But the ashes are still warm."
Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945)
Driving east down U.S. Highway 90, along the strip which connects Pass Christian to Pascagoula, the vast Gulf of Mexico looking tranquil as a lake on my right, I came to the memorial known as Eight Flags. Located on the Gulfport-Biloxi line, the site, which includes a Confederate flagpole, has been mired in controversy for over two years. Still at question is whether this Rebel flag is a thoughtful "heritage" salute to the Confederate dead or a racist affront to African-Americans. The NAACP has poured untold resources into banning the flag because the park is funded by taxpayer dollars. Former Klansman David Duke and U.S. Senator Trent Lott have been the most high-profile proponents of keeping the flag, a symbol of their white Southern pride. A clear battle-line has been drawn in the state that Martin Luther King, Jr. once said had a "strange affinity for the bottom."
Although the Mississippi Gulf Coast is still referred to as the "Redneck Riviera," and Confederate souvenirs are still omnipresent in the curio shops along the beach, the most notable features of the area are the glitzy high-rise casino hotels, the new condominium towers and shopping centers that have made it the premier vacation and retirement destination in the Deep South. This upbeat reality was overlooked last week as a new act in this ongoing battle for the soul of Mississippi played out just down the road from Eight Flags. At a small auditorium in Pascagoula, a besieged Senator Lott apologized for the fifth time that he didn't meant to offend anybody by his offhanded remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. The entire national media had arrived en masse to cover yet another civil rights-related story in Mississippi. What has been missing from the debate about whether Lott is a mean-spirited bigot or a states' rights patriot is the gargantuan leaps forward made by the state since Thurmond announced his presidential ambitions at the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.
Modernity has come to Mississippi, particularly in the last decade, with an entrepreneurial vengeance. The state's per-capita-income-growth rate over the past decade has been 16 percent above the national average, and 70 Fortune 500 companies maintain manufacturing operations in the Magnolia State. Forbes magazine recently ranked the Gulf Coast and Jackson as two of the best places to do business in America. The state will provide the central hub of the NAFTA railway corridor, and its first-rate port facilities on three commercial waterways offers economical and efficient access to national and international markets. Mississippi's economic development is based on more than simply gambling and Worldcom. The University of Mississippi may be best remembered for the battle over James Meredith's admission in 1962, but it has since been the venue of the world's first human heart and lung transplants. The last Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg today houses the world's largest hydraulic research institute. In a state where black people were once forced to ride at the back of the bus, today they can be found testing NASA's space shuttle engines manufactured at Bay St. Louis. And some of the Navy's most sophisticated warships today are built just a couple of miles from where Senator Lott last week groveled for forgiveness.
The greatest strides up from the bottom, however, have been made in race relations, due to the implementation of Civil Rights laws all of which Lott has opposed. The term New Mississippi is not just a PR gambit it's real. Walk into a Burger King or K-Mart or Ole Miss Library and you'll see blacks and whites eating, shopping and studying together. "Forty years ago when the state was first integrated, blacks had no rights," veteran journalist Curtis Wilke recently noted. "Today they politically control the Delta. White people are living with that reality just fine. Today nobody can get away with racist politics in the state." Indeed, who would have thought, forty years ago, that a Senator from Mississippi would be forced to go on his knees and beg for forgiveness for harboring segregationist views?
Prejudice still exists through Mississippi, however, particularly in rural areas. But even there tolerance has taken root. During the Clinton years, it was rural juries of both races that convicted Byron De La Beckwith, the white assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. (Another multiracial jury recently convicted the white church arsonists that had terrorized the state.) Earlier this year, Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar, announced that she was donating her husband's NAACP papers, personal correspondence and assorted memorabilia to the State Archive in Mississippi. "That's where his paper's belong," she said. "He would be pleased by how far Mississippi has come in terms of race relations."
Given these advances, it's a pity that Lott, like the Rebel flag, just won't come down from their Confederate pride poles and join the New Mississippi. The great irony is that Lott's Republican colleague in the Senate, Thad Cochran, is seen in the state as a moderate leader sensitive to the plight of the poor, a man with no tolerance for racist code-language, bigoted euphemisms and Jefferson Davis homages. He is a Bush Republican, a true compassionate conservative.
Lott, on the other hand, is rapidly becoming a relic in his own state. As NAFTA takes effect, and the Wal-Marts and Starbucks start moving in, the Trent Lotts are being shoved to the back of the bus, sitting with plastic casino buckets and handing out Confederate trinkets to the remaining white-power holdouts who reject progress in the name of heritage.