In the eyes of the nation and our own, “King Cotton” has been deposed – and in its place remain chicken, catfish and chips. If that sounds like a new fast food combo at your local franchise restaurant of choice, it isn’t.
A recent Chicago Tribune series entitled “Beyond The Flames” sent Tribune reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg into the Deep South to examine the region a generation after the Civil Rights Era and draw conclusions based on the recent rash of apparently racially-motivated burnings of black churches in several southern states.
One portion of the series examined the economic shift from “King Cotton” to other enterprises and the effect that shift has has on African-Americans. And the conclusion that Greenburg drew in Mississippi – in visits to Forest and Indianola and other Mississippi locales – is that the state’s economy has shifted from “King Cotton” to what she called the Three C’s, providing jobs in a state with the lowest per capita income in the nation.
“Chicken, catfish and chips,” the reporter wrote.
Greenburg’s analysis pointed to the explosion of poultry growing, processing and further processing in the state over the last decade, the continued development of the catfish industry and the literal culture shock that casino gaming has had on Mississippi’s economy over the last five years.
Reporter Greenburg found the words of black Mississippians employed in these industries compelling:
“They stand shoulder to shoulder in hairnets and thick, plastic aprons, working over freshly-killed chickens that speed by on hooks and conveyor belts in the chilly mist of the processing plant.
“As with any assembly line, the workers’ tasks are specific: Some kill the birds, some remove the feathers that the machines miss. Some cut them into pieces, other package them for shipping.
“The work is not pleasant, but most of the employees of Lady Forest Farms are happy to have it, in a state where, just seven years ago, one in four residents lived below the poverty level. Sharon Smith, for one, doesn’t miss a beat when asked where she would be without Lady Forest.
“‘Sitting at the house,’ said Smith, 35, who has been with the family-owned company four years and spends her day arranging entrails of chicken for government inspection.
“For people in this farm county just east of the state capitol, poultry is a lifeline, a booming industry that has provided jobs where once there were virtually none. Since 1989, the industry has grown 80 percent in the state and now employs about 20,000 people, and at plants such as Lady Forest, chickens mean opportunity.
“‘As far as right here in Forest, the poultry industry is what keeps it going,’ said Jerry Gray, 31, a Lady Forest floor superintendent who makes $45,000 a year. ‘If they shut this down, there wouldn’t be any jobs.’,” the Chicago newspaper noted.
The article goes on to designate Mississippi as the nation’s leading catfish-producing state and to pay homage to the state’s $5 billion-a-year gaming industry.
The Chicago Tribune article was as fair and clear a depiction of Mississippi’s changing economic, social and political conditions as I’ve seen in a national publication in quite some time. To be sure, the reporter examined the problems of poverty, racism and upward mobility of black workers in the state – but the implications for the future were clear.
Economic development – diverse economic development that incorporates Mississippi’s climate, natural resources, abundant labor force and that brings with it a vertical integration of jobs – can overcome the century-old stereotype of Mississippi as a plantation economy. Poultry and catfish are prime examples of agricultural industries that provide jobs far beyond the processing plant. Growers, truckers, suppliers, storage facilities, rendering operations and construction thrive in their orbit.
Export of these products – the ability of the state to produce vast amounts of the product in excess of that which can be sold in in-state markets – make poultry and catfish an even more attractive successor to cotton.
Gaming is a more complex issue. While tax revenues from gaming now accounts for as much as 9.8 percent of general fund tax revenue in the state, gaming is a regressive form of taxation. Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government recently released data indicating that a certain “tax cannibalization” is taking place in the gaming market – i.e., the fact that 80 percent polled said that if gaming wasn’t available in the state, they would spend the same entertainment dollars elsewhere in the state in other pursuits.
Gaming also carries with it a social costs far in excess of the agri-business concerns.
The good news that the Chicago Tribune told America about Mississippi’s economy over the last decade? The fact that our economy is growing, changing and providing opportunity for formerly unemployable workers to earn a good living.
The bad news? The newspaper reported that 27 percent of all Mississippians live below the poverty level.
The better news for all Mississippians is that we as a people have more complex story to tell than simply wallowing in the frustrating aftermath of this new rash of church burnings – burnings which cast an errie shadow against our unfortunate history of racial violence and mistrust.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.