The final debate on the Senate floor about a large tourism spending bill didn’t focus on the millions of dollars earmarked for the state’s visitors bureaus, but over the future of the state song – rather, songs – and the lack of Black members on the song-selection committee.
All but one of the six is white. Senators opposed to the bill pointed out the committee does not reflect the demographics of the state. While the legislation removes a racist state song, it would also create a committee comprised of mostly white members to select new ones.
Mississippi lawmakers passed a bill late Thursday that removes “Go, Mississippi” as the official state song. In addition, it allocated $40 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward tourism and marketing.
“I know that we’re coming to end of a very difficult session and we are trying to get out of here and make the best decisions in the short period of time we have left,” said Sen. John Hohrn (D-Jackson). “But this is a bad decision.”
“Go, Mississippi,” adopted as the state song in 1962, has its roots in Mississippi’s segregationist past. The song was an adaptation of segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett’s campaign song, “Roll With Ross,” which included anti-integration lyrics and was introduced at a rally during Barnett’s fight against integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith.
“Go, Mississippi” is the tune of Barnett’s campaign song with lyrics rewritten. There have been efforts for many years in the Legislature to adopt a new state song and repeal “Go, Mississippi,” but they failed, often because lawmakers couldn’t agree on a new state song. Unlike many other states’ official songs, “Go, Mississippi” is relatively obscure and little recognized, even by many Mississippians.
The bill names former Gov. Phil Bryant-supported song – “One Mississippi” by Steve Azar – as the state’s official “contemporary genre song.” The committee will decide more state songs by genre, such as country and blues.
The committee will be headed by the directors of the state’s development authority’s tourism division; the director of the Mississippi Tourism Association; the chair of the House tourism committee; the chair of the Senate tourism committee; the director of the Mississippi Arts Commission; and the director of the Two Mississippi Museums.
“It is ill conceit that the leader of the museum that’s whole mission is about music is omitted,” Horhn said, referring to Cleveland’s Grammy Museum, “and that there is a scarcity of African Americans on this committee.”
In response to those criticisms, Sen. Bart Williams (R-Starkville) said he viewed the committee as a “starting point, not an ending point.”
“Mississippi has not only transformed the course of America’s music, it has revolutionized it, and because of this, it is important that the official songs of the State of Mississippi truly reflect the state’s phenomenal musical heritage, while enthusiastically looking forward to its future,” the bill says.
If the bill is signed by Gov. Tate Reeves, it will go into effect July 1. The bill was passed by a 37-7 vote. Two senators abstained. The sister bill in the House also passed with an overwhelming majority.
The bulk of the bill focuses on tourism spending, split predominantly among the state’s destination marketing organizations. About $20 million will be split among the state’s top 10 destinations, leaving Coastal Mississippi – the Gulf Coast bureau comprising three counties – with the largest chunk of the federal dollars.
Just under $9.5 million has been allocated to be shared among the state’s smaller tourism bureaus. No bureau will get less than $250,000. A formula using each destination’s 2019 marketing expenses determine their exact share.
During a Coastal Mississippi board meeting Thursday, commissioner Brooke Shoultz said she estimates the bureau would receive more than $6 million if the bill was signed as is by the governor.
The bill also allocates $5 million to non-profit museums and $5 million to the state’s smaller cities that are part of the Mississippi Main Street Association.
The bill mirrors Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act spending that was dispersed among tourism groups in 2020.
“This is, of course, tremendous,” said Mississippi Tourism Association executive director Danielle Morgan. “We saw how well it worked the first round and it’s why Mississippi fared better than some other destinations and is still leading the southeast in visitor spending.”
During the immediate COVID-19 recovery, Mississippi casinos boasted record-breaking revenue. Destinations across the state focused on markets within driving distance, capitalizing off the break many tourists took from flights.
Geoff Pender contributed to this story.