Before the Civil War, when cotton was king and slavery remained unchallenged, MISSISSIPPI was the nation’s fifth wealthiest state. Since the conflict, it has consistently been the poorest, its dependence on cotton a handicap that leaves it victim to the vagaries of the commodities market. The state has an undeniable pull, especially for blues fans, drawn to sleepy Delta settlements such as Alligator or Yazoo City – a land of scorching sun, parched earth, flooding creeks and thickets of bone-dry evergreens. Clarksdale is heaven for music fans, with its juke joints, festivals and atmospheric accommodation. South of the Delta, the rich woodlands and meadows of central Mississippi are heralded by steep loess bluffs, home to engaging historic towns. Driving is a pleasure, especially along the unspoiled Natchez Trace Parkway – devoid of trucks, buildings and neon signs. The largest city is the capital, Jackson, but there’s little reason to stop here when you could stay in quaint river towns like Vicksburg and Natchez instead. In the north, literary Oxford has a lively college scene and should not be missed; Elvis fans should make a beeline for Tupelo and the King’s humble birthplace.
From Reconstruction onwards, Mississippi was known as the greatest bastion of segregation in the South. It witnessed some of the most notorious incidents of the civil rights era, from the lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955 to the murder of three activists during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, which exposed the intimate connections between the Ku Klux Klan and the state’s law enforcement officers. Not until the Seventies did the church bombings and murders end. The legalization of gambling in the 1990s stimulated the economy somewhat, with the hulking casinos of Biloxi and Tunica pulling considerable revenues across the state line from Tennessee and Alabama. The Gulf shoreline suffered appalling devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, however, and though most of the casinos had reopened, the coast was still undergoing reconstruction when hit by the BP oil spill in 2010.