“Appalachian Mississippi”: Race, Democracy, and Reform after Jim Crow, 1965 to 1975

Though a peculiar one, Mississippi’s journey to Appalachia and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1968 was marked by political intrigue and public resistance. The state’s last congressional delegation elected before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 joined county administrators from its northeast quadrant to repoliticize racial identity and local institutional control. This paper explores the movement of formerly avowed white supremacists to build a homogenous “Appalachian Mississippi,” as they called it, a collection of twenty diverse counties with zero mountains but a history of lowland plantation agriculture. After the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 granted unprecedented authority to poor and middle-class African American residents across the region, segregationist lawmakers found in the ARC an instrument with all the War on Poverty’s federal largesse but none of its oversight. The state’s U.S. senators wrote frankly to one another about abridging federal control and left ample evidence of how federal dollars could be redirected from poverty programs to causes of their choosing. Particularly, local white leaders capitalized on the ARC’s allowance for historical restoration to memorialize specious European pioneer memory across the region’s rural landscape. This public history work served to erase African American contributions to regional culture from the public sphere, not to mention the legacy of racial labor regimes that undergird its economy. Black activists recognized such injustice and fought for reform locally and alongside the region-wide Black Appalachian Commission. In their fight, however, they found that the ARC allowed for little engagement or accountability outside of electoral politics.

This story comes from political archives, activist accounts, and county government records. It intervenes in the historiography of American conservatism, which has ignored the ARC as a consequential political institution at the state and local level (Berrey, Crespino, Phillips-Fein). The making of Appalachian Mississippi suggests that the politics of Appalachia was surprisingly flexible. And unlike existing regional histories, this narrative refuses to assume that the experience of rural Mississippians was exceptional (Alexander Williams; Turner & Cabbell). Standing astride easy political categories, the ARC helps the historian to interrogate distinctions between a liberal War on Poverty and conservative touchstones like block grant funding and the private school movement. We’re left with a story of old political power in a new Appalachia during the first decade after Jim Crow.