September 21, 2018
MERIDIAN, Miss.: From New Orleans, heading northeast to Atlanta, you can go long or short, although the difference isn’t great. Our now-familiar I-10 meets I-85 at Mobile, Ala., and would sweep you right into the Atlanta traffic nightmare. The longer route is I-10 to just past Slidell, La., where you pick up I-59, which takes you into the heart of the Old Confederacy, near Picayune, Miss., then to I-20 just west of Meridian through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham into the Peach State. We went long. I had to get at least a glimpse of Mississippi.
I visited the Naval Air Station at Meridian on a one-day press junket years ago, but had never really seen the state. Mississippi, to Northeasterners—me, anyway—still evokes tragic images, of the abuses of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the violent civil rights struggles that started long before the mid-1960s. Yet Mississippi’s Gulf Coast booms with economic vitality: oil and gas production and transport, tourism, the Stennis Space Center, and, at Pascagoula, construction of the Navy’s frontline surface ships.
Immediately across the state line at the Welcome Center you get a taste of that other South, the South of the Lost Cause. While the Welcome to Mississippi sign touts the state as the “birthplace of American music,” a historical marker crows pridefully about the exploits of the 38th Mississippi Infantry, the “Hancock Rebels.” The unit served in 1864 under Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, later one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. The Welcome Center clerk unenthusiastically offered coffee, making me wonder if I had “Yankee” carved in my forehead.
The interstate, though, is just an interstate, two lanes of sparse traffic, like any we traveled in the Southwest. I wanted to visit some communities, but I-59, lined mostly with thick woods, has few exits, which are miles apart. We stopped for gas at a stop-and-go outside Hattiesburg. I wanted to continue into the nearby town, but Sandy was dead-set against it. No interest in seeing rural Mississippi. As a native of the Appalachian Mountain South—another world—she has a different take on Delta Dixie.
We pressed on, but I finally talked her into stopping in Meridian, just before we left the state. The city has a well-kept look to it, a busy main street, a Meridian Museum of Art, and the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum. We stepped inside Weidmann’s, the “oldest family restaurant in Mississippi,” an upscale place reportedly famous for its Southern comfort food, including peanut butter crocks.
Meridian is about 40 miles from Philadelphia, notorious for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, a native of Meridian. Four Klan members were tried and convicted of the killings at the federal courthouse in Meridian; three others were acquitted. In 2005, for the first time, the state charged and convicted a Klan member in the killings. The city named part of 49th Avenue after Chaney, and honors him in an annual memorial service.
Showing my music ignorance, I didn’t know about Mississippi’s claim to be home to American music. Meridian boasts of being the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) an itinerant blues and country singer. Meridian’s 22nd Avenue is lined with gold stars embedded in the sidewalk concrete recognizing famous Mississippians, including Rodgers, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Hartley Peavey, a Meridian native who founded Peavey Electronics, which makes musical equipment.
I wanted to stay longer to wander Meridian and learn more of its rich history, but the afternoon was fading. We passed on a leisurely lunch at Weidmann’s, grabbed a Subway instead, and headed to Alabama.