By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Rarely since 1963 when Mississippi Economic Council president Jack Reed of Tupelo stunned a gathering of legislators by speaking out for compliance with court-ordered school desegregation has the MEC been a major player to impact high priority state issues. It well can be now.
Last week the influential statewide business organization weighed in against the tough immigration enforcement bill before the Legislature – and backed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The immigration position paper (actually not a policy switch) comes on the heels of the MEC’s broad-based “Blue Print Mississippi,” detailing an incremental long-range plan to pull the state off the economic bottom.
Though heavily weighted in educational achievement as the ultimate key to Mississippi moving ahead, the “Blueprint” is particularly rooted on initiating early childhood education as the cornerstone of the public education system. Viewed in terms of historical significance, early childhood would be a fitting bookend to public education that Jack Reed can be credited with saving a half century ago.
Many Mississippians may have difficultly comprehending that public education was in danger of being abolished in 1963, but realistically it was. When Reed spoke out in January, 1963, it was only four months after the Ole Miss campus had been turned into a bloody battleground over the admission of the university’s first black student. No one really knew which direction the Legislature would go on the issue of abolishing public schools. I know. I was there in the Victory Room of the old Heidelberg Hotel when Reed spoke. Alarmingly, many legislators walked out.
Remember, it was not until 1982 after a bitter fight that Mississippi established a system of free public kindergarten, the last state to do so. A year in the making, Blueprint Mississippi is the most far-reaching, comprehensive plan ever assembled – and it was done with no state funds by an amazingly large team of volunteers. MEC president Blake Wilson, forever trying to stay out of the limelight, is determined Blueprint won’t wind up on a shelf gathering dust. More about Wilson later.
Dr. Hank Bounds, state Commissioner of Higher Education, who served as the overall chair of the Blueprint process, sums the goal of the plan: to “move our once low-wage, low-skill economy to a middle-skill, higher-wage and creative-based economy.” Note, Bounds doesn’t offer any blockbuster proposal that any governor-hopeful could politically ballyhoo as his silver bullet for immediate success.
With Bounds’ connection, research teams from four universities helped shape the goals advanced in the document. Too, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation weighed in for recommendations to promote diversity in the workforce and community building projects. The study cites as an example of racial cooperation the story of how the once-nationally maligned city of Philadelphia demonstrated racial progress by electing a black mayor of a white-majority city. One specific legislative recommendation in Blueprint is a $12.5 million appropriation to increase the number of Teach for America and Mississippi Teacher Corps teachers in the state, who mostly work in needy minority school districts.
Wilson, a native of Delaware who formerly was a Florida economic developer, marvels at how Mississippi built with essentially state taxes the 1987 four-lane highway program in increments over 20 years. “You used to have segments of four-lane highway sitting out in the countryside connecting to nothing,” he said. “Eventually they did and now all parts of the state are connected, a huge economic asset.”
Interestingly, Wilson grew up in a Delaware city where Vice-President Joe Biden lived nearby. “I like Joe,” Wilson said, “and enjoy recalling his warm friendship with a former Senate colleague, John Stennis of Mississippi.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.