Bare-Knuckle Gentility

Every summer, but especially in off-year election seasons like this one, the Mississippi state capitol moves to a dusty fairground in Neshoba County. The unofficial...
by | September 30, 2007

Every summer, but especially in off-year election seasons like this one, the Mississippi state capitol moves to a dusty fairground in Neshoba County. The unofficial seat of government is on the outskirts of Philadelphia, off a two-lane rural highway, behind a small Baptist church and cemetery. The livestock displays are just through the fair's main gate, next to the stables where horses with names like Gun for Hire and Battery Operated prepare for harness racing on a nearby red-dirt track.

The politicians come ready to run, too. Their arena is in the center of this temporary village, past spinning midway rides and fried-food vendors, where families and friends bunk up for the week in crammed cabins painted in bright blues, reds and yellows. Space and privacy are scarce, but political gossip is plentiful. Campaign signs hang from nearly every porch, utility pole and tree. And in the middle of it all, on a wide sawdust-covered square, is a tin-roof pavilion where a century's worth of lore lives in the raucous throngs who gather to eat up campaign speeches and roar at the tart-tongued exchanges between candidates.

At this year's fair, it was Governor Haley Barbour who delivered the zinger they'll be talking about in Neshoba for years. Barbour, a popular Republican who is heavily favored for reelection, came to the microphone just after his opponent had spoken to the hooting, stomping crowd. Supporters of Democrat John Arthur Eaves Jr. made a good showing for their candidate but were outnumbered by the governor's troops. This was Barbour country.

Eaves had laid into Barbour for his lobbying ties to "the moneychangers of big oil, big insurance and big tobacco." The Democrat, perhaps aware that his divorce and recent re-marriage to an attractive advertising executive may not play well with conservative voters, also went out of his way to emphasize his anti-abortion beliefs and Christian values.

Barbour, seeming to sense his opponent's vulnerability, began his speech by introducing his wife of 35 years. He then veered from his prepared remarks with an acidic line aimed straight at Eaves' family-values credentials. "I got my trophy wife the first time around," Barbour said, setting off a minor firestorm that made headlines as far away as Washington.

The Neshoba County Fair has always been known for this kind of bare-knuckle gentility. Every Mississippi governor since 1896 has come to Neshoba to address the fairgoers, as has just about every other notable politician in the state. Occasionally, national figures show up, too. When Ronald Reagan launched his general election campaign in 1980, he came to Neshoba to do it. Reagan delivered now-legendary remarks about states' rights that rallied the crowd but rankled his opponents, who pointed out that it had been only 16 years since three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County and found buried at a farm not far from the fairgrounds. History always seems close by, which is why the fair is not just a civic tradition but a reflection of Mississippi's own contentious past and the South's evolving politics.

Other states and communities have similar fairs and festivities, steeped in their own quirky politics. Few serious candidates for president bypass the butter sculptures and glad-handing of the Iowa state fair in advance of the critical party caucuses there. Likewise, any candidate counting on votes from the Florida panhandle would be foolish to ignore an invitation to the Wausau possum festival, where locals delight in watching ambitious pols wrangle marsupials while trying not to get bitten.

What distinguishes the Neshoba fair is the length and seriousness of its political agenda, which this year included nearly 80 speakers over three days. Almost every candidate for statewide and local office, from lieutenant governor to county tax collector, was scheduled to speak and schmooze. In an era of high-tech electioneering, with its automated calling centers, online fundraising, voter registration databases and targeted TV buys, the county fair is a reminder that turning the right phrase and shaking the right hands still matters an awful lot in state and local politics.

At the same time, the fair has had to evolve as technology - in particular, the way the media cover the event - has changed. The Neshoba County Fair isn't quite the same now as when it began in 1889. But one thing remains the same: In the steamy days of late July, there is no place this state's political class would rather be than the place they call "Mississippi's giant house party."


As a teenager 46 years ago, Gloria Williamson was crowned with a tiara and named Miss Neshoba County. Now a state senator, Williamson has delivered nine speeches at the fair since she first ran and won office in 1999. If Williamson is a familiar face around the fair, she is also something of a rarity in this part of the state these days - she's an unapologetic Democrat. As she and her family prepared to host a lunch for other Democrats at their three-story yellow cabin overlooking the horse track, Williamson joked about her party's fortunes in the county where she grew up. "This is the only place they can eat," Williamson said, pointing to signs for Republican candidates on the surrounding cabins. "There are Democrats here. They're just too chicken to admit it."

Williamson is no chicken, nor is she sheepish about her party identification. That might be why Republicans have targeted her district this year in hopes of growing the GOP's narrow Senate majority. It also may be why she and her challenger drew a decent crowd when it was their turn to speak to fairgoers.

Republican Giles Ward spoke first, addressing the audience for his allotted 10 minutes while Williamson waited, fanning herself in a wooden seat along the wall behind the podium. She listened as Ward decried lawmakers who "haven't got a clue" about their constituents' beliefs and promised to "truly reflect your values" if elected. When a red light in the rafters signaled that Ward's time was up, the two candidates shook hands and Williamson approached the microphone.

The senator at the podium sounded like a classic Southern populist. She jabbed her finger in the air while trumpeting her support for local farmers and timber interests. She emphasized issues she was sure would appeal to her "kin folk," saying, "Do not let people tell you that just because I am a woman I'm against guns." But she also was unrepentant about other positions. "Call me a liberal," she proclaimed. "I've been called a lot of names....I'm used to it, so it doesn't bother me."

Back when Williamson was entering pageants, Democrats dominated the Neshoba fair. Its significance owed a great deal to the fair's timing, just ahead of the Democratic primary in early August. As in much of the old South, the winner of a Democratic primary was almost certain to carry the day in November. Now Neshoba is a solidly Republican county, and its fair is a microcosm of Mississippi's shift, and that of much of the South, from blue to red.

This year at the fair, the shift in Mississippi's allegiances showed in the lopsided number of signs for Barbour and other candidates from his party. It also showed in the size of the crowd at Pete Perry's cabin, a gathering point for top Republicans. Perry, a lobbyist from Jackson who grew up in Philadelphia, easily remembered a time when the fair was "a real Democratic institution" and "there were few other Republicans around" - even in his own family. Many in Perry's family are still Democrats. His mother, Lallah, made that clear enough in a conversation on the porch of her own nearby cabin. "I did my best," she said of her son's politics, sighing.

But as Pete's sister, Margaret, added, the fair's changing politics may not be quite as dramatic as it seems. "It's a change of title," she said. "It's the same point of view." And that point of view, expressed in campaign speech after campaign speech over three days, was conservative, with a heavy emphasis on abortion, gay rights, guns, illegal immigration and taxes - regardless of which party label the speaker wore.

While the fair is no longer a Democratic institution, it remains a predominantly white institution. Since cabins on the fairgrounds often pass from one generation to the next, the fair's complexion has changed little from the days when governors were cheered for proclaiming segregationist views. But dismissing the gathering simply as a holdover from a less tolerant time would ignore the progressive political candidates who also made bold stands for racial harmony in Neshoba County. One such politician was William F. Winter, a change-minded Democrat and frequent fair speaker. In one fair speech, a decade before his election as governor in 1980, Winter challenged state leaders to "raise the sights of people instead of playing to their fears and doubts."


Neshoba County may be the only place in the United States where one could schedule six dozen political speeches and still have a crowd that outnumbered the speakers. For the thousands of fairgoers who came to listen this election year, the hours and hours of oratory were an attraction - much like the musical acts, midway rides and harness racing that draw other attendees. As Jim Eastland, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, put it half a century ago, "The Neshoba County Fair is the only place I know of where politicians and the horses are running at the same time, and it's hard to tell which ones are running the hardest."

Standing out in such a large crowd of speakers has always been a challenge. A dark-horse candidate once literally rode to the podium on a black horse. Another frequent speaker, former Governor Ross R. Barnett, often played guitar and sang folksy songs. Neither matched the fair antics of Dick Molpus in 1983, when the Democrat was one of nine candidates running for secretary of state. When it was his turn to address the crowd Molpus arranged for a group of majorettes to appear on stage with him, flipping up their skirts at the end of their routine to reveal letters on each of their rears spelling out the candidate's name. Conservative though the crowd was, Molpus knew his audience would eat it up. "I understood the culture," the Philadelphia native said.

Candidates rarely debate each other directly at the Neshoba fair, as Molpus and Governor Kirk Fordice did in 1995. But as a lengthy history of the fair compiled by Steven H. Stubbs makes clear, there has been no shortage of confrontations. In 1941, Governor Paul B. Johnson Sr. nearly got in a fistfight with the owner of a Gulfport newspaper. In an earlier showdown, U.S. Senator John Sharp Williams was challenged by a citizen, who asked if it was true that "during a recent debate in the Senate, you rose to speak and were so drunk you couldn't stand on your own two feet."

"It's a lie!" the senator answered. "If you want to know the truth, I was so drunk on that particular day that I never even got to the United States Senate."

In this light, Barbour's "trophy wife" dig fits a long tradition of verbal jousting at the fair. The butt of the governor's joke, Eaves' second wife, Angel, told reporters at the fair that she could not offer Barbour a lady-like response. But later in the afternoon, Eaves' aides confided that the snipe was probably good for their candidate - it was one of the first times the governor had paid much attention to his challenger.

When candidates finish speechifying, their attention turns to hobnobbing at the family cabins, where the house parties run well into the night. Sweaty politicians march from porch to porch, hands extended, introducing themselves and asking for votes. The impressions candidates make here are as critical as the ones they make at the podium. Several longtime fairgoers and politicos reminisced about a disastrous appearance by Charles L. Sullivan, who came to campaign in an immaculate white suit only to get caught in a summer deluge. "The man had to roll up his pants," Williamson remembered, laughing at the image more than three decades later.


Whether any of the quips and slips at the fair matter as much as they once did is hard to say, now that so much of the politicking is carefully staged for the press. After the candidates in the highest-profile races finish their speeches, they exit the pavilion stage through a back door and step down five wooden steps into a mob of reporters, photographers and TV cameramen. A phalanx of supporters, armed with yard signs handed out by campaign aides, quickly form a backdrop, just to make sure that the candidate's name appears in any shot the television crews choose to use. Some candidates also wander to the far side of the pavilion, where Supertalk Mississippi, a statewide talk radio network, broadcasts live from the fair daily.

The 84-year-old man sitting on the porch behind the Supertalk booth, reading a newspaper, played a big role in bringing electronic media to the fair. William Howard Cole launched local radio station WHOC-AM in 1948 and quickly made plans to broadcast from the fairgrounds. "We strung eight miles of telephone line from here to Philadelphia," Cole said, marveling at the amount of media working the square in front of his family's cabin this year. When Reagan made his visit 27 years ago, power was in short supply for all the TV crews that traveled with him. "You had to get your name in the pot early," Cole said.

These days, the fair is far more connected. A temporary cell tower erected in the parking lot provided mobile phone coverage for pols, press and regular folk. Jim Prince, the editor and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, sat in front of his cabin, logged in to his office with a laptop and a wireless modem, grumbling about signal strength. But plenty of newspaper editors and reporters were wired well enough to sustain continuous online blogs on the fair's festivities.

Can a fair-wide Wi-Fi computer network be far behind?

The technological and media revolution will no doubt make its mark on the Neshoba County Fair, just as electricity and running water did. But the fair itself will adjust. Some form of the quaint politics that has drawn so many politicians here for more than 100 summers will live on.

Just look at what the fair has been through already.