Not a whole bunch has changed about the Neshoba County Fair since I was a little girl growing up in East Central Mississippi. Didn't everybody have a fairground tucked out into the dry red-clay hills where well-to-do townfolk moved in a week a year and acted like alcohol was as legal as down in decadent New Orleans? By the time I was born in 1961, the bacchanalia was firmly entrenched: Neshoba Countians would flock to "the fair" every year during the hottest and wettest week of July, shlepping around in sawdust and mud, betting on horse races, ogling the Miss Neshoba County contestants. Some people would even break up with their significant others before or during the fair, only to kiss and make up the next week. Hey, it was fair time.
Back then I didn't notice that the fair-goers, save folks working in the horse barns and for the carnival, were white. I wasn't old enough to read the flyers the Ku Klux Klan dropped from an airplane onto fairgoers in 1964, as three as-yet-unfound bodies of civil-rights workers lay under a dam a couple miles down Highway 21. I thought nothing of the ubiquitous rebel flags flapping from the cabin porches. I thought it only mildly odd that middle-aged white guys stood rigidly and defiantly in the grandstand when our high-school band played "Dixie." And I thought little about the overwhelming lack of Republicans who dared venture into the morass of fairground politickin'. My stepdad, though, would grouse, "Mississippians would elect a jackass if it was a Democrat." That, with a few exceptions, has changed.
Last week, I was back at the fair. It was Thursday, traditionally known as the most raucous political day. Thursday used to be called "Jackson Day" at the fairground because it was the day the big-gun politicians -- the governor, attorney general and such -- came up from the state capitol. But sometime in the last few years, the now-majority-black Jackson City Council decided the Neshoba County Fair was just too white to lend the now-majority-black city's name. Now it's called Hattiesburg Day.
They have a point. When I reunited with the fair last year I expected to see more integration. Not really. Sure, there are a peppering of blacks, Choctaws and others, but the true mixing is happening nearby at the Choctaws' Silver Star Casino. You can still, though, walk up past the barns and see mostly black faces. Most painfully, large Confederate battle flags wave from several cabins in about every row you pass. Either a stubborn meanness or blissful ignorance about the pain that symbol invokes for so many Mississippians still permeates the fairground.
Still, like so much of Mississippi, the fair is a study in mixed emotions for me. Growing up, I loved it, even as I hated having to go home every night like other less-to-do kids. And I relished the political days when people -- mostly swaggering white guys, but still -- would bellow out their views, for better or worse. The candidates bus in loads of young people to cheer their every word and boo their opponents'; the year Sen. John Stennis ran for re-election against a younger and leaner Haley Barbour, I was the Mississippi State University chairwoman of Students for Stennis. I was there, screaming my face off.
This time, I started my day at a luncheon at Cabin 22. The number is deceiving; this cabin is the one. Built by the Molpus family back in the 1920s, No. 22 is the crossroads of the fair. As a kid, I'd pass it dozens of times a day, seeing the cool, uptown young people partying inside, none of whom I knew. Last week, it was a respite for the small gaggle of Democrats at the fair. Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, a diehard and genuine Democrat (of the new sort) hosts the luncheon every year, attracting the state's progressives, creatives and media types. It's no bastion of left-wing radicalism -- this is Mississippi, after all -- but it is a port in a storm, of sorts. That day, partisans were out in full force; the second political debate in the fair's history -- the first was an ideological battle for governor between Dick and the plain-mean victor, Republican Kirk Fordice in 1995 -- was about to take place. This one was between Reps. Chip Pickering and Ronnie Shows, both incumbents who are scrapping for the same congressional district now; Pickering has the edge thanks to GOP in-scheming and a little help from family friend Justice Antonin Scalia.
Ugliness was in the air, too, amid the barbecue fumes and lighthearted laughter emanating from cabin porches. The GOP had hired African-American women to carry around tasteless and incendiary signs equating apparent Democrat devils Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Of course, the fair wasn't always a Grand Old Party place; it started shifting during the Goldwater racism of the 1960s and came full circle when Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign there in 1980, with a Bob Jones-brand stump speech. Democrats have been the minority since.
The Republican platform, of course, is a farce for the vast majority of Mississippians showing up to cheer on the corporate GOP, voters too blinded by conservative and, too often, racist dogma to ask themselves, "What have the Republicans done for my family lately?" (Can we say "WorldCom"?) This fear-pandering disgusted me equally when Reagan swaggered into town when I was a teenager and last week during the Pickering-Shows showdown (which started after a comedian told a joke about a "queer deer.")
Shows tried to find issues where he differed with Pickering, despite his abysmal views on individual rights (he got a 7 out of 100 on an ACLU scoreboard over Pickering's 0). He positioned himself as a populist, focusing on "jobs, trade and greed." He emphasized the dangers of giving George W. Bush fast-track trade authority. And Shows, whom I begrudgingly respect for his independence on some issues, criticized Pickering for voting a straight Republican ticket: "I'm not going to let any leadership tell me how to vote."
The preppy Pickering, for his part, simply evoked God and country and the (American and maybe the rebel) flag: "I'm proud to vote with the leadership of my party: their values are Mississippi values." And the Trent Lott protégé kept talking about "our values," as if no one who still remained in the state could possibly disagree with him. "Neshoba County, I've always wanted you. I want to represent your values."
This "our values" thing burns my butt the most, just as it does when the Bush administration uses the all-inclusive "our" to support an open-ended "war" and an attack on our core values: civil liberties. Swallowing such demagoguery got us Mississippians here in the first place: Like too many others, I decided real young that I wasn't welcome in my home state, so I high-tailed it out. We parting non-conformists thought our exit didn't matter anyway. Suddenly, Trent Lott ended up majority leader of the US Senate and folks back home voted to keep the Confederate battle flag official. Maybe it did matter.
Here is my populist call to action, one that applies in many states, but nowhere more than on my home turf. We progressives must band together, reach out to other races, mentor and encourage young voters every chance we get. We must stop running from the demagogues, and take back "our values" from those who say they love America, but apparently hate Americans. Our willingness to stand up and fight the "worthy scrap," as Dick Molpus calls it, matters more every day.
Donna Ladd is a writer in Jackson, Miss., and the editor of the upcoming Jackson Free Press (www.jacksonfreepress.com). Email her at email@example.com.