Rural scenes of cotton fields, county fairs, blues music, and country churches and groceries dominate popular and scholarly depictions of life in Mississippi. But the enduring image of the state as equal parts plantation pastoral and impoverished backwater has obscured the importance of cities and towns in the state’s history. The small place of cities and towns in Mississippi’s self-image and national reputation aside, urban centers have served as sites of some of the greatest dramas in the state’s history and have played a crucial role in the development and transmission of political ideologies and economic systems.
Antebellum Natchez typified the peculiar role of the urban environment in Mississippi’s identity. Visitors remarked on the beauty of the city’s homes and gardens, and the district’s residents cultivated an image of agrarian gentility by erecting Greek columns and furnishing their cotton palaces with expensive staircases and ornate woodwork. Behind those pastoral showplaces, however, lurked the dirty work of generating and accumulating capital. On wharves, blacks and immigrants busily loaded and unloaded cotton and goods from steamships; in filthy alleys and dives, laborers laughed, gambled, and fought; and in slave pens, planters, traders, and slaves engaged in high-stakes dramas of accumulation, deception, and survival. The plantation and city thus combined to form what the historian David R. Goldfield has called an “urban hybrid.” Cotton dominated every aspect of life in Natchez, but the district’s plantations depended on urban institutions such as wharves and slave pens to raise and distribute crops. The most ancient and magnolia-scented of Mississippi’s Old South images, in short, derived from crowded streets and filthy docks, not just black soil and river bluffs.
After the Civil War, Mississippi aggressively courted industrialists and investors. An act of the 1892 legislature exempted factories from taxation, and other policies made the state hospitable for railroads, insurance agencies, and utility companies. While the state remained overwhelmingly rural, towns took on added importance as centers of financial power that linked Mississippians to the growing national economy. The infusion of Yankee cash and the ascendancy of a capitalist ethos that made banks, railroads, and utility companies crucial to the state’s economy did little to change Mississippi’s national reputation as a languid preserve of agrarianism. This was no accident. As historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, southerners reacted to industrialization and urbanization with a “divided mind.” To offset the increasing dependency on outside investors, the eroded authority of cotton aristocrats, and the capitulation to Yankee modes of production, champions of the New South dressed their new world in the nostalgic fashions of the plantation past. The more they depended on urban services and the national economy, the harder Mississippians tried to convince themselves and the rest of the country of their uniqueness and independence.
Mississippi’s cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to concentrate more on trade than on manufacturing. Along with Jackson and Natchez, Biloxi, Meridian, and Greenville had periods of significant urban growth. Nonetheless, when rural Mississippians started leaving agriculture in large numbers, they most often headed to Memphis, Chicago, or New Orleans rather than to one of Mississippi’s urban areas.
The reliance of urban centers on outside capital ultimately affected social policies within Mississippi. When African Americans in Jackson protested the suppression of their civil rights, government officials such as Gov. Paul B. Johnson, beholden to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens Councils, called on white Mississippians to resist federal civil rights legislation. The business elite of Jackson, who owed much of their prosperity to Yankee investors and federal aid, urged compliance with federal policies and worked to combat the kind of lawlessness and violence that would disrupt economic development. Both the Jackson Chamber of Commerce issued an official statement denouncing resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Business leaders did not abandon their belief in Jim Crow but prioritized economic prosperity over an antiquated racial orthodoxy. Urban development, in short, led an important pillar of the state’s power structure to withdraw its support from massive resistance to civil rights.
Mississippi’s towns and cities thus have had a disproportionate influence on the politics and economy of this overwhelmingly rural state.
- James C. Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1980 (1982)
- David R. Goldfield, Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, 1607–1980 (1982)
- Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (2006)
- Charles Sallis and John Quincy Adams, in Southern Businessmen and Desegregation, ed. Elizabeth Jacoway and David R. Colburn (1982)
- C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)