LLOYD GRAY: A challenge for renewal

By Lloyd Gray | NEMS Daily Journal

As the Daily Journal news staff looked back on 2011, one story’s impact stood out above all others: the tragic tornadoes that swept through the region in April, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
It was easy to come to a consensus about the “Newsmaker of the Year.” The tornadoes and the determined recovery of the communities and people affected by them were the dominant news story of the year in Northeast Mississippi.
While the weather dealt Smithville and other communities the worst of which it was capable, we saw in the aftermath the best of the human spirit. Help came in abundance to the devastated areas, and the people who felt the brunt of the storms rallied on the strength of their faith in God and each other to begin the rebuilding and renewal of their communities.
The year also saw the beginnings of a different kind of renewal in Tupelo. The city began to shake off the complacency of long-term success to confront the reality of new challenges that threaten future progress.
New Census data provided a wake-up call. Tupelo was virtually flat in population growth over the past 10 years and was losing its middle class to the surrounding area. Its public schools were in a period of profound transition, resulting in lower-than-expected test scores and rankings, wavering community support and the messy departure of a reform-minded superintendent. Race, that largely unspoken element in Tupelo’s struggle to renew its civic energy and purpose, came out into the open for honest and candid discussion.
The community’s response to its challenges was faltering at best in 2011. Bold new initiatives lost early momentum amid a mixture of legitimate skepticism and classic naysaying. All the reasons why something wouldn’t work or shouldn’t be done were trotted out. Tupelo’s historic innovative spirit was largely absent in the outcome. But at least the conversation had begun.
It has to continue. As has been the case with every significant measure of progress in Tupelo’s past, the private and public sectors must come together in partnership in 2012 to demonstrate that the Tupelo Spirit is more than just a worn-out description of a bygone era.
While Tupelo doesn’t face the physical devastation and lost lives that its neighbors endured in 2011, it did once before. Just a few weeks before last year’s tornadoes, we chronicled the 75th anniversary of the Tupelo tornado of 1936. Those who experienced it and are still living today described it as a pivotal event in community history as everyone rallied to overcome daunting odds.
As other Northeast Mississippi communities find their resiliency in a similar moment, Tupelo must regard its challenge for renewal as equally urgent. The past offers instruction for the future, if the community will heed it.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.