By Donald V. Adderton
Heraldnews (New Jersey)
For some people, the South will be forever locked in a kaleidoscope of segregation, white supremacy, civil rights struggles and racial intolerance – distasteful characterizations of an era when people of color were not being judged by their intellect.
As it is with human nature, perceptions are entrenched mindsets that can become laborious psychological counterweights to dislodge, even though the fresh images are as pure as the morning dew or the brightness of driven snow.
To put it plain and not so simply: dastardly deeds often die slow and agonizingly for those who refuse to relinquish the intellection.
Perhaps it is the Yankee ignorance or arrogance – when essaying the Dixie landscape — that life as they know it ceases to exist beyond the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge.
Could it be that we have become so apprehensive and cynical about people where there is no relationship, and no inclination to fashion one?
There have been countless cock-eyed glances aimed my way from people after learning that I had once given up New Jersey for the more genteel environment of Mississippi. While the statistics might indicate otherwise, to me the Magnolia State is not some social disaster and hopeless human backwater.
Last month, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, not always the brightest bulb on the lamp, exemplified the cultural ignorance of many Northerners when he talked about states receiving federal pork.
“Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?” reasoned Rangel, who later apologized for his ill-tempered remarks.
When you get right down to it, talk is cheap, so Richard W. Looser, a Southerner, who with his wife, Liza, head The Cherlot Agency in Flowood, Miss., launched an aggressive media campaign “Mississippi, Believe It!” earlier this year to flip the script and show the state and Mississippians in a different, more appealing light.
People forget Mississippi had the first black to sit in the U.S. Senate, when Hiram R. Revels completed the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis in 1870. And of course there are literary giants like Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and John Grisham.
According to Looser, 45, it was an innocent conversation he had on an airplane one day with a 12-year-old Connecticut youngster who inquired as to whether the Ku Klux Klan was still marauding over the Southern countryside, that caused him to reflect.
It wasn’t so much the frank question that the boy posed, but that he had already shaped those disturbing social images of Mississippi and the South at such a young age, Looser said.
“He told me that I talked funny and asked me did I hate black people,” Looser said of the airplane chat.
“It wasn’t that I was sick and tired, I was more disappointed that people still thought of Mississippi that way.”
Then Looser and his staff got busy. He used his advertising and public relations acumen – having clients like Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin — to create a $300,000 public service campaign that is beginning to build a groundswell of public attention in Mississippi from the Delta, along the Natchez Trace and to the Gulf Coast. Looser is educating, while attempting to expunge the centuries-old antebellum perception of southerners held by those above the Mason Dixon Line.
Looser has taken the campaign into Mississippi classrooms, and believes its learning value has not been lost on educators.
“I feel educated people should take a long, hard look at Mississippi before rushing to conclusions,” said Paul C. Artman Jr., principal of St. Joseph Catholic School and former Greenville (Miss.) mayor.
“This is so good for our young people because it gives them a sense of pride and place because Mississippi has such a rich legacy.”
In the media campaign, there are several themed-ads – reflecting walks of magnolia life — that include: “When it comes to modern medicine, we wrote the book”; “No black, No white, Just the blues”; “Yes we can read. A few of us can even write”; “Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats” and “We always have our hand out. But it’s usually to give, not receive.”
“This is a first step,” said Looser, whose father, Richard Looser Sr., covered George Wallace when the defiant governor stood in the doorway to prevent the admission of a black student at the University of Alabama. “We want people to pay attention to the rest of the story.”
And do not get the idea that Looser is delivering a vanilla message with this campaign, because the presentation has significant substance and a lot of style.
If you point your browser to www.mississippibelieveit.com, you can see the media campaign and assorted gear emblazoned with the mantra.
“We are not trying to say that these atrocities did not happen in the past, because 50 years ago, Mississippi was its own worst enemy,” he said. “Now Mississippi is a model of diversity and how the races are getting along.”
It is the homogeneity that has become the Magnolia State – unconditionally embracing inclusion – that just might eradicate a retardant past and replace it with compassion and understanding.
But any transformation must commence from within.
“Nobody from outside our state is going to feel good about our state,” Looser said, “until we begin to feel good about it.”
Donald V. Adderton is an assistant city editor of the Herald News. He formerly served as an editor at several newspapers in Mississippi. He can be contacted at Adderton@northjersey.com.
Time to hear the rest of the story
By Donald V. Adderton