BILL MINOR: Legend and history reside in 'new' Capitol

JACKSON – Many still call it the “new” Capitol, even though the magnificent domed building celebrated its 100th birthday last week.

Since I spent a great many hours of my professional life inside the Capitol – I used to call it my home away from home – I had to help celebrate its birthday and have a piece of the birthday cake on a beautiful spring day.

In 1903 when the classical new Mississippi statehouse was first dedicated, it was a monumental achievement for a state that not many years before had its economic resources and manhood drained by civil war.

Of course, stories abound how the $l.09 million to build the Capitol was raised by a state lawsuit against the Illinois Central Railroad would today be regarded as a shakedown of the state's biggest corporation.

Speakers for the centennial celebration, and those at other notable anniversaries of the grand old building in the last 20 years, have noted the progress Mississippi has made in many areas over the century since it was initially dedicated.

Poetically, racial reconciliation – how white Mississippians live side by side with black Mississippians – the overriding social problem the state still struggles to solve, was 100 years ago cited by Methodist Bishop Charles Galloway in his keynote dedicatory address, as the core problem then facing the state.

Said Galloway: “In my judgment, there can never be any just and permanent settlement of this stupendous problem (race relations) that does not enlist the cordial and enlightened co-operation of the white people with whom the Negro must dwell forever.”

He added: “I do insist that the Negro should have equal opportunity with every American citizen to fulfill in himself the highest purposes of an all-wise and beneficent Providence.”

Obviously Bishop Galloway was an amazingly moderate spokesman at a time when racial demagogues such as James K. Vardaman were prowling the Mississippi political landscape. How prescient were his words even today.

Memories. The centennial birthday of the majestic Capitol brings back to me a flood of memories, some good and some not-so-good, of events that I saw take place there in the nearly 40 years I was an habitue of its classic interior.

It's where I saw Robert Clark, the first African-American to sit in the Legislature since Reconstruction, take the oath of office as a state representative in January, 1968.

Then, four months later, when he dejectedly stalked out of the Capitol after not being recognized to offer his first amendment during a raucous House night session, I followed him out in the rainy night and persuaded him not to quit.

It was where I saw state lawmakers, pushed by massive, lovable Gov. Hugh White, enact in 1953-54 the landmark Minimum Foundation Education program, a courageous first step by Mississippi to racially equalize educational opportunities, wipe out the hundreds of one and two-room schoolhouses and massively consolidate school districts.

Nearly 40 years later I would see lawmakers, urged by William Winter, enact the next educational landmark, the 1982 Education Reform Act, whose centerpiece was to establish free public kindergarten, the last state to do so.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, 1966, in the ornate ceremonial governor's office, I would see Paul Johnson put an end to a hypocritical and corrupt law that that for 58 years prohibited sale of liquor statewide.

What passed as a Capitol press room back in 1947 when I first arrived as the Mississippi correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune was little more than a 10 x 12 clothes closet near the Senate chamber. Only four reporters covering the Legislature could jam together at tiny desks to pound out news copy on our manual typewriters.

Things got much better for us in the early 1950s when some interior renovation of the building was done, and the fourth floor of the Capitol, until then still unfinished and serving largely as a storage area, was redone, and we were moved up there to more spacious quarters.

Remember, the building had not yet been air-conditioned, and the fourth floor, with skylights overhead, was much like a florists' hothouse.

Until the state in 1956 stopped executing convicts in a portable electric chair (called by many “old Sparky”) the chair was kept hidden somewhere in the bowels of the Capitol. Good old Heber would have it clandestinely hauled out whenever a county needed it.

And although no one other than I knew it, in the late 1950s I deposited my own version of a time capsule down the hollow core of one of the Capitol's structural columns, while a stone plate at the top of the column inside the press room area was pulled off for some repair work.

I dropped a rolled up copy of The Times-Picayune, with a front page byline story of mine, down the hole before workmen resealed it.

I suppose it will stay there forever.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.