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Thank Goodness for Mississippi

• Mary Laura Bragg

I am a proud Mississippian. Always have been, always will be. I am quick to defend my much-maligned state, which means I spend a lot of time pushing back on ignorant pre-conceived notions that are rarely grounded in fact and usually assumed from film. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “thank goodness for Mississippi” when some national ranking came out and their state wasn’t dead last, I would be as rich as Oprah Winfrey (who, by the way, is from Mississippi.)  
But I’m just as quick to own up to our ugly, raw, and shameful past. We own it, we own up to it, and we don’t pretend like it didn’t happen.  
We are all familiar with the story of James Meredith, who, in 1962 was the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. He had been denied admission twice before the US Supreme Court ruled that he had a right to attend. He was blocked again in September, and finally on October 1, 1962, he was allowed to enroll. Pictures from that day show the crowds of students lined up to protest, while federal troops tried to keep order. 
But very few people know that six months later, the Mississippi State University men’s basketball team snuck out of the state in the middle of the night – thumbing their noses at a court injunction – to play Loyola in the second round of the NCAA tourney in 1963. Even though State was the SEC champion in 1959, 1961, and 1962, they were forced to decline invitations to the tourney for those years because they would potentially have to face teams with black players. The unspoken rule was that teams in Mississippi were not going to play integrated teams, period. (Which meant Kentucky played in Mississippi State’s place in each tournament.)
Yes, I am a Mississippi State fan, and therefore NOT a fan of the University of Mississippi.  But the events could have just as easily happened at either university. The point is: there are many examples from that time of “what the powers-that-be in Mississippi are doing is wrong, and we refuse to sit back and watch it happen.”  Those moments rarely get reported because the atrocities were so bad.
But I am going to talk about the good in my state. 
Did you know the first ever heart transplant and the first ever lung transplant were performed in Mississippi?
Do you like root beer?  Ever used Pine Sol to clean your house?  Both invented in Mississippi. Thankgoodness for that.
Have a Viking Range in your kitchen? Or a Peavey amplifier for your guitar? Thank goodness for Mississippi.
Like Coca Cola out of the bottle? Thank goodness for Mississippi.
Did you or do your kids participate in 4-H? Thank goodness for Mississippi.
Like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and all the other Muppets? Thank goodness for Mississippi.
Was Gunter your favorite character on Friends? TGFM.
Ever use FEDex? Yep, TGFM.
Was Gretchen Wieners your favorite Mean Girl?  TGFM.
Think MTV was a brilliant idea?  TGFM.
Love Morgan Freeman as the Count on Electric Company and as God in Bruce Almighty, but love him even more as Red in The Shawshank Redemption?  TGFM.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Okay just one more.
Love the voice of Darth Vader? TGFM.
What state opened the first state college for women?  Had the first planned system of junior colleges?  Birthed the PTA?  Yep, that’s us, y’all.
Which leads me to why I am particularly proud of Mississippi this week. Under the leadership of Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, Senators Gray Tollison and Angela Hill, and many other legislators, Mississippi First, MS Center for Public Policy and countless champions of children, historic changes have happened.  Thanks to these education reformers, the state now owns it, owns up to it and will no longer pretend that the education system in the state is just fine.  The reforms that passed  on April 3 — with support from both sides of the aisle — are the first step in owning up to the ugly truth that the state has consistently failed millions of children over the past 50 years. 
Mississippi children will now have the benefit of solid reading instruction in kindergarten through third grade, so that they can be successful in 4th grade and beyond, or given more time to develop reading skills if they aren’t ready.
Mississippi parents living in low-performing districts will, for the first time, be given an opportunity to send their children to a charter school, should they choose to do so. And parents will know which schools and districts are low-performing because of the transparent way that state will calculate A-F school grades. 
Mississippi teachers in four districts will be the beneficiaries of a merit pay pilot program based on how their students perform.
There is more work to be done.  But one thing is for sure – Mississippi has made the commitment to ensuring that students in the Magnolia State will reach their God-given potential.  Education reformers around the nation are saying, “Thank Goodness for Mississippi!”

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at