STATE LABELS ARE A HARD THING TO SHAKE OFF

CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)

AUTHOR: MELN

STATE LABELS ARE A HARD THING TO SHAKE OFF

Poor Montana. For a state that seemingly thrives on privacy, it certainly has had its share of front-page headlines, what with the FBI keeping vigil near the Freemen compound and, then, last week, the arrest of the suspected Unabomber.

While there might be some state tourist officials who will want to capitalize on the limelight, inviting folks to walk through Kaczynski’s outhouse-size cabin where homemade pipe bombs supposedly were manufactured, I’m sure most of the state’s residents eagerly await the return of the day when people come to pay homage to Yellowstone’s spectacular falls and canyons, breathtaking Rocky Mountain scenery, and, of course, the site of Custer’s “last stand.”

Unfortunately, Montanans are now placed on the defensive, eager to put to rest the notions that everyone in Montana wants to take up arms against the U.S. government or shares the Unabomber’s state of mind to make homemade bombs, mail them to unsuspecting targets and get some kind of thrill when reading about a judge or a professor getting blown to pieces when opening the delivered package.

I’ve never been to Montana, but I have a sister who, at one time, taught in a one-room schoolhouse not far from Billings. Had it not been for the long, harsh winters and hailstones big enough to kill barnyard animals, she would still be there, writing me letters about watching moose and deer grazing in her back yard or about the wonderful people who kept their distance until needed.

I say all this because Southerners, especially Mississippians, understand what it’s like to be labeled by other parts of the country. Labels are a hard thing to shake. It’s like trying to douse a raging forest fire with water from a Dixie cup. In a way, I understand the basis for people’s perceptions of our state. We do have a staggering teen pregnancy rate. We have a high dropout rate, a high child abuse rate and a burdensome welfare roll.

But in spite of all these adversities, and perhaps even because of them, Mississippi is a state of great wealth in terms of people and communities caring for each other and the direction we are heading. Recently, I had supper with a couple seriously considering Tupelo as their choice for retirement. Although they have friends here, there are no family ties. What draws them back to this area, they say, is the people’s commitment to all aspects of community life and the way we repeatedly ask ourselves when facing issues, “What is best for the whole?”

I would like to believe that the racial strife that divided our state for so long and contributed to our reputation of being an intolerant people is never forgotten but remains in the past. There’s a big difference in the two. Remembering our sins helps keep us on the straight and narrow. Putting those sins behind us makes room for new beginnings.

More and more people moving into our state from other areas are discovering how wrong they were about Mississippi’s people and the strong ties we have to community and neighbors. And there’s nothing “backward” about that.

Mary Farrell Thomas writes a weekly column for the Daily Journal.

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