Rising tides in the Old South

Change: A Mississippi city deeply rooted in conservatism is propelled into a faster, high-tech world, creating a cultural divide among the people of Jackson

Listening to the New America

July 17, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JACKSON, Miss. - It was a meeting of the minds of a New Mississippi, the interim chief of the state's public broadcasting system stranded in the Atlanta airport for five hours last June with a technology wizard from Jackson's electronic paging giant, SkyTel.

Eleven months later, with a fresh round of financing and an infectious, New Economy confidence, South African-born Jef Judin and Indian-born Jae Bhagat had launched Air2LAN, determined that a technology to link computers to the Internet via radio waves would become the next fabulous success story of a once-sleepy city filling with high-tech fortunes.

"There is a definite sense of `Move on. It's time for a change,'" said Judin, an Emmy Award-winning television producer thankful for his successes and buoyant about the future of high technology. "This is a new Mississippi."

Eddie and Patricia Daigle are not so sure, though they sit, trim and healthy in their middle age, sipping iced cafe mochas in the trendy new Gravity Gallery and Coffeehousein the Jackson suburb of Clinton.

Yes, the 1990s were good to them and their community, they concede, though they would never give Washington credit. The stratospheric rise of communications powerhouse WorldCom, based in their small town, has plied the region with wealth and opportunity.

But they sound rueful, at times angry, as they speak of "government controls," the "filthy business" of politics - and, of course, Bill Clinton, a man who Patricia said "motivates us to violence."

"We need to turn this country around," said Eddie Daigle, bathed in a soft glow from the track lighting above, easy jazz floating into his ears, "back to a Christian country. We need to put God back in this country."

The remarkable economic successes of the 1990s have transformed quiet, once distinctive small towns into glittering suburbs, converted rundown city centers into high-priced urban meccas and spread a homogeneous, often crass, consumer culture into the farthest reaches of the United States.

But few places have experienced the cultural and economic clashes that have buffeted Jackson, Miss. And those clashes could be a harbinger of the nation's future, as its citizens flock to the sun-drenched South, searching for warmth and opportunity, along the way sometimes colliding with the region's conservative tradition. By U.S. census estimates, half of all Americans will be living in the nation's southern tier by 2025, up from about 46 percent now.

Jackson is a surprising young entrant into the New Economy that is as ambivalent about its stature as it is proud. Though virtually everyone has seen some improvements in their lives, differing backgrounds have produced strikingly differing outlooks and political views. To the new Jackson, all systems are go. To the old, it's time to put on the brakes.

`A culture war'

"There is something of a culture war going on here," asserts Cron Gibson, a 35-year-old therapist and divinity student, who taps away at a laptop computer as he decries pluralism, materialism, even the inescapable hints of sexuality on a television advertisement for soap.

Anne MacMaster, 39, who grew up in New Jersey and Massachusetts before coming to Jackson in 1991 to teach English at Millsaps College, represents the other side of that war.

And she is just as blunt: "That's what's so funny about this place. You can have the iced mocha on the surface, but in some ways I think this place will never change."

The rise of WorldCom from a small long-distance service in 1983 to a $37 billion global communications conglomerate has put the region on the economic map, as has SkyTel, the paging firm that WorldCom gobbled up last year.

In all, 356 technology and communications firms employ as many as 7,000 workers in the Jackson area, nearly half of them at WorldCom. Before Clinton reached the White House, the technology sector was barely a blip in the region's economy.

Metropolitan Jackson's population has surged by nearly 40 percent since 1970, to close to a half-million people. High-tech spinoffs such as Air2LAN, new symbiotic companies such as cellular provider SunCom, and a determined public-private technology partnership appear ready and able to keep the economic change moving forward.

For some, the economic shifts have brought positive changes to every aspect of life, financial and social.

Frank Latham, the voluble, 64-year-old African-American owner of Frank's World Famous Biscuits, noted that as recently as the early 1970s, the Silver Platter, which occupied his restaurant's current location, did not serve blacks. Now, Latham owns the building, catering to a bustling business that is 70 percent white.

"People are more concerned about their money than their color," said Latham, relaxing over sweetened iced tea as the lunch crowd thinned. "It's more green than anything else.

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