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Improving on what it means to be from Mississippi

By Dwight Lewis
The Tennessean
Even Nina Simone would probably appreciate this story. If case you don’t remember, Nina Simone was a well-known singer and pianist who in 1963 released a song titled Mississippi G.dd…., which became “an anthem for a generation of young black people determined to shake off the yoke of oppression.”
Much has changed in Mississippi since the embittered Simone wrote her popular tune, but many people throughout America and elsewhere still see Mississippi as a backward state where blacks have often been met with violent acts from the hands of racists whites.
Rick Looser, a Mississippi businessman, discovered that fact back in 2002 when he was returning home on an airplane from Washington. A 12-year-old Connecticut boy sitting next to him on the flight told Looser he talked funny and after finding out he was sitting next to a Mississippian, asked the following question:
“Do you see those Ku Klux Klan on your streets everyday, and do you hate all black people?”
Looser, who was born in Northport, Ala., and graduated from the University of Alabama, was curious as to why the youngster would ask such a question.
The young man from Connecticut told him he had seen such depictions in the media, so Looser asked him if he made it to New York often.
The youngster replied in the affirmative, and Looser asked him if he were about to cross the street in New York City, would there be somebody with a needle up his arm or a mugger beating an old lady and taking her purse.
The youngster said no, and Looser went on to tell him that is what he saw of New York on television while growing up in the South.
“You cannot believe everything you see on TV,” he said the youngster told him.
Looser, the chief executive officer of a Mississippi public relations firm, later told some of his colleagues about the conversation, and they decided something needed to be done to boost the image of Mississippi.
“We wanted to educate Mississippians and thought that until you create your own citizen ambassadors and until we feel better about us, we can’t expect the rest of the country to do so,” Looser told me in a telephone interview recently.
What eventually came out was a campaign titled “Mississippi, Believe It!: It was designed pro bono by Looser’s agency, The Cirlot Agency, as a gift to Mississippi.
“We created 11 original ads that debuted on Dec. 5, 2005, and now we have made three more,” Looser told me. “The printing company we used donated about $20,000 worth of printing, and we made 2,000 sets of 11 posters each.
“With permission from the Mississippi Department of Education, we sent one set to every kindergarten through college in the state. We really wanted children, teens and college students to know that they can be anything they want to be and accomplish great accomplishments. We also want them to know that living in Mississippi is not a disadvantage.
“If anything, it is an advantage, and they should be proud of where they’re from.”
One poster says, “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write,” and it names such Mississippians as Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, John Grisham and Margaret Walker Alexander.
Another poster says, “Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats,” and it shows pictures of Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Walter Payton.
“I would hate, as a 45-year-old man, for everything about me, my reputation and everything to be based on what I did as a 21-year-old student at the University of Alabama,” Looser said. “I think that is where Mississippi is. Forty years later, Mississippi is still known and trapped as a image of the ’60s.
“It is by and large our own fault. There were some terrible atrocities that happened back then. There’s no way to deny that, and some of them are being prosecuted 50 years later, and I applaud that.
“By the same token, what we wanted to do here was tell the rest of the story.”
If she were still alive today, perhaps Nina Simone would change the title of her song. That is if this is really more than just a campaign.
Dwight Lewis is a columnist, regional editor and member of the editorial board for The Tennessean. E-mail: