Skip to content
Vol. 26, No. 4: The Imaginary South

The Making of Appalachian Mississippi

by Justin Randoph

In 1966, a retired high school principal named George Thompson Pound reached for his Rand McNally atlas. He turned to page six, took a pen, and drew off Appalachia. Starting in West Virginia, he marked along the Blue Ridge Mountains, through the Carolinas, northwest Georgia, and east Alabama.

But Pound kept going. He marked past the clear end of mountainous terrain around Birmingham, Alabama, and passed into North Mississippi—his home. With the stroke of a pen, Pound boldly reimagined geography and race in one of America’s most notorious Jim Crow states. He fused the imaginative work of region-making and mapmaking into a lasting political reality for the land and its people.

Pound made his map for Mississippi’s governor and congressional delegation. These political elites, segregationists like US senators James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, hoped the federal government would include northeast Mississippi in its new Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a Great Society program that eventually distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments.1

This movement to invent what segregationists called “Appalachian Mississippi” countered the War on Poverty’s economic empowerment of rural Black communities. Since 1964, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) had poured federal funding directly into Mississippi’s Black freedom struggle through institutions for public housing, cooperative agriculture, and childcare, such as Project Head Start. The ARC model bypassed the OEO’s mandate for the “maximum feasible participation” of local beneficiaries in the use of poverty funds. Ruling whites had resisted the War on Poverty’s direct redistribution from the beginning, but their reimagining of southern Appalachia was a watershed. The ARC promised continued white control of federal monies and further undermined the OEO’s unmediated funding of Black communities. It imagined, in short, a path around democracy.2

There was just one problem: Mississippi lacked mountains. It was right there on Pound’s map. Mississippi sat in the coastal plain, the same shade of gray as West Tennessee or East Texas. Undeterred, an unknown conspirator merely took a fine-point pen and changed the map. They drew ridges and valleys where there were none. They blended the mountains of Alabama and Tennessee into the Cotton Belt. At arm’s length, this new map showed Mississippi as the western terminus of the Appalachian chain. And when Pound and southern Democrats made their case before Congress in 1967, they submitted this map as evidence. This was the forgery that made Appalachian Mississippi.

There was just one problem: Mississippi lacked mountains.

Texaco Touring Atlas by Rand McNally: United States, Canada, Mexico (Chicago: Texaco, 1966), 6–7, from the James O. Eastland Collection, Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries.

But it took much more than a map to wipe away histories of plantation slavery and share-cropping from a region long recognized as the Black Belt. The process by which twenty-four Mississippi counties became Appalachia is a history of arbitrary power and the boundlessness of white supremacist imagination. When white elites dreamt up a new historical geography for North Mississippi, they envisioned a place without a Black past. They also theorized a new white identity after Jim Crow, a new whiteness deserving of federal largesse for top-down modernizing projects like airports and industrial parks. In creating a new world (past and present) in which to reassert their artificial hierarchy, they proved W. E. B. Du Bois’s assertion that whiteness conferred ownership; in this case, the right to make and remake landscapes in the same way that white identities could be made and remade after fundamental challenges to white supremacist racial order.3

A simultaneous reimagination of the South and its racial contours occurred in North Mississippi’s music. Indeed, popular music played an integral role in this history of mapmaking and political intrigue. Like any political movement, the rise of Appalachian Mississippi featured a cultural accompaniment where ideas from the Senate chamber echoed over car radios and vice versa. The region’s white musical artists, singers like Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette, helped transform Mississippi from the Birthplace of the Blues to a bastion of the new country music in this period. And Bobbie Gentry, a North Mississippi singer-songwriter, inadvertently provided a color-blind soundtrack to play over Mississippi’s quiet transition to the mountain South. “Ode to Billie Joe” was Appalachian Mississippi’s first hit. It demonstrated the potential to sell a race-neutral southern present, to refocus the public’s gaze from what happened somewhere below the Tallahatchie Bridge in 1955 and toward the plight of poor whites.

While some middle-class African Americans welcomed the ARC as an additional pathway to federal funding, many of Mississippi’s new Appalachians objected to their involuntary citizenship. Black Mississippians joined activists from the southern highlands who established a Black Appalachian Commission in 1969. The Black Appalachian Commission named and protested the ARC’s “institutional racism.” The current standard for racism, they reasoned, amounted to “‘turn on the hose’ imagery,” where only brutal images of police dogs and firehoses broke into national consciousness. Civil rights activism had forced such displays into mainstream political culture, just in time for federal poverty programs like the ARC to exclude African American communities from decision-making. They shared this message across North Mississippi with mailers and lectures. In the end, they failed to halt the march of Appalachification. Nonetheless, local Black residents answered the white southern imagination with oral history projects funded by the OEO. Designed to emphasize the legacies of plantation slavery, their Sharecropper Oral History Project collected over three hundred interviews. Interviewees signaled a refusal to recognize Appalachian revision and offered a counternarrative to Appalachian exculpation.4

But ambivalent white artists, thinkers, and consumers complied with the creation of Appalachian Mississippi. Even sincere reformers like Pound proved mere pawns in a scheme to undermine the Black community empowerment pledged by Great Society liberalism. Together with North Mississippi’s white culturemakers, the last cohort of white lawmakers elected before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 underwrote a new federal-state alliance that disproportionately benefitted white Mississippians for generations.

As the Civil Rights Movement exploded in the 1960s, white residents of North Mississippi thought very little about Appalachia. In fact, they had trouble spelling “Appalachia.” George McLean, who published Tupelo’s Daily Journal called it “Appalachicola” in print. The Tishomingo County Board of Supervisors once wrote Congress about the “Appalatchian Program.” No one in Mississippi sincerely believed they lived in Appalachia.5

No one in Mississippi sincerely believed they lived in Appalachia.

From the earliest stirrings of a War on Poverty, liberal reformers considered Appalachia a special case. In 1962, Michael Harrington had turned an eye to the mountain South in The Other America: Poverty in the United States. A journalist and socialist, Harrington wrote that Appalachia was the “dramatic and obvious” exemplar of rural poverty in a capitalist society, a prime example of what he came to call a “culture of poverty” or “the vicious circle.” “Increasingly, these are a beaten people,” he wrote of highlanders, “sunk in their poverty and deprived of hope.” Only a coordinated federal effort could modernize such an “economically backward” landscape. He called for better roads, education, cultural pursuits, water control, and soil conservation. By “Appalachia,” Harrington clearly meant the mountains and the hollers of mountain chains, not the plantation South. “The people are mountain folk,” he wrote. “They are of old American stock, many of them Anglo-Saxon.” Despite the enduring presence, labor, and art of Black Appalachians, the blueprint for federal Appalachian development assumed white ethnic purity was the norm.6

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speaks with members of an unidentified family as he campaigns for president in rural Omar, West Virginia, April 1, 1960. Photograph from Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images.

Answering Harrington’s call, John F. Kennedy famously posed with hard-bitten West Virginians on the campaign trail. There, he promised to prioritize the region’s unique needs. In April 1963, as Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, President Kennedy solicited a report on the conditions of Appalachia, appointing Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The commission included the Conference of Appalachian Governors, a disparate group of eight southern Democrats from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Roosevelt delivered his report to Lyndon Johnson in the spring of 1964, as national civil rights volunteers mobilized for the Mississippi Summer Project, a voter registration campaign they called Freedom Summer. By early 1965, the Johnson administration had drafted the Appalachian Regional Development Act. The bill’s northern liberal cosponsors made strange bedfellows with southern governors like Alabama’s George C. Wallace. Included were Edward Kennedy, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale. Though the 1965 bill passed easily, Mississippi’s entire congressional delegation voted against it.7

Sensibly, this original legislation meant to address highland underdevelopment. ARC planners set out to address the region’s lack of modern arterial highways, healthcare facilities, and stable topsoil. Additionally, it meant to develop the region’s timber resources and rehabilitate land and communities destroyed by “deleterious mining practices.” The program also made a special commitment to developing human resources to stymie outmigration and stimulate local economies. An investment in vocational education topped this list of priorities, followed by sewage treatment and public housing.8

The ARC helped localities meet these goals by amplifying federal grant-in-aid programs. Typically, federal agencies offered funding for specific projects with the understanding that states and counties contributed funds toward the total cost. Lawmakers meant for ARC grants to offset these costs for poorer towns and counties that lacked matching funds. By lowering the startup costs, ARC funds paved the way for local development. Whether geared toward flood prevention, highway construction, or school building, Appalachian funding multiplied standard levels of federal aid while lowering local contributions.9

In practice, the ARC was an early experiment in the devolution of federal funding powers to state and local governments. Its governing structure proved the ultimate compromise between white southern demands for states’ rights and the desire for federal dollars. The Appalachian Regional Development Act established two ARC cochairmen, representing national and state interests, who held equal authority. The president appointed a federal cochair, who liaised with appropriate departments and agencies within the federal bureaucracy, and Appalachian governors appointed one of their number as state cochair. Each state, then, had an office of Appalachian development to vet applications from institutions, counties, and municipalities. This handpicked bureaucracy had the power to make or break an application, often along racial lines. State offices of Appalachian development shepherded initial applications through red tape and followed up with federal offices until disbursal. As a result, only applications amenable to state officials made it to federal agencies.10

Everyday white Mississippians recognized the political implications of ARC funding before their congressional representatives. When William D. Webb, a jeweler from Lee County, read that Mississippi voted against the ARC in March 1965, he wrote baffled to Congressman Thomas G. Abernethy. “It is sometimes a little hard for me to understand the continual opposition of our delegation to bills which seem to be designed to help the low-income sections of the country. . . . It becomes increasingly difficult for me to see how your action in this direction can help the people of Mississippi with the lowest incomes and educational standards of all the states.” The jeweler’s sentiments signaled a success of sorts for Lyndon Johnson’s populist antipoverty campaign.11

Cumberland Mountains, scarred by strip mining, January 1, 1967. Photograph from Bob Gomel/The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images.

Congressman Abernethy’s response, however, indicated both an aversion to redistributive fiscal policy and a consensus understanding of Appalachia. “There was not a dime in this bill for Northeast Mississippi,” Abernethy fumed in a letter to Webb, continuing:

Yet you are called upon to pay high taxes to help another region of the country—Appalachia—which actually is much better off than Mississippi. I cannot imagine Pittsburgh . . . being in such a state of poverty. Nor do I see much poverty as I drive through the great and beautiful country of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. . . . True, the coal mining area is poor. John Lewis priced coal out of the market, so of course, his coal workers lost their jobs.

Mississippi, Abernethy insisted, was not Appalachia. Appalachia was mountain, valley, coal, and organized labor. And yet, less than two years later, Abernethy introduced legislation that imagined Mississippi as just that.12

Elected officials deserve little credit for Mississippi joining the Appalachian Regional Commission. That feat was the lifework of George Thompson Pound, who drove too fast, carried large debts, and lived to develop North Mississippi. Pound was one of many anonymous white politicos who fought for influence within the state’s ruling Democratic Party. Ambitious, he had the misfortune of being born in rural Pontotoc County, a far cry from Mississippi’s rich Delta aristocracy and its oligarchic inner circle. A longtime teacher and administrator at segregated white public schools, Pound earned an exemption from World War II and retired from education in the 1950s.13

Pound’s great success in Appalachian economic development began in failure. In 1965, he dreamed up the Pontotoc Recreational & Tourist Attraction Development Project. This mammoth scheme, supported by Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr., proposed the conversion of three thousand acres of farm and timberland into a “living history park.” There, Pound argued, the county might employ former farmers, part-time farmers, and “many older people who can no longer do the heavy farm work,” to work as docents and historical reenactors. Educating visitors from across the country, tour guides would focus on “the life of the early white settlers . . . and the tales of the Chickasaw Indians as was told to them by their forefathers.” Others might take on the personae of historical figures, such as the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, an unnamed “Chickasaw chieftain,” Indian War general Andrew Jackson, and French fur traders.14

Pound’s history erased a century and a half of the region’s African American life: slavery, cotton plantations, sharecrop-ping, and Black farm ownership. In his formal application to the War on Poverty’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Pound estimated that the park could bring $1.3 million and 250 jobs to Pontotoc County annually. Federal officials disagreed; War on Poverty funding was not forthcoming.15

Pound’s interest in the Appalachian Regional Commission grew directly from the OEO’s snub. He first learned of the ARC in February 1966 through neighboring conservationists from Alabama and soon after attended a meeting with ARC officials in Washington. There, he and administrators developed a six-point plan for Mississippi’s inclusion in Appalachia, which he shared with Governor Paul Johnson on March 11, 1966. By August, Pound submitted a lengthy report to the governor making the case for Appalachian Mississippi.16

Paul Johnson appreciated the implication of Appalachian Mississippi, even if he failed to envision a straightforward path to joining the ARC. He understood that other southern governors had found a vehicle for states’ rights in the new world of federal poverty programs. “We recognize,” Johnson wrote the governor of Maryland, “that one of the meritorious aspects of the Appalachian Program is that it originated within the states themselves.” Indeed, segregationist governors like Alabama’s George C. Wallace, Georgia’s Earnest Vandiver, and South Carolina’s Earnest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings had convened the Conference of Appalachian Governors during periods of their own massive resistance to desegregation. They might have been talking about hillbilly poverty, but the Appalachian governors theorized their unique form of split governance at a moment when Wallace physically obstructed the schoolhouse door to the University of Alabama’s first African American students and sanctioned a cavalry charge of state troopers against peaceful black protesters at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.17

Appalachian governors welcomed Mississippi to the fold, but Lyndon Johnson was an unknown. By March 1966, the group resolved to test the president’s commitment to including the Magnolia State. While at the White House for the annual Governors’ Conference, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania assembled the other Appalachian governors and approached the president in the Rose Garden. First, Scranton proposed, Congress could include counties in west Alabama and Tennessee—counties originally excluded for lack of mountainous terrain—in order to extend Appalachia to the Mississippi state line. Then, in a quid pro quo, fourteen counties of Western and Central New York would join Appalachia alongside twenty counties from North Mississippi. Lyndon Johnson approved. He left the particulars to the Conference of Appalachian Governors, who met at the Greenbrier resort on December 16, 1966. There, surrounded by ridges of West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, the governors welcomed mountainless Mississippi to Appalachia.18

Blue Ridge Mountains panorama showing Grandfather Mountain and Hawksbill Mountain, near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, July 12, 2017. Photograph from Michael Koenig/Alamy.

With the President’s blessing, Pound prepared for the political theater of congressional hearings. On January 24, 1967, Pound appeared before the Senate Committee on Public Works. Both of Mississippi’s senators, John Stennis and James Eastland, attended and announced their cosponsorship of the bill. Eastland called Pound “an expert” on the Appalachian question. And Pound recited his common claim: “The counties in the hill section of Northeastern Mississippi are in the Appalachian terrain, or are contiguous to the Appalachian Region, and share the social and economic characteristics of the southern portion of the Region.”19

Mississippi’s lawmakers used fraudulent—even juvenile—evidence to support their case. To assist the state’s absurd claim to mountainous topography and culture, Pound submitted an altered map into evidence. Reproduced from Rand McNally’s Texaco Touring Atlas (1966), it showed the hills and ridges of East Tennessee and North Alabama flowing seamlessly into North Mississippi, stopping just short of the Mississippi-Yazoo alluvial Delta.20

During rebuttal, Appalachian Republicans challenged Mississippi’s revisionist geography. Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper unfurled a topographical map of the Appalachian region from the US Geological Survey. “The Appalachian Region has always been recognized as an area characterized by mountains, high hills, and rugged terrain,” he urged the committee. “The purposes of the Appalachian Redevelopment Act are largely directed to the human consequence of this physical geography.” Cooper’s map showed the Appalachian terrain terminating south of Birmingham, Alabama—well east of the border with Mississippi. Additional counties diluted the ARC’s power to redistribute tax dollars to the mountain South, he argued. His objection was entered into the record without comment.21

On May 10, 1967, Pound had his turn before the House of Representatives. One Florida Republican asked why the Tombigbee Valley sought inclusion in the Appalachian program instead of the Economic Development Administration’s program for the Mississippi Delta. “You do not think that these eastern counties could properly come within the delta designated area?” he asked. Blindsided, Pound responded that “the people in the delta counties do not think like the people in the hill sections of northern Mississippi.” As Pound came even closer to describing the contrast in terms of race, Congressman Jamie Whitten, from Itawamba County, Mississippi, cut in. Whitten stated that both the Delta’s “problems” and “terrain” were “completely different.” The Democratic majority overcame vocal opposition to vote the bill out of committee.22

During floor debate, the notion of Appalachian Mississippi provided fodder for opponents of the War on Poverty. House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford decried a program that once targeted a coherent region. “With this type of thinking,” Ford said, “you could conceivably expand the Appalachian program to all 50 states. I don’t think the federal budget can afford such an expansion.” No amount of legislating could change the fact that Mississippi stood “outside Appalachia.”23

Losses in the recent midterm election stoked reservations about funding Johnson’s War on Poverty among Democrats. But after significant horse-trading and promises of money next time, the Democratic caucus came into line. North Mississippi joined Appalachia when Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation on October 11, 1967.24

Promotional photograph of singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry, circa 1970, at the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi, featured in her song “Ode to Billie Joe.” Photograph from Pictorial Press/Alamy.

Meanwhile, Mississippi’s singers provided a soundtrack for the state’s transition to Appalachia. The efforts of white Mississippi’s ruling class accompanied a peculiar shift in popular culture, much of which radiated distinctly from white artists with roots in North Mississippi. To distant audiences, Mississippi’s sonic imagination was upturned after Jim Crow. Music executives had “segregated sound” for decades, cordoning off racialized blues music and hillbilly music through the inventions of genre and marketing. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mississippi added chart-topping country music to its national repertoire for the first time since the days of Jimmie Rodgers. Coming at roughly the same time the state joined Appalachia, this shift in the cultural landscape proved to be as important as the geographic chicanery of elected officials.25

Over the same period, visual depictions of the everyday South became overwhelmingly white. As Sara K. Eskridge argues in Rube Tube, her history of rural comedy on CBS, studio executives sought to produce a “race-free South.” This televised white utopia simultaneously insulated television networks from charges of promoting racial egalitarianism (read Communism) and provided an escape for prejudiced white viewers in urban centers. In particular, television programming drew on the mountain South as a homogenous white rural culture. Hit shows leapt through Appalachian time and space: The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Waltons, The Dukes of Hazzard. Even Mississippi-born Jim Henson’s Muppets went country. In a feature-length holiday special, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a family of poor rural otters took in laundry to make ends meet. Emmet Otter spent his free time playing bluegrass music.26

North Mississippi was overrepresented in this cultural shift. Tammy Wynette, who grew up in Itawamba County, struck gold with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand by Your Man,” leveraging her experiences of rural poverty and white womanhood to become the “First Lady of Country Music.” Likewise, a reborn Elvis Presley changed his entire musical persona from race music to country music when he recorded the album Elvis Country. Seeking a return to the entertainer’s roots, the album’s cover art reproduced a photo of the Tupelo native with his parents during the Depression. The album signaled one of Presley’s final comebacks. When he met Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, The King disparaged the counterculture and promised the president, “I’m on your side.”27

Easily forgotten among such storied careers was a singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1942. She released her first studio album as Bobbie Gentry in 1967. Gentry’s first and only hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” spent a month of the Summer of Love at number one on the Billboard charts—while Congress debated Mississippi’s membership in Appalachia. It ranked third in popularity for the entire year and earned Gentry three Grammy awards. Today, Rolling Stone ranks her ballad in the top fifty country songs of all time. But listeners in 1967 were less sure of the song’s genre. Was it folk, R&B, southern soul? That “Ode to Billie Joe” can now unquestionably be counted among country hits illustrates the very success of cultural campaigns that recoded the southern countryside as poor and white after Jim Crow.28

In fact, when Gentry sat down to write “Ode to Billie Joe” in early 1967, she did so not in Mississippi but in California. With philosophy classes from UCLA and a childhood in Chickasaw County to draw on, she combined a set of Southern Gothic tropes. The eponymous Billie Joe McAllister commits suicide when he “jump[s] off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” The narrator’s farming father dies from “a virus”; her mother survives, listless. Unable to stay on the land or preserve his agricultural birthright, the narrator’s brother marries and moves to Tupelo. Even the song’s haunting minor falls (added by record producers) drip with a sense of decrepitude and decline.29

Like Appalachian Mississippi, Gentry’s song signaled race and place incidentally. It epitomized a growing genre of simultaneous Black cultural appropriation and erasure. Gentry’s voice is gravelly, her dialect exaggeratedly country. Although a modern listener might speculate about whether she adopted a Black accent, Gentry’s music was racially ambiguous to radio listeners in 1967. Fans called djs. They had to know whether she was white or Black. When confronted with the question in an interview with the New York Times, she replied curtly, “I don’t sing white or colored. I sing southern.” In claiming to sing “southern,” Gentry imagined a new South into being (even from her home in California) and gave new meaning to that place, not unlike Thompson Pound and white lawmakers did with Appalachia. Read generously, Gentry’s statement breaks down the South’s Jim Crow racial distinctions, allowing that southern culture was neither exclusively white nor Black. But by downplaying the white roots of her southern art, she also joined the cultural movement to sell the South as color-blind and free of racial hierarchy. Seemingly unaware that she was helping to create a white southern dreamscape and voice, she claimed the benefits and prerogatives of whiteness.30

And then what to make of that Tallahatchie River Bridge?

True, the two hundred-mile-long Tallahatchie River had many bridges from which the fictional Billie Joe McAllister might have jumped. But when photographers with Time magazine followed Bobbie Gentry home in November 1967, the artist led them to the bridge in Money, Mississippi. Jacket thrown over shoulder, she strode across the river in which J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant weighed down Emmett Till’s body with a cotton gin fan after abducting, torturing, and murdering the fourteen-year-old in August 1955. Whether conscious or oblivious, Gentry trivialized a site of exceptional racial terror and protest for her art. Her cryptic ode to southern tragedy invited listeners to wonder about Billie Joe, not the river below.31

Regardless of the artist’s intent, Bobbie Gentry’s hit single accomplished something for those who needed to efface Mississippi’s histories of Black freedom struggle and white racial terror. In “Ode to Billie Joe,” she gave an anthem for the color-blind rapprochement politics that followed massive white resistance. In 1967, Mississippi’s white ruling class needed neither the overt Confederate symbology of segregationists nor the Southern Strategy’s dog whistles to assimilate into national politics. They only needed poor Billie Joe to distract from evidence of a violent past that white men once tried to bury in the Tallahatchie River.

US 278 near Pontotoc, Mississippi, September 3, 2011, by Ken Lund.

Bobbie Gentry’s cryptic “Ode to Billie Joe” resonated with segregationists’ evasive response to the Civil Rights Movement and the use of the Black communities’ War on Poverty funding. These combined efforts to reimagine whiteness after Jim Crow corresponded to what W. E. B. Du Bois memorably described as “a sort of public and psychological wage” that accompanied whiteness after the Civil War and chattel slavery. Poor and working-class white people, he argued, came to rely on their social and legal superiority instead of organizing collectively with their Black neighbors against the propertied class of white southerners. More apt for the elite project to invent Appalachian Mississippi after the fall of Jim Crow is another Du Boisian formulation: “Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”32

While Appalachian Mississippi’s first star sang on the radio, its politicians reshaped the earth. They succeeded in fabricating the state’s topographical kinship with a white-coded mountain South. Unwilling to cede economic control of Black communities or to forsake federal dollars, they falsified maps and disassociated with the struggles of poor Black residents. In effect scaling up Pound’s idea of a “living history park,” lawmakers created and celebrated a white cultural geography that silenced the region’s agricultural history of racial slavery and sharecropping. Meanwhile, Gentry claimed what it meant to “sing southern.”

But beyond the “public and psychological,” Appalachification also paid a material wage. It allowed state lawmakers to skirt federally funded racial reform in the pivotal years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Segregationists circumvented the War on Poverty’s required participation of low-income and minority residents by creating an alternate route to federal dollars. The Appalachian Regional Commission’s grant process originated and ended with elected officials. It funded entirely different projects from the Office of Economic Opportunity; it funded the dreams of local white institutions and planners. And if the ARC helped lift any poor or working-class white Mississippians out of poverty, it did so incidentally—and only after redistributing American wealth through the region’s white power brokers.

The ARC redirected almost $300 million in federal tax revenue to North Mississippi in less than twenty years. Instead of funding Black-owned agricultural cooperatives, childcare, or community improvement for segregated neighborhoods, it built watersport recreation areas, highways, and historical landmarks to celebrate white settlers who dispossessed native Chickasaws and enslaved people of African descent. On maps and through the built environment, politicians rewrote the region’s history and decreed its future.33

In North Mississippi, Jim Crow’s parting shot was the weaponization of Appalachia against Black community movements with their own historical and political imaginations. One local Black activist, John Buffington, felt this earthquake and fought to reclaim his local civil rights movement’s cultural and political footing. With funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Buffington launched a vast oral history project. His community’s objective: to document the lives of former Black sharecroppers.34

In November 1967, college students at Mary Holmes College in West Point, Mississippi, recorded the Sharecropper Oral History Project’s first interviews—just one month after Lyndon Johnson admitted the Magnolia State to Appalachia. As the ARC disbursed its first grants to the pet projects of ruling whites—seven industrial parks and five airports—interviewers investigated the legacies of plantation cotton monoculture in their part of the Black Belt. They sought, in other words, to preserve the human cost and indignities of the plantation cotton economy while a new culture of whiteness fought to erase their home’s history of racialized exploitation. Speaking with Black residents born as early as the 1870s, college-age interviewers rediscovered that past.35

With the creation of Appalachian Mississippi, segregationists imagined and realized both an escape from the offensive whiteness of the past and a path around the War on Poverty. But the promise of Black community empowerment—the possibility to self-define remembrance and repair—lived on in grassroots organizing and truth-telling. The survival of the Sharecropper Oral History Project is only one reminder that Mississippi’s white Appalachians may have owned the earth, but they could never own the past.

This is the real vision of inequality behind Appalachian Mississippi—an old idea that took new form and a new sound after Jim Crow.

Driving the eighty miles from the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money to Bobbie Gentry’s home in Woodland, you’d be hard-pressed to know when you enter Appalachian Mississippi. No sign greets you as you leave the Delta. And contrary to any forged map, there are still no mountains on your horizon. Forest gives way to farmland gives way to town and repeats. If you stopped and asked anyone how it felt to live in Appalachia, they’d laugh. Appalachian Mississippi remains the secret a few people held among themselves in the 1960s but never bothered to tell anyone else.

But maybe on that road from Money to Woodland you find that you’re the only car on a four-lane divided road—not an interstate but big enough to be. You might catch sight of a small blue sign reading simply “Appalachian Highway.” Only then does it become clear. You’re not in Appalachia. You’re on it, as quotidian and unquestioned as the infrastructure on which you travel. Today, the reality of the Appalachian Regional Commission masks the radical democratic alternative imagined by North Mississippi’s Black freedom movements—a world that might have been. Instead of a landscape dotted with publicly funded housing, farming cooperatives, and childcare facilities, we have militarized police forces and a landscape marked with prisons and jails. This is the real vision of inequality behind Appalachian Mississippi—an old idea that took new form and a new sound after Jim Crow.

This essay first appeared in the Imaginary South issue (vol. 26, no. 4: Winter 2020).

Justin Randolph is assistant professor of history at Texas State University, where he teaches US, southern, and oral history. He’s currently writing a book on Black freedom movements and the police in rural Mississippi from Jim Crow to mass incarceration.NOTES

  1. Between 1968 and 1987, the Appalachian Regional Commission facilitated federal grants totaling $280,528,951 to North Mississippi; the ARC provided $135,757,850 alone. This data came courtesy of Kostas C. Skordas, director, Division of Planning and Research, ARC, spreadsheet in author’s possession, August 1, 2017.
  2. Annelise Orleck, “Introduction: The War on Poverty from the Grass Roots Up,” in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980, ed. Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), esp. 2; Crystal R. Sanders, A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Greta de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920), 30.
  4. “NAACP Favors Adding Counties to Appalachia,” Daily News (Jackson, MS), January 26, 1967; John B. Eubanks to Thomas G. Abernethy, July 24, 1967, box 152, folder 152.2, Thomas G. Abernethy Collection, Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi (hereafter cited as Abernethy Collection); Clarence Wright, “Black Appalachian Invisibility—Myth or Reality?” Black Appalachian Viewpoints 1, no. 1 (August 1973): 1–3; Jack Guillebeaux, “Not Just Whites in Appalachia,” in Blacks in Appalachia, ed. William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 207–210; Jillean McCommons, “Appalachian Hillsides as Black Ecologies: Housing, Memory, and the Sanctified Hill Disaster of 1972,” Black Perspectives (blog), June 16, 2020, See the Mary Holmes College Sharecropper Oral Histories Collection, MSS 669, 1969–1972, Manuscript Division, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University, Starkville, Mississippi.
  5. “Who Sold Our Birthright to Appalachicola?” editorial, Daily News (Tupelo, MS), January 24, 1964; J. S. South et al., to Abernethy, August 15, 1966, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection.
  6. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 40–43. For an extended commentary on the idea of Appalachia, see Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia (Cleveland, OH: Belt, 2018).
  7. Appalachia: A Report by the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission, 1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), ii–1, of the Congressional Record, vol. 111, February 1965 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965), S1682; Digest of the Congressional Record, vol. 111, February 1965 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965), S1682, H3930. For a graphic representation of voting, see “To pass S. 3, the Appalachian Regional Development,” Department of Political Science, UCLA Social Sciences Division, Voteview, accessed September 8, 2020,; and “To pass S. 3, the Appalachian Regional Development,” Department of Political Science, UCLA Social Sciences Division, Voteview, accessed September 8, 2020,
  8. Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965, Pub. L. 89–4 (1965), Association of Centers for the Study of Congress, accessed September 8, 2020,
  9. Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965.
  10. Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965.
  11. William D. Webb to Abernethy, March 13, 1965, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection.
  12. Abernethy to Webb, March 16, 1965, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection.
  13. See folder: Thompson Pound – Personal, box 4; and folder: Personal 1966 file, box 1, Pound (Thompson) Collection, Manuscript Division, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS (hereafter cited as Pound Collection).
  14. Thompson Pound to Eugene P. Foley, January 14, 1966, report titled “Pontotoc Recreational & Tourist Attraction Development Project,” box 49, folder 6, James O. Eastland Collection, Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS (hereafter cited as Eastland Collection).
  15. Pound to Foley, Eastland Collection.
  16. Thompson Pound to Thomas G. Abernethy, April 26, 1966, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection; Thompson Pound to Paul B. Johnson Jr., March 11, 1966, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection; Thompson Pound to Paul B. Johnson Jr., August 9, 1966, box 152, folder 152.2, Abernethy Collection.
  17. Johnson to J. Millard Tawes, October 25, 1966, Abernethy Collection; Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  18. Wilburn Buckley to Otis Crocker, December 22, 1966, box 30, series 3, subseries 4, folder 4, Eastland Collection; Pound to Buckley, December 21, 1966, box 30, series 3, subseries 4, folder 4, Eastland Collection; James O. Eastland, John C. Stennis et al., to John L. Sweeney et al., January 3, 1967, box 30, series 3, subseries 4, folder 4, Eastland Collection; An Act to Revise and Extend the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965, Pub. L. 90-103, 81 Stat. 257 (1967),
  19. Thompson Pound, “A Report for Consideration by the United States Senate …,” January 24, 1967, box 1, folder: Private, Pound Collection.
  20. For Pound’s original copy of the atlas, with only a line circumscribing the proposed ARC region, see box 10, folder: Report to Governor Johnson Relative to Miss. Participating in the Appalachian Program, Pound Collection. Compare to the map Pound sent to elected officials and eventually submitted to supplement his congressional testimony in 1967, box 30, series 3, subseries 4, folder 4, Eastland Collection. The original map, in color, accentuates the forgery, see Richard Dunlop, Texaco Touring Atlas by Rand McNally: United States, Canada, Mexico (Chicago: Texaco, 1966), 6–7.
  21. Hearings before a Special Subcommittee on Economic Development of the Committee on Public Works, United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, on S. 602 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1967), January 24, 1967, 34–45; February 3, 1967, 470–472.
  22. Hearings before the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Appalachia of the Committee on Public Works, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, on H.R. 4446 and Related Bills (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1967), May 10, 1967, 177–193.
  23. “Ford Is Opposed to Appalachia Bid,” Medill News Service, Delta Democrat Times (Greenville, MS), April 10, 1967.
  24. G. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot, “The End of the Liberal Hour,” chap. 8 in The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (New York: Penguin, 2008); Lyndon Johnson, phone call, August 7, 1964, Secret White House Tapes, Miller Center, University of Virginia, accessed September 8, 2020,
  25. Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
  26. Sara K. Eskridge, Rube Tube: CBS and Rural Comedy in the Sixties (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018), chap. 6. For Emmet Otter, see, for example, “Barbecue – Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas – The Jim Henson Company,” Jim Henson Company, December 15, 2010, YouTube video, 1:48,
  27. Peter Carlson, “When Elvis Met Nixon,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010,
  28. Billboard, “Hot 100–1967 Archive,” accessed September 24, 2018, Stone, “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time,” June 1, 2014,
  29. Tara Murtha, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 49–55.
  30. Jeff Guo, “How Iggy Azalea Mastered Her Blaccent,” Washington Post, January 4, 2016,; Gentry interview by Robert Windeler in “Song Is Southern but the Message Is Universal; Bobbie Gentry Reaches Top with ‘Ballad of Billy Joe,’” New York Times, August 23, 1967, 36.
  31. Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017); “Down Home with Bobbie Gentry,” Time, November 10, 1967, 99–101.
  32. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), 688; Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” 30; Ella Myers, “Beyond the Psychological Wage: Du Bois on White Dominion,” Political Theory 47, no. 1 (February 2019): 6–31.
  33. The ARC paid over $100,000 to the restoration of the Old Tishomingo County Courthouse at Jacinto, Mississippi, in the 1970s. Skordas, spreadsheet.
  34. Data came courtesy of the NEH Office of Communications, January 5, 2018,; and
  35. Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 371; Clarence M. Simmons, “Black Studies” (lecture, 4th Colloquium of the Oral History Association, Berkeley, CA, 1970), audio, track two, in University of North Texas Digital Library, accessed September 8, 2020, See the Mary Holmes College Sharecropper Oral Histories Collection.
Subscribe today!

One South, a world of stories. Delivered in four print issues a year.