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Mississippi: Ground Zero of the Civil Rights Movement

A black boy killed in Mississippi sparked a civil rights revolution.

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Mississippi joined the Union in 1817, becoming the 20th state. But it was a long, difficult road that continued far beyond the American Revolution. “The Magnolia State,” so named because of its many magnolia trees, was first explored in 1540 by the Spanish, but since they could not find any gold, they abandoned the area to seek fortunes elsewhere. The French were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement in 1699; however, the land had already been settled by the Native Americans: the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez. Between 1729 and 1731, the French and Indian War almost eliminated the Natchez. Then, in the 1830s, the Choctaw and Chickasaw were removed to the Oklahoma territory along the Trail of Tears.

France gave up a portion of the territory to England at the end of the war, and then the land finally went to the United States in 1798. Residents became torn over political differences in the 1820s as support for the (Thomas) Jeffersonian Republicans declined and the rise of the (Andrew) Jacksonian Democrats became more popular. Cotton crops were on the rise and so was slavery. However, not everyone was in favor of slavery, and many of those people belonged to the Whig Party, which did not follow Andrew Jackson’s political views.

The divide between the Whigs and the Democrats continued to grow until the North and abolitionists demanded the end of slavery.  Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861 and soon found itself in the middle of the Civil War, something that would take a century to rebound from.

Even though the South lost the Civil War, Mississippi still could not grapple with the loss of its workforce – namely slaves. In 1890, the state’s lawmakers adopted a constitution that started racial segregation. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. The ruling was not popular, and residents refused to follow the newest laws. A year later, a 14-year-old black boy was murdered after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. The white people accused of his death were acquitted. This began the 1960s civil rights movement.

Mississippi continued segregating its schools until October 1969, when a federal court order unified and desegregated the system. The state had been ruled by the Democratic Party until the mid-20th century. The rise of the Republicans changed politics from conserving old traditions, such as slavery and racial inequities, to more inclusive policies.

Interesting Facts

  • In 1778, Mississippian Oliver Pollock created the dollar sign ($).
  • Blues music stemmed from the Mississippi Delta after the Civil War. Slaves used to sing “working” songs in the fields and that style of music morphed into the Blues we have today.
  • In November 1902, President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition with the governor and refused to shoot a captured bear. A cartoon picture making fun of the president inspired a Brooklyn candy shop to create a stuffed “Teddy’s Bear.”
Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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