Na­tion’s poor­est state spreads rich­ness of char­ac­ter

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Stacy McCain

Television star Oprah Win­frey, quar­ter­back Brett Favre, nov­el­ist William Faulkner, ac­tor James Earl Jones, coun­try mu­sic singer Faith Hill and the USS Cole — what do they all have in com­mon?

Al­lare­na­tivesofMis­sis­sippi.And if Amer­i­cans are un­aware of Mis­sis­sippi’s fa­mous prog­eny — from mu­sic stars to lit­er­ary leg­ends — that’s a knowl­edge deficit that Rick Looser in­tends to cor­rect.

The in­spi­ra­tion for Mr. Looser’s “Mis­sis­sippi: Be­lieve It” ad cam­paign came from a busi­ness trip to Wash­ing­ton four years ago dur­ing whicht­head­ver­tisingex­ec­u­tive­was con­front­ed­with­thep­er­sis­ten­tim­age of the state as back­ward and racist.

Mr. Looser — who, with his wife, Liza Cir­lot Looser, op­er­ates the Cir­lot Agency in Jack­son, Miss. — found him­self seated next to a 12year-old boy from Con­necti­cut.

“He never skipped a beat, he just looked at me and said, ‘Do you see KKK peo­ple on your street ev­ery day?’And,‘Doy­ouhateall­black­peo­ple?’”Mr.Looser­recalls.“Ididn’tsay any­thing­for­fivesec­onds.Isaid,‘Why do you ask that?’ And he said, ‘Ev­ery movie and ev­ery show I see about Mis­sis­sippi, that’s what I see.’ ”

That star­tling con­ver­sa­tion, Mr. Looser said, came “on the heels” of a na­tional busi­ness re­porter’s re­mark — dur­ing a press tour of the GulfCoast—thathe“had­noideawe had any pub­lic-traded com­pa­nies head­quar­tered here.”

Of course, Mr. Looser is familiar with Mis­sis­sippi’s sta­tus as the poor­est state — 50th in terms of per­cap­i­tain­come,ac­cord­ing­totheCen­sus Bureau — and sim­i­lar rank­ings in ed­u­ca­tion and other cat­e­gories. But he calls it un­fair to judge the state solely by such sta­tis­tics.

“Those prob­lems have been chron­i­cled ad nau­seam, and that be­comes the only thing you’re known­for,”saidMr.Looser.“It­could be gen­er­a­tions be­fore that is changed, but there’s a whole other side to Mis­sis­sippi that we want the rest of the coun­try to see.”

The ad cam­paign in­cludes posters and ad­ver­tise­ments cit­ing Mis­sis­sippi’s achieve­ments and achiev­ers:

“World-class en­ter­tain­ers” like Miss Win­frey, Elvis Pres­ley, opera so­prano Leon­tyne Price, ac­tress Sela Ward and Mup­pet cre­ator Jim Hen­son are fea­tured on a poster that mocks the idea that Mis­sis­sippi might­be­bet­ter­known­for“mon­ster trucks.”

“Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write,” de­clares a poster cel­e­brat­ing­suchMis­sis­sip­pilit­er­ary greats as play­wright Ten­nessee Wil­liams,nov­el­istEu­do­raWeltyand critic Wil­lie Mor­ris.

“Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats,” is the tagline on a poster fea­tur­ing Mis­sis­sip­pi­bornNa­tion­alFoot­bal­lLeagues­tars likeMr.Favre,three-timemostvalu­able player; run­ning back Wal­ter Pay­ton, who re­tired as the league’s all-time top rusher; and wide re­ceiver Jerry Rice, who holds ev­ery ma­jor ca­reer re­ceiv­ing record.

A poster about the state’s health care sys­tem high­lights pi­o­neer­ing trans­plant sur­geon Dr. JamesHardy­ofUniver­si­tyMed­i­cal Cen­ter in Jack­son.

Blues leg­ends Muddy Wa­ters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King are fea­tured on a poster that says, “Some see the world in black and white. Oth­ers see vary­ing shades of gray. But Mis­sis­sippi taught the world to see [. . . ] and hear [. . . ] the Blues.”

The fact that Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans rank high­est in the na­tion in the per­cent­a­ge­ofin­come­given­in­char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions is high­lighted in a poster that says, “In Mis­sis­sippi, weal­wayshaveourhand­out.Bu­tit’s usu­ally to give, not re­ceive.”

Other posters in the se­ries fo­cus on the state’s in­dus­try, in­clud­ing the fact that the guided mis­sile de­stroy­erUSSCole­was­built—an­drepaired af­ter it was struck by an Oc­to­ber 2000 ter­ror­ist at­tack — at the Northrop Grum­man ship­yard in Pascagoula.

Him­self a na­tive of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Mr. Looser’s pride in Mis­sis­sippi might be said to be a love af­fair: His wife, who started the Cir­lot Agency in 1984, is a na­tive of Moss Point, near Pascagoula.

“I met her at an ad­ver­tis­ing con­ven­tion in 1987, and I put my arm around­her,askedthep­ho­tog­ra­pher to take our pic­ture and said, ‘I want to be able to show our chil­dren the night we met,’ ” he said. They were mar­ried eight months later.

The “Mis­sis­sippi: Be­lieve It” cam­paign has been pop­u­lar in the state. The agency sent sets of 11 posters to 1,500 schools through­out Mis­sis­sippi to help pro­mote stu­dents’ sense of pride in their na­tive state.

“I’ve got a ninth-grader and a 10th-grader my­self — I want them to know that liv­ing in Mis­sis­sippi isn’t a dis­ad­van­tage and that they can­beany­thingth­ey­want­tobe,”Mr. Looser said.

In­someschools,Englishteach­ers have cre­ated cur­ric­ula around the “Yes,we­can­read”poster,as­sign­ing stu­dents to iden­tify the Mis­sis­sippi au­thor­sandtheir­works,and­towrite re­ports about them.

So far, Mr. Looser said, the Cir­lot Agency has put about $275,000 into the cam­paign, and hopes next year to be able to pro­duce pub­lic-ser­vice spots for ra­dio and television.

Mis­sis­sippi’s pride was stirred last year by the statewide re­sponse toHur­ri­caneKa­t­rina,whichdev­as­tated the state’s Gulf Coast.

They be­came catch phrases: “ ‘Hitch up our britches’ — that was the­first­thin­gout­ofGov.Ha­leyBar­bour’s mouth,” Mr. Looser said. “Loot­er­swouldbeshoton­sight,and that we would take care of our own.

“What [Mr. Bar­bour] asked was for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to do what they’re char­tered to do, and that we would take care of the rest. [. . . ] I think the rest of the state fol­lowed his lead.”

Some bit­ter­ness lingers, Mr. Looser said, over the re­fusal of many in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to pay for storm-re­lated dam­age in the wake of Ka­t­rina. That story is un­der­re­ported, he said, be­cause of “shame­ful re­gional prej­u­dice.”

“Hadthishap­pene­donthe­up­per East Coast, we’d be hear­ing about it ev­erynighton­thenet­worknews,”he said.

Thes­tate’srep­u­ta­tion­made­head­lines last month when Rep. Charles B.Ran­gel,NewYorkDemo­crat,told the New York Times, “Mis­sis­sippi gets more than their fair share back in fed­eral money, but who the hell wants to live in Mis­sis­sippi?”

Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., Mis­sis­sippi Repub­li­can, im­me­di­ately fired back: “I hope his re­marks are not the kind of in­sults, slan­der and defama­tion that Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans will come to ex­pect from the Demo­crat lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.”

Mr. Looser has reached out to Mr. Ran­gel, send­ing him a se­lec­tion of mer­chan­dise from the Mis­sis­sip­ on­line store.

Mr. Ran­gel “apol­o­gized, and South­ern­ers are very gra­cious, and so we ac­cept the apol­ogy,” Mr. Looser said. “But we want to see if he’s re­ally com­mit­ted. We want to see if he wears some of our ‘Mis­sis­sippi Be­lieve It’ mer­chan­dise.”

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