relocated graves, removed five hundred families, and rerouted six miles of road. In addition, excavations conducted by the TVA uncovered thousands of artifacts and more than two hundred sites dating from the Woodland and Mississippian periods of historic occupation.
The TVA’s power service area was not formally restricted until 1959, when an amendment confined its authority to Tennessee, the northern third of Mississippi, the northern quarter of Alabama, and about one-tenth of Kentucky. In kilowatt usage and total population served, Mississippi ranks second only to Tennessee as a recipient of TVA power. Following World War II, the agency served primarily as a power distribution company. The TVA remains influential in the region as well as ideologically contentious: cost-cutting conservatives see the agency as a vehicle for disproportionate regional pork-barrel spending, residents seek affordable power, and moderates and liberals view the TVA as beneficial.
- North Callahan, TVA: Bridge over Troubled Waters (1980)
- Gordon Rufus Clapp, The TVA: An Approach to the Development of a Region (1955)
- Vaughn L. Grisham, “Tupelo, Mississippi: From Settlement to Industrial Community, 1860 to 1970” (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978)
- Preston John Hubbard, Origins of the TVA: The Muscle Shoals Controversy, 1920–1932 (1961)
- David E. Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March (1953)