Happy 200th Birthday, Mississippi! On this date in 1817, you became the 20th state to be admitted to the Union. It has been a long trip to get to where we are today, hasn’t it? We all got together and bought you a couple of presents; you can find a couple of gleaming new museums in downtown Jackson.
You are a special place to me. You’ve wrapped your tendrils around my heart like the fast-growing kudzu, and have become as much a part of me as I am a part of you. I wasn’t born here, but you welcomed me as a child and you’ve been my home ever since. Five decades of living as one of your children has taught me to love you.
I love your natural beauty, from the rocky hills of the northeast to the hardwood thickets of the southwest, from the sandy beaches of the southeast to the deep, rich soil of the Delta. I love your tall pines and your stately oaks, your deep rivers and creeks, and your web of natural life, tenacious and strong. Driving your meandering country roads is like passing through a green, arboreal tunnel; paddling down one of your wild rivers feels like stepping back in time.
And how I love your people! They come in every hue, from every corner of the world, and are of an endless variety. Some of them have known you a lot longer than I; the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez lived off your bounty long before our forefathers dreamed of coming here. Some of us descend from people brought here against their will as slaves or indentured servants, while others came here looking for a new start, to carve a life out of your abundance.
My daddy and generations before him plowed your rich reddish-brown earth, and you gave them a sustaining abundance as a reward of cotton, of corn, of potatoes and every vegetable. My mother, and generations of women before, learned to provide for their families and carry on strong family traditions. My ancestors recognized God as the provider of everything, and they passed on that same sustaining faith to future generations.
Your people are special and unique. I admire their grit and determination, their faith, their hospitality, courage, deep feelings and willingness to help a neighbor.
You also gave your people something else: a creative spark or abilities passed on from the Creator himself. Perhaps you passed it to them through the whisper of the pines or delivered it on the mournful wind as they drove through a lonely, flat Delta landscape. Possibly it was in embedded in the song of a mockingbird or carried on the sweet whiff of a magnolia blossom or Cape Jessamine. Or maybe it was when their lips touched the clear, cool waters of a spring, bubbling out of the sandy ground. It seems you’re very generous with that gift of creativity. Your people have carried footballs and typewriters, platinum records, Nobels, gold medals, Emmys and Oscars. They’ve helped the world know you a little better, and maybe learn a little about themselves, too.
I’d like to be able to look back and say the past 200 years have been easy, but they haven’t. In battlefields large and small, the blood and bones of thousands are mixed with the soil, spilled as armies marched and cities burned. Though the cannons lie silent today, we can still hear their booming, nightmarish echoes if we listen on the hallowed battlefield, mingled with the haunting screams of the wounded and dying. Although 15 decades have passed, it’s something we just can’t forget. The cruelty of that war and its torturous aftermath still reverberate through the field and forest, bearing witness to unimaginable crimes and murderous injustices. Many of those are now forgotten by everyone except you; you remember it all.
We’re trying, but sometimes we don’t get it right or do right by each other. Sometimes, we own the bad press we get. For many of your children just a generation ago, it was a constant battle just to be heard, to be treated fairly, to put food on the table, to vote, to be free. The sad legacy still haunts us today, as it does our brothers and sisters across this nation. Perhaps that’s the most painful sting of all. I hope we have learned from that past, though, and many of us are trying put it behind us.
The world seems to misunderstand you, maybe even hate you and us. I defend you often, and sometimes I get a little too sensitive. Sometimes, on a plane or around a table, when people find out where I’m from, I see the looks, the furtive glances. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but sometimes, it upsets me. I get my back up when I hear people try to tear you down or repeat ignorant labels learned through movies made by people who don’t know you very well. I guess I want to defend you because I am one of yours. I think I’m not alone in that; we instinctively defend those we love.
I still believe, though, that once people get here and see you, and taste your food, hear your music and get to know your people, they will come to love you for the same reasons I do.
Maybe they’ll stroll around a picturesque town square, or walk through the fort at Ship Island, or catch a football game on a crisp October afternoon. Perhaps they’ll sit on a grassy bluff at Vicksburg and watch a string of barges ply the meandering Ole’ Muddy, or have dinner on the ground at an old country church. Perhaps they’ll weep as they visit the museums and hear about Emmett Till or Medgar Evers, or learn about the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Maybe they’ll follow in Elvis’ footsteps, or stay in a Delta shack for the night, after getting full at Doe’s. Maybe they’ll bag a turkey, or catch a big bass in the Res. Maybe they’ll find their tension relieved as they wind down the tranquil Natchez Trace, and learn a little about the history of this amazing place. In the middle of all that, maybe they’ll reconsider an opinion they had before, or think about how great a place this would be to raise a family.
I know what you’re thinking; that makes me a bit of a romantic or a little naïve. I don’t know, you may be right. But there is something about you that makes people want to stay, and raise their kids here. You feel like home. Those who really get to know you, are the ones who love you. Many have come here just to visit and found themselves wanting to stay…forever.
I don’t know what the future will be like for you and for us. But I do believe that God made something special when he brought us all together here, on the bank of the river that gave you its name.
So, Mississippi, relish your 200th birthday! We who love you, give our thanks to God for making us Mississippians; for you are a special place.