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Rising tides in the Old South

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

But that concern for money has left much of the region anxious. From the staunchly conservative new suburbs to the largely black, struggling, inner-city core, there is a profound sense of doubt - about politics, about change, even about the wealth that has begun to permeate Jackson society.

For those left behind, there is a profound sense of unfairness.

"I don't think opportunity follows black people," said Jewel Reed, a child care director earning $30,000 a year as she struggles to administer the dilapidated 4-Seasons Day Care Center in Jackson's African-American core.

"I can't help but go back to race. Jackson is full of minorities. The whites have left for the suburbs. Yes, Mississippi is going in the right direction, but Jackson is going down. There's nothing in Jackson for nobody."

Other area residents see the coming election not as a vote on the nation's economic future but as an opportunity to correct what they see as the cultural excesses of the Clinton era.

"I see us as a nation getting greedier and more godless," said Lori Blount, 36, a native of Glen Burnie, sitting in the living room of her large suburban home, ensconced in the guarded and gated new subdivision of Dinsmor, north of Jackson. "It is so easy in times of plenty to forget we have a creator who has expectations of us."

Making adjustments

Such sentiments stand in contrast to the optimism of the new generation, which has taken up the task of dragging Jackson into the future, whether Jackson wants it or not.

"There's almost a reluctance to acknowledge the upside of progress," conceded Air2LAN co-founder Judin. "Any society exposed to a whole lot more than what they've seen in the past is going to take time to adjust."

MacMaster, the Millsaps professor, spoke of her shock at the casual racism and insensitivity she encountered on her arrival, but with a missionary's zeal, she appeared to relish her role in the vanguard of change.

"People coming in from the outside are getting more and more brazen about not accepting what's unacceptable," she said.

Even natives are being bitten by the change bug.

Louis LaRose, 23, who left Jackson in 1997 for a culinary school in Miami, returned last year to take over as head chef of one of the city's few upscale restaurants. He is proud of the region's growth, optimistic about the future and tired of lamentations about morality.

If residents want to improve their community, he says, they should take advantage of the new opportunities, get to work and focus on the region's education system - not their neighbors' private lives.

"The world's moving too fast for family values," said LaRose as he chatted in the garage of his home in Jackson's graceful, old Belhaven neighborhood.

The chasm dividing Jackson has produced a similar political gulf. For old Jackson, the burning issues are abortion, taxes and the restoration of moral authority in the White House.

"Once we get Clinton out of office, at least we can restore the White House," said Richard Farrington, 31, a salesman for SunCom, whose neatly pressed khakis, Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt and wraparound sunglasses attest to his success in the new economy.

Blount, the Glen Burnie transplant, cataloged the threats she sees closing in on her children, from nudity on magazine covers in supermarket checkout lines to occult influences in Pokemon, from filth on television to witchcraft in Walt Disney movies.

Washington did not create these moral affronts, she said. It is a manifestation of them.

"But if the next president has a high regard for the authority of God's word," she said, "I believe he can begin the turning of the tide."

Blacks and others close to the region's economic and social problems are more than willing to give Clinton his due for the region's success.

Reed, the child care administrator, has seen federal funding for child care rise considerably in the 1990s. The federal Children's Health Insurance Program, a Clinton initiative passed in 1997, has turned around health care for Jackson's poorest kids, she said.

"I think he's a great person," she said of Clinton. "I like him because he cares."

The New Mississippi

But there is still work to be done, she quickly added. Low-income seniors are dying for lack of home health care. School buildings are crumbling, and children are desperate for after-school programs to occupy dangerously idle hands.

The concerns of Jackson's new economic class also revolve around more concrete issues than the nation's moral health.

The communications economy is increasing the demands on a Mississippi school system that has always ranked at or near the bottom in the nation, civic leaders say. Only educational improvement and job training will ensure that all segments of society will participate in the region's boom. Indeed, they could determine whether the New Economy really will take hold in the Old South.

"I believe the country is on the right track, but we have to watch to make sure that large chunks of our people are not lost as we head down that track," said Rick Ferguson, a human resources executive at the utility giant Entergy.

Already, young, black Mississippians are souring on the promise of high-tech, as they are channeled into low-paid jobs sending text messages at paging firms or fielding phone calls in customer service, said Kenneth Hunt, a 26-year-old sophomore at Jackson State University.

His observation is backed up by a Harvard Business School study that found high-tech hourly wage rates in Jackson to be as much as $4 lower than in Atlanta, Dallas and Austin, Texas.

"There are more jobs, but the pay is not where most Mississippians want it to be," said Hunt, a biology major who wonders whether he'll be able to find a worthwhile job in Jackson after he graduates. "It's a good piece of propaganda, the New Mississippi, but we're still so far below where we should be, it's still the Old Mississippi."

About the only issue that bridges the gulf in Jackson is an almost palpable contempt for politics and its practitioners. Jackson residents might battle over Clinton and the significance of his moral lapses, but the politics of the personal has left Mississippians of all stripes cynical and disengaged.

News of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's extramarital dalliances put social worker Jacqueline Martin over the edge. The 38-year-old African-American had reluctantly stood by Clinton.

But, she shrugged, "with the mayor of New York and his affair, after that I said, 'Forget it. Is anybody going to change?'"

From Jackson, Miss., Washington appears remote, say residents of all stripes. Those who see the nation's capital as a den of loose morals and power-grabbing bureaucrats say life will go on relatively unchanged, no matter which candidates triumph in November. Those willing to cut politicians some slack remain reluctant to give them too much credit.

"Am I better off? Yes, I can give you a resounding yes, but not because Bill Clinton was president," said Latham, the black restaurateur.

"Jesus Christ could be president. If I'm going to be lying on my backside, not getting up to go to work in the morning, I'm going to fail."

Listening to the New America

Wednesday: Securing the good life has become such an obsession with residents of America's new suburbia that they aren't paying much attention to national leaders.

Friday: New York's financial district is ground zero for America's new golden age, as a gusher of wealth makes dreams, breaks them and calls the faithful back for more.

July 23: Some older Americans enjoy an active, engaged retirement - and the financial freedom to look beyond their own needs to more public-spirited concerns.

July 24: Many blue-collar workers are struggling to find their place in an American economy turned topsy-turvy by technology.

July 26: How do members of the new black economic elite view the future for themselves, their children and the nation?

About this series

As America prepares to pick a new president for the new century, Sun reporters and photographers visited places that reflect the changing face of a nation, listening to Americans talk about their dreams, their worries, their country and the future.

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