SID SALTER: Mike Sturdivant’s progressive legacy distinguishes his life

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Like Republican Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr., Democratic businessman Micajah Purnell “Mike” Sturdivant was one of the best men Mississippi voters never elected governor. Sturdivant died last week at the age of 85 at his home on the Due West Plantation in Glendora.
Sturdivant, a highly successful Delta planter and millionaire businessman, made two unsuccessful bids for Mississippi’s Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination.
In the 1983 gubernatorial campaign, Sturdivant placed third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary behind eventual Gov. Bill Allain and former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy. But Sturdivant came roaring back in 1987 in the last great political Pier Six brawl for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination between eventual winner Ray Mabus, Maurice Dantin, John Arthur Eaves, Gilbert Fountain, Ed Pittman, H.R. Toney, former Gov. Bill Waller, and Sturdivant.
Sturdivant made the Democratic Party’s second primary in a showdown with fellow Harvard graduate Mabus. It’s the only time in Mississippi history that two Harvard graduates fought over the privilege of leading Mississippi’s executive branch of government.
The 1987 showdown with Mabus was a bare-knuckle affair. Despite Mabus’s substantial family wealth, the high profile state auditor framed the contest by lambasting Sturdivant’s status as a plantation owner and accused him of misrepresenting jobs creation numbers from his far-flung hotel management business as jobs all being created in Mississippi.
Sturdivant hit back, accusing Mabus of being the darling of Wall Street bond brokers who had made sizeable contributions to his campaign. In putting his personal wealth where his mouth was in the campaign, Sturdivant spent between $1.3 and $1.6 million of his own money in the race against Mabus.
When the dust settled, Mabus soundly defeated Sturdivant in 1987 by taking 466,883 votes or 64.6 percent of the vote to 255,622 for Sturdivant. Mabus carried 76 of 82 counties. On the evening of that defeat, Sturdivant said: “To those of you who were disappointed in tonight, remember that the dreams that unite us are greater than the differences of opinions that sometimes separate us.”
In retrospect, the 1987 Mabus campaign accusation that Sturdivant represented “old-time politics and old-time politicians” was grossly unfair and inaccurate. In his business practices, Sturdivant was courageous on matters of civil rights at a time when it was unpopular and dangerous to show such courage.
Sturdivant, his uncle, and Sturdivant’s former Harvard roommate Earle Jones built a magnificent company in the hotel management industry called Mississippi Management Inc. They opened their first property in 1956 – the Holiday Inn in Meridian. It’s was the state’s second hotel to integrate.
That decision bought Sturdivant and Jones no small amount of criticism and intimidation, but they stayed the course. Today, MMI owns, manage or serves over 20 hotel properties and manages dining services for over 100 locations in the U.S. and has a track record as one of Mississippi’s best and most responsible corporate citizens.
Far from an “old-time politician” as branded by Mabus, Sturdivant was indeed a remarkably enlightened businessman, a tech-savvy farmer, and gifted public servant who just happened to be a pretty poor retail politician.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601)507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.