The Tupelo Miracle refers to the way this small city, indistinguishable from those that surrounded it in terms of natural resources or landmarks, became one of the most prosperous cities in Mississippi, boasting a per capita income well above the state average and an unemployment rate well below.
Tupelo’s success is predicated on a commitment to the belief that the prosperity of an urban center is intimately related to sustaining the economic viability of its surrounding rural areas. Lee County, like many southern counties, largely depended on agriculture throughout the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century, and Tupelo, the county seat, suffered from the national shift to agricultural mechanization and the subsequent regional shift toward industrialization. Many rural southerners found themselves with no access to jobs.
By the early 1900s the railroad had attracted businesses and made Tupelo a regional manufacturing and cotton trade hub. Tupelo continued to grow, but city leaders recognized that the town’s economic well-being depended largely on the surrounding rural county for raw materials and trade. With 80 percent of Lee County’s population working in agriculture, primarily in cotton, this arrangement benefited both city and county until the boll weevil infestation of 1916 threatened cotton production and profits. Recognizing the necessity for diversification, city leaders, led by banker Jim High, provided capital that enabled county farmers to purchase dairy cattle. The venture was so successful that in 1927 the Carnation Company opened a condensery and by the end of the 1940s Lee County was Mississippi’s largest producer of milk. Tupelo itself prospered as bank deposits tripled between 1916 and 1923, and in 1933 it was chosen as the first town to receive power from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Diversification was a slow process and was further complicated by the Great Depression and a devastating 1936 tornado. Looking to rebuild and attract new industry, city leaders held to their belief that recovery needed to involve the entire county. In 1945 the Tupelo Journal, run by the dynamic and catalytic George McLean, hired the Doane Agricultural Service to develop a plan to alleviate the financial strain on farmers. This resulted in the formation of the rural community development councils (RCDCs), which became the driving force behind the Tupelo model of community development.
McLean hoped the RCDCs would bring together rural residents and townspeople to find solutions to the challenges posed by increasing agricultural mechanization. To get the RCDCs off the ground, rural people had to be convinced to join and business leaders had to be convinced to fund council activities. McLean stressed the economic interdependence of town and county and noted that a large labor force of former farmers would be necessary to attract industry to the area. RCDCs were to receive technical assistance from Doane, the Tennessee Valley Authority, local academics, and experts hired by Tupelo businesspeople, who were asked to commit to financing the groups for three years. Almost all of Tupelo’s businesses participated, and forty-one RCDCs stretched across five counties by 1947; fifty-six RCDCs had been created by mid-1950. Although the councils were largely segregated, many black RCDCs worked effectively with city leadership. RCDC success generally equaled success for Tupelo businesses, as higher farm profits and productivity meant more disposable income for goods and services. Despite some economic hardship during the transition, Tupelo emerged in 1967 as the first southern city to receive the National Civic League’s All-American City designation.
The RCDCs also helped with the transition to industrialization, since workers were already organized and respected by business leaders. This respect, in turn, affected another important component of the Tupelo rebuilding plan, attracting outside industry. City leaders shunned large-scale operations that might hire hundreds of workers and make the region dependent on a single industry and instead courted smaller companies employing fewer than one hundred people each and looked to scatter them throughout the county. This emphasis on small-scale industry led to higher-than-average wages, shorter commutes, and more stability for workers.
In 1986 Lee County still had fifteen RCDCs despite the drastic decline in agriculture, and the county maintained one of Mississippi’s highest per capita income levels. In 1987 it was the first city to receive a second All-American City designation. Today, the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development arm administers rural community development programs. The 2010 census ranked Lee ninth among Mississippi’s eighty-two counties in per capita income, far higher than any of the surrounding counties, and in May 2016, Lee County had the state’s seventh-lowest unemployment rate.
The Tupelo Model’s foundation is a strong bond between the rural and the urban and a recognition that all residents belong to the same economic community. The concept of the Tupelo Miracle honors the community’s ability to manifest that belief into real community action.
- Vaughn Grisham, Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community (1999)
- Mississippi Department of Employment Security website, www.mdes.ms.gov