robert

M

y home State of Mississippi turns 200 years old this week and a great deal of hoopla is taking place in the capital city of Jackson, the place of my birth.

On Saturday, two world class museums, one marking the state’s history and the other chronicling the state’s civil rights struggle, will be officially opened to great fanfare.

For many newly-minted Mississippians in this far corner of the state, you might not have traveled beyond, say Senatobia, if that far.

My good friends, if you have never journeyed deep into the heart and interior of this very special place called Mississippi, you are missing out on some of the most beautiful scenery and the most fascinating people you will ever chance to meet.

No other state has a more diverse and complicated history. Our native son, the Nobel Prize-winning Mississippi author William Faulkner, said to understand America and indeed the world itself, one needs to understand — and I’m paraphrasing — “a place like Mississippi.”

As a seventh-generation Mississippian, the observance of my beloved state’s 200th birthday is a personal celebration.

Carved out of the ancient Chickasaw and Choctaw lands with their virgin, thick, densely populated hardwood forests teeming with wildlife, flora and fauna of every description, Northern Mississippi is not far removed from its frontier birth as a settled, pioneer region of the state.

It was during the 1830s when the wagon wheels of my ancestors rolled into the tiny hamlet of Carrollton, Mississippi. As carpenters and cabinetmakers, the homes and furniture they fashioned were hewn from the heart pine, pecan and hickory of the red clay hills of Mississippi.

It was from these same red clay hills that my great-great grandfather Robert Marshall Long tramped off to war, a musket across his shoulder, and to these same red clay hills that he returned four years later, a walking skeleton of eighty-two pounds, after emerging from a prisoner of war camp up North to begin life anew.

And from these same hills that both of my grandfathers marched off to defend this united nation once more in World War I, as my uncles did in World War II, my father in Korea and my stepfather in Vietnam.

It was in these same red clay hills that my Methodist minister grandfather stood tall against the Ku Klux Klan and had his tires slashed for his courageous stand for human decency and dignity for all.

And out of the shadows of the pines of these red clay hills where I watched with sadness as a “negro” church burned — for that was the unpolitically correct language of my childhood — torched at the hands of arsonists.

And from these same hills where my father battled poachers and taught me to shoot — always in season— and always in a manner that gave prey a sporting chance.

Like the Yazoo clay that I trod beneath my feet as a youngster growing up in Madison County, I was molded and sculpted by the landscape from which I came.

I am indelibly a Mississippian, and I feel it in the very essence of my marrow, deep in my bones, buried within my bosom and soul, and in the very air that I breathe.

And when I die, and they lay my weary bones down to rest, they will be laid deep in those same red clay hills.

It’s from those same hills and Mississippi soil that famous authors and playwrights sprung like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, singers Leontynne Price, James Earl Jones, Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, and actors like Dana Andrews and Sela Ward — and the list goes on and on.  

The ancient Old Testament character of Job famously uttered the words, “I am clay.”

As Mississippians, each of us was molded and shaped by hill clay and Delta dust. And to that dirt and dust, we shall one day return.

Let each of us, as Mississippians, emerge in the end as fine and valuable as a George Ohr pot, made from the skilled hands of that master potter from Biloxi whose works are now prized by art galleries in Paris, London and New York.

Hold up your heads, Mississippians, as we proudly say “Happy Birthday!”

ROBERT LEE LONG  is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, ext. 252.

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