- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2014

Before the Civil War Mississippi was the wealthiest state in the Union, but a century and a half of social change and economic turmoil have put the Magnolia State consistently dead-last in dimensions of health, wealth and education.

But like its state flower, Mississippi is opening up, undergoing something of a resurgence thanks to tourism, culture and the loosening of once-draconian liquor laws that often forced Mississippians to cross their namesake river to patronize Louisiana booze stores.

Mississippi is synonymous with history, be it Civil War landmarks like Vicksburg or the Blues Trail and the famous Highway 61 — mentioned in songs by everyone from the Sparks Brothers right on up to Bob Dylan. (Legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil along the route to become the world’s greatest bluesman.) Like many other Southern states, football rules in the fall, thanks to the SEC powerhouse teams at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but there’s much to see and do in the central portion of the state, even when the gridiron goes quiet. For as native son William Faulkner once observed, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Vicksburg

Considered one of the toniest, most urbane of American enclaves prior to the Civil War, Vicksburg found itself at the nadir of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to wrest away Confederate control of the crucial Mississippi River. With Memphis and New Orleans already in Union hands, conquering Vicksburg would effectively split the Confederacy in two, isolating Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas beyond the western banks of the “Ol Man.”

After five consecutive victories, Grant expected easy victory, but Vicksburg, with its elevated position on bluffs above the river and entrenched defense forces, proved difficult to take. After two failed frontal assaults, Grant and his men settled in for a lengthy siege to choke off supplies and hope. After 45 days, with food rations all but exhausted and no reinforcements in sight, Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton hoisted the white flag on July 4, 1863. The campaign for the Mississippi was over.

Today, visitors can explore Vicksburg National Military Park, which boasts over 1,340 monuments, markers, tablets and plaques, according to the National Park Service, making it one of the most densely monumented battlefields in the world. A full 95 percent of the monuments were erected before 1917, with many then-living veterans from both sides assisting in locating where their state regiments once stood — now marked by the monuments from all states that had soldiers at Vicksburg.

The park also is home to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union vessel that holds the dubious distinction of being the first ship ever sunk via torpedo (which, at the time, was merely a floating mine). All hands survived, and a century later, the Cairo was raised from the Mississippi’s depths and partially restored before being turned over the NPS. Visitors can walk through the Cairo’s hold to see how cramped life was for her crew — which included both white and black Americans as well as new immigrants.

The tour along the military park is self-guided (and done best via car due to its size), but for a little extra money well spent, a guide will give the visitor a master’s class in the Vicksburg campaign and the numerous stones left behind in memoriam.

Also, while in Vicksburg, be sure to find the historic Highway 61 marker.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Vicksburg National Military Park

WHERE: 3201 Clay Street, Vicksburg, Ms. 39183

TELEPHONE: 601/636-0583

WEB: NPS.gov/vick/index.htm

Medgar Evers House

Fifty miles east of Vicksburg is the state capital of Jackson, where, one sad night in 1963, civil rights activist and local NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Today the house is a museum, with historical exhibits mixing with a decor more or less as the Evers family maintained from the time of the home’s construction in 1957.

De la Beckwith was finally convicted of Evers’ murder in 1994 and died in state custody in 2001, but his victim’s legacy lives on, both in the struggle for equality and in nearby Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport, so named in his honor.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Medgar Evers House

WHERE: 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive Jackson, Ms. 39213

WEB: EversTribute.org/house_tour.php

Lucky Town Brewing Company

In case you hadn’t heard, craft breweries are slowly taking a bite out of the market share of the Big Three, and even Mississippi, despite its many dry counties, is getting in on the action.

The most famous state microbrewery is Lazy Magnolia farther south in Kiln, but the capital city now boasts the brand-new Lucky Town Brewing Company, located along the railroad tracks in a warehouse formerly used to service Greyhound buses.

The brewery had its grand opening in November, churning out fresh brews to sate the thirsts of locals (currently, Lucky Town is only found in Jackson-area bars and stores), thereby joining the nearly dozen other microbreweries already operating in the state.

Tours and tastings are available Fridays and Saturdays in the afternoon; check the website often for tour times and special events.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Lucky Town Brewing Co.

WHERE: 1710 Mill St. Jackson, Ms. 39202

WEB: LuckyTownBrewing.com

Farish Street & F. Jones Corner

Farish Street was once what Beale Street is to Memphis or Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. For decades, the sounds of Delta blues could be heard up and down Jackson’s Farish Street, once the epicenter of central Mississippi music culture only steps from the capitol.

Sadly, the area fell into disrepair and has been all but abandoned, with talk of “redevelopment” continuing apace for years, but without much in the way of results. Still, one can walk the historic row of long-gone juke joints and record plants that churned out three-chord laments that would influence not only American musicians but also reach “across the pond” to inform the early sounds of such artists as The Rolling Stones.

However, despite the daytime quiet, Farish still vibrates with some nightlife thanks to F. Jones Corner, an after-hours do-drop-in that features local blues acts well into the small hours. Patrons can enjoy beer, bourbon or wine while chatting over a hookah with fellow blues aficionados. If you close your eyes, you might even be lulled back into those forgotten times, with the blues tiptoeing their tales of woe up all the way up the Mississippi Delta.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: F. Jones Corner

WHERE: 303 North Farish St. Jackson, Ms. 39215

TELEPHONE: 601/983-1148

WEB: FJonesCorner.com

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