Mississippi History

The State of Mississippi’s history goes back beyond American statehood to Ancient Native American times.

Native Americans

Nearly 10,000 BC, Native American or Paleo-Indians appeared in what today is referred to as the South.[1] Paleoindians in the South were hunter-gatherers who pursued the megafauna that became extinct following the end of the Pleistocene age. After thousands of years, the Paleoindians developed a rich agricultural society. Archeologists called these people the Mississippians of the Mississippian culture.

Descendant Native American tribes include the Chickasaw and Choctaw. Other tribes who inhabited the territory of Mississippi (and whose names became those of local towns) include the Natchez, the Yazoo, and the Biloxi.

European colonial period

The first major European expedition into the territory that became Mississippi was that of Hernando de Soto, who passed through in 1540. The French claimed the territory that included Mississippi as part of their colony of New France and started settlement. They created the first, Fort Maurepas, under Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville on the site of modern Ocean Springs (or Old Biloxi) in 1699.

In 1716, the French founded Natchez as Fort Rosalie; it became the dominant town and trading post of the area. In the early 1700s, the Roman Catholic Church created pioneer parishes at Old Biloxi/Ocean Springs and Natchez. The church also established seven pioneer parishes in Louisiana and two in Alabama, which was also part of New France.

The French and later Spanish colonial rule influenced early social relations of the settlers who held enslaved Africans. As in Louisiana, for a period there grew a third class of free people of color, whose origin was chiefly as descendants of white planters and enslaved African or African-American mothers. The planters often had formally supportive relationships with their mistresses of color and arranged for freedom for them and their multiracial children. The fathers sometimes passed on property or arranged for the apprenticeship or education of children so they could learn a trade. Free people of color often migrated to New Orleans, where there was more opportunity for work and a bigger community.

Like Louisiana as part of New France, Mississippi was alternately ruled by Spanish, and British. In 1783 the Mississippi area was deeded by Great Britain to the United States after the American Revolution under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

Mississippi was the 20th state admitted to the Union, on December 10, 1817.


When cotton was king during the 1850s, Mississippi plantation owners—especially those in the old Natchez District, as well as the newly emerging Delta and Black Belt regions—became increasingly wealthy due to the great fertility of the soil and the high price of cotton on the international market. The severe wealth imbalances and the necessity of large-scale slave populations to sustain such income played a heavy role in both state politics and in the support for secession.

By 1860 the enslaved population numbered 436,631 or 55% of the state’s total of 791,305. There were fewer than 1000 free people of color, most of them in and around Natchez. The relatively low population of the state before the Civil War reflected the fact that much of the state was still wilderness and needed more settlers for development. Except for riverside settlements and plantations, 90 percent of the Mississippi Delta bottomlands was still undeveloped and covered mostly in mixed forest and swampland.

Civil War

Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union on January 9, 1861; it joined six other cotton states (collectively known as the “pre-Sumter Seven”) to form the Confederate States of America in February.


After the defeat of the Confederacy, President Andrew Johnson appointed a temporary government that repealed secession and wrote new Black Codes defining and limiting the civil rights of the African American freedmen. They did not grant suffrage. The Black Codes never took effect, however. The legal affairs of the freedmen came under the control of sympathetic Freedman’s Bureau representatives. Most of them were former Army officers from the North. Many stayed in the state and became political and business leaders (scornfully known as “carpetbaggers”).

The state’s black codes were summarized:

The Black codes outraged northern opinion and apparently were never put into effect in any state. Congress responded in September 1865 by refusing to seat the newly elected delegation. In 1867 it put Mississippi under U.S. Army rule as part of Reconstruction until the legal status of ex-Confederates and freedmen could be worked out.

The military governor general Adelbert Ames deposed the civil government, enrolled black men as voters, and prohibited for a period of time 1000 or so former Confederate leaders to vote or hold office.

During Reconstruction the first constitutional convention in 1868 framed a constitution whose major elements would last for 22 years, more than a generation. The convention was the first political organization to include African American representatives, who numbered 17 among the 100 members. Although 32 counties had Negro majorities, they elected whites as well as Negroes to represent them. The convention adopted universal suffrage; did away with property qualifications for suffrage or for office, which benefited poor whites, too; created the state’s first public school system; forbade race distinctions in the possession and inheritance of property; and prohibited limiting of civil rights in travel.

The rich planter James Lusk Alcorn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865 but, like other Southerners who had been loyal to the Confederacy, was not allowed to take a seat. He supported suffrage for freedmen and endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment, as required by the Republicans in Congress.

Alcorn became the leader of the scalawags, who comprised about a third of the Republican party in the state, in coalition with carpetbaggers and freedmen. On 1869 Alcorn was elected as governor in 1869 and served from 1870 to 1871. As a modernizer, he appointed many like-minded former Whigs, even if they were now Democrats.

He strongly supported education, including segregated public schools, and a new college for freedmen, now known as Alcorn State University. He maneuvered to make his ally Hiram Revels its president. Radical Republicans opposed Alcorn as they were angry about his patronage policy. One complained that Alcorn’s policy was to see “the old civilization of the South modernized” rather than lead a total political, social and economic revolution.

Alcorn resigned the governorship to become a U.S. Senator (1871–1877), replacing his ally Hiram Revels, the first African American senator. Senator Alcorn urged the removal of the political disabilities of white southerners and rejected Radical Republican proposals to enforce social equality by Federal legislation. Further, he denounced the Federal cotton tax as robbery (Ibid., pp. 2730–33) and defended separate schools for both races in Mississippi. Although a former slaveholder, he characterized slavery as “a cancer upon the body of the Nation” and expressed gratification which he felt over its destruction.

By 1870 former military governor Adelbert Ames had been elected senator from the state. Ames and Alcorn battled for control of the Republican party in Mississippi. Their struggle ripped apart the Republican party. In 1873 they both sought a decision by running for governor.

Ames was supported by the Radicals and most African Americans, while Alcorn won the votes of conservative whites and most of the scalawags. Ames won by a vote of 69,870 to 50,490.

In the mid to late 1870s whites used paramilitary groups, such as the Red Shirts and White League, to turn Republicans out of office, terrorize blacks and suppress voting. White Democrats regained control of the legislature in 1876 and in the 1880s moved to pass legislation restricting rights of African Americans. Statutes directed at controlling voter registration began to reduce the numbers of African Americans who voted.

Disfranchisement and the New South: 1877-1940

Mississippi was considered to typify the Deep South during the era of Jim Crow, but in the first decades after the Civil War, it followed slightly different patterns. It had an enormous frontier of undeveloped land in the backcountry of the Mississippi Delta. Tens of thousands of black and white migrants came to the Delta seeking the chance to buy and work land, cut timber and make lives for themselves and their families. Because the Mississippi Delta contained so much fertile bottomland which had not been farmed, away from the river settlements, African Americans achieved unusually high rates of land ownership during the 1870s and 1880s.

By the turn of the century, two-thirds of the farmers who owned land in Mississippi’s Delta were African American. Their hard work in clearing land and harvesting timber had given them a stake in the future. Their clearing and development of the land made it valuable, but many could keep going through difficult decades of falling cotton prices only by getting extended credit. As another agricultural depression depressed cotton prices into the 1890s, many African American farmers finally had to sell their land to pay off debts.

In 1890 Mississippi adopted a new constitution with provisions for new requirements for literacy tests and poll tax qualifications for voters. These requirements, with additions in legislation of 1892, resulted in a devastating reduction in numbers of black voters registered, and they effectively disfranchised many poor whites as well. As only voters could serve on juries, the disfranchisement meant that African Americans and poor whites did not get to serve on juries, and lost all chance at local and state offices, as well as representation in Congress. When these provisions survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1898 in Williams v. Mississippi, other southern state legislatures rapidly incorporated them into new constitutions or amendments, effectively extending disfranchisement of African Americans to every southern state. In 1900 the population of Mississippi was nearly 59% African American. More than 910,060 citizens lost representation as black men were disfranchised.

With control of the ballot box and more access to credit, white planters expanded their ownership of Delta backcountry and could take advantage of new railroads for shipping. By 1910 a majority of black farmers in the Delta had become sharecroppers instead of landowners. Disfranchisement of African Americans, a series of increasingly restrictive racial segregation laws, increased lynchings, failure of the cotton crops due to boll weevil infestation, and successive severe flooding in 1912 and 1913 resulted in tens of thousands of African Americans leaving Mississippi to migrate north starting during World War I. In the Great Migration, they went north to leave a society that had been steadily closing off opportunity.

By 1920, the third generation after freedom, most African Americans in the Delta were landless sharecroppers or laborers facing inescapable poverty. In the Great Migration, most migrants took the trains directly north to Chicago. Another wave of migration started in the 1940s. Almost half a million people, three-quarters of them black, left Mississippi in the second migration. Many sought jobs in the burgeoning defense industry.

Mississippi became a center of rich, quintessentially American music traditions: gospel music, jazz music, blues, and rock and roll, all were invented, promulgated, or heavily developed by Mississippi musicians. Mississippi has been noted for its authors, including Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner, William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Stark Young, Eudora Welty and Anne Moody.

John Lomax recorded some of the Delta’s rich musical tradition for the Library of Congress. He recorded a very young Muddy Waters, and also convict blues songs and field chants at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.


Mississippi was a center of the American Civil Rights Movement and especially captured the national stage in 1963 and 1964. Few white leaders in the state supported the effort to secure voting and exercise of other civil rights for African Americans.

According to the 1960 census, the state had a population of 2,178,141, of which 915,743, or 42% of the residents, were black. Their long disfranchisement meant that white state legislators had consistently underfunded segregated schools and services for African Americans, and passed laws that worked against their interests. African Americans had no representation in local governments, juries or law enforcement.

Nonviolent activist leaders had been increasing their events throughout the South. In Mississippi in 1962, several activists formed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), to coordinate activities in voter registration and education of civil rights groups in Mississippi: Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In 1963 COFO organized a Freedom Vote in Mississippi to demonstrate the desire of black Mississippians to vote. They had been disfranchised since statutory and constitutional changes in 1890 and 1892. More than 80,000 people quickly registered and voted in mock elections which pitted candidates from the “Freedom Party” against the official state Democratic Party candidates.

Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964

In the summer of 1964, the COFO brought more than one hundred college students, many from outside the state, to Mississippi to join with local activists to register voters, teach in “Freedom Schools” and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Many white residents deeply resented the outsiders and attempts to change their society. The work was dangerous. Activists were threatened.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, a young black Mississippian and plasterer’s apprentice; and two Jewish volunteers from New York, Andrew Goodman, a Queens College student; and Michael Schwerner, a social worker, were murdered by members of the Klan, some of them members of the Neshoba County sheriff’s department. With the national uproar caused by their disappearance, President Johnson forced J. Edgar Hoover to have the FBI to investigate.

The FBI found the bodies of the civil rights workers on August 4 in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. During its investigation, the FBI also discovered the bodies of several other Mississippi blacks whose murders and disappearances over the past several years had not gained attention outside their local communities.

The case of the young murdered activists captured national attention. President Johnson used the outrage over their deaths and his formidable political skills to bring about passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed July 2. It banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment and education. It also had a section about voting, but voting protection was addressed more substantially by passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Many Jewish Americans supported the Civil Rights Movement. Young Jewish activists comprised nearly half of the volunteers in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Half of the civil rights lawyers who worked in the South were Jewish.

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964

In 1964, civil rights organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white slate from the state party. When Mississippi voting registrars refused to recognize their candidates, they held their own primary. They selected Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for Congress, and a slate of delegates to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

The presence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was inconvenient. Democratic Party organizers had planned a triumphant celebration of the Johnson Administration’s achievements in civil rights, rather than a fight over racism within the party. Johnson was also worried about inroads that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was making in what had been the Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South”, as well as support which Independent candidate George Wallace had received in the North during the Democratic primaries. All-white delegations from other Southern states threatened to walk out if the official slate from Mississippi was not seated.

Johnson could not prevent the MFDP from taking its case to the Credentials Committee. There Fannie Lou Hamer testified eloquently about the beatings which she and others endured, and the threats they faced for trying to register to vote. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, “Is this America?”

Johnson offered the MFDP a “compromise” under which it would receive two non-voting, at-large seats, while the white delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would retain its seats. The MFDP angrily rejected the compromise. The MFDP kept up its agitation within the convention, even after it was denied official recognition. The 1964 convention disillusioned many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement, but it did not destroy the MFDP. The new party invited Malcolm X, head of the Black Muslims, to speak at its founding convention and opposed the war in Vietnam.

During the 1960s, the vocal opposition of many politicians and officials and the violent tactics of a few Ku Klux Klan members and sympathizers gave Mississippi a reputation as a reactionary state. The state was the last to repeal prohibition and to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1966 and 1995 respectively.

Weather damage

On August 17, 1969, Category 5 Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi coast killing 248 people and causing US$1.5 billion in damage.

Since 2000

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused even greater destruction across the entire 90 miles (140 km) of Mississippi Gulf coast from Louisiana to Alabama.

Mississippi in recent years has been noted for its political conservatism, improved civil rights record, and increasing industrialization. In addition, a decision in the 1990s to permit riverboat gambling has led to economic gains for the state. However, an estimated $500,000 per day in tax revenue was lost following Hurricane Katrina’s severe damage to several riverboat casinos in August 2005. Gambling towns in Mississippi include the Gulf coast towns of Gulfport and Biloxi and the river towns of Vicksburg and Tunica. Prior to Katrina, Mississippi was the second largest gambling state in the Union, after Nevada and ahead of New Jersey.