Fair Enough… And More: The strange saga of an obscure county fair
that has had an outsized influence on politics in America right up to today
Back before family summer fun meant a family trip to theme parks like Walt Disney World or Six Flags, the biggest thrill of the year for many families all across the land…particularly in rural areas… was the annual county fair in their own county.
Early on the thrill at the fair seems to have been mostly admiring big pigs and even bigger ears of corn.
Oh… and watching horses and drivers in harness races. (And probably betting on those horses racing.)
Of course, from the earliest county fairs to the present, they’ve always included the county’s women showing off their baking skills…
And the county’s kids showing off their eating skills.
As time went on, the fairs got fancier and funner, with midways full of rides and things to gawk at more interesting than big pigs and corn ears.
Including sideshow hustlers showing off strange and unusual people and animals…
…and women showing off some skin.
And, of course, from the time of Mr. Ferris’s invention of the gigantic Ferris Wheel for the Midway of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago …
… on to today, almost every fair has had its own junior version of the obligatory ferris wheel. For, of course, everybody loves to take a refreshing spin on the ferris wheel!
In many areas these days, county fairs aren’t quite the top choice summer destination for families, since most of what they offer in the way of exciting entertainment can now be found–only much bigger and much more exciting–in permanent amusement parks. The ferris wheel and tilt-a-whirl at the local fairgrounds…
… just can’t compete with the gigantic screaming roller coasters and other thrill rides at the big theme parks.
But there is one annual week-long county fair that has lost none of its attraction for the people in its county—and for even more folks from all across its state, even though it’s been the site of local celebration since way back in 1889. It’s held every summer in Neshoba County, Mississippi, at a fairgrounds seven miles out in the country from the nearby small- town (pop. 7,361 in 2016) county seat, Philadelphia, Mississippi.
And this fair’s claim to fame is that it isn’t just a big display of things to see, like so many other fairs are.
Oh, it has the usual exhibition hall with blue ribbons on the winners of the baking and sewing and canning and vegetable-growing contests. It has the livestock buildings with the blue ribbon pigs and chickens and cattle and such. It has the obligatory midway with rides and games and goodies to eat, continuously running day and night throughout the week.
And it continues the tradition of county fair harness racing that has been a part of this fair since the turn of the last century right up to today…
But all of that is just a “sideshow” to the REAL purpose of the Neshoba County Fair. You see, what it really is, is …
Mississippi’s Giant House Party
In fact, it very likely is also America’s Biggest House Party too. For you see, the Neshoba County Fairgrounds don’t just feature the usual livestock buildings that temporarily house horses and cows and chickens and pigs at an annual county fair. It features a veritable small town of very elaborate temporary human habitations.
These “cabins” have long been grouped throughout the fairgrounds into “neighborhoods” with the little dirt alleys separating them sporting names like Bourbon Street, Happy Hollow, and Beverly Hills.
Unlike the usual rural vacation destinations where city folks own or rent cabins and summer homes, where they may spend two or three months in the summer, these cabins are only inhabited for one week out of the year… the week of the Neshoba County Fair in late July or early August.
The story of how this extremely temporary town “came to be” starts clear back in 1885. That summer, two farmers picnicking with their families one day in a rural area a few miles outside Philadelphia mused on how nice it would be to organize a fair for the area, like other fairs they were familiar with across Mississippi. They found other Neshobians who liked the idea too, and by 1889 they had given birth to the first officially organized fair ever held in Neshoba County.
The project started out small. That first year it wasn’t much more than an overgrown picnic. The men attending brought their best farm animals and agricultural products to compare and compete among themselves for some small prizes offered for the best in various categories. The women brought their sewing and cooking projects to compare and compete with the other women. The main entertainment that year was a community hymn-sing. And they elected officers for a private fair corporation that would make more elaborate plans for the future.
The first official Neshoba County Stock and Agricultural Fair was held in 1891, on the same plot of land where it is still celebrated today.
It soon expanded to a two-day fair, and gradually grew to the week-long event it has remained to this day. Harness racing and other horsey events on the big track in the center of the grounds were added to the yearly festivities very early on!
Back in the 1890s, and for years thereafter, traveling by mule-or-horse-or-ox-pulled wagon even the few miles from Philadelphia to the fairgrounds was a major production—the dusty road was very rough, and a swamp of muck if it rained. So very early on, fair planners decided to make attending a multi-day fair convenient for county residents by building a set of primitive cabins on-site, as well as a hotel.
The hotel was eventually removed to make way for exhibition halls and pavilions, but the cabins have remained a feature of the Fair ever since. Eventually, the cabins were made available at a small price for permanent possession by individual county families, and plots were set aside where more cabins could be built. (The Fair corporation itself retains ownership of the plots…cabin owners are just buying the right to have a cabin on the plot.) Over time, attendees created more spacious and slightly more substantial cabins. And these cabins became part of family “estates,” legally passed down from generation to generation as part of the family inheritance just like a farm, or a house in town. Fair cabins are so important to Neshobians, it is reported that county divorce proceedings sometimes take up as much time arguing about who gets the cabin as they do about child custody matters!
Most cabins are two stories tall… with just one big open room on each floor. The first floor is for eating and visiting.
As you can see in these photos, vivid colors and wild color schemes are considered essential to the cabin experience for most families!
The second floor is a big dormitory for sleeping, with beds, mattresses, or sleeping bags sprawled all over.
THERE were 33 members of the Williams family and their friends bedding down in Cabin 14 at the Neshoba County Fair here last week  (though that number waxed and waned as the days progressed). The oldest was 90, the youngest 17 months, and all four generations slept in one dormitory-like room built to hold as many as 41.
Double bunks were stacked three high, like ice trays; others were tucked under the eaves. Three air-conditioners banged away in the dark. Contemplating so much sleeping humanity (or imagining trying to sleep amid so many other people, and so many relatives), the mind reeled.
But such intense proximity, this rich family marinade, is the whole point of the 123-year-old fair and its cabins, into which families like the Williamses have been stuffing themselves since the covered wagons and lean-tos of their forebears evolved into these more-formal structures sometime in the early 1900s.
Each floor has a covered porch, where inhabitants have long gathered on the hot summer days and nights of the fairs over the years, to get at least a little escape from the indoor mugginess caused by Mississippi heat and humidity typical for that time of year.
Electricity hadn’t been available at the fairgrounds until 1938, and indoor plumbing in individual cabins only began to be available gradually starting in 1950. A few air conditioners started showing up in some cabins in the 1960s, but many cabin owners held out against such modern contraptions right up until fairly recent times.
The standard size of a fair cabin is 16 feet wide, and deep enough to keep within a mandated total of 1,000 square feet of floor space. Each one is just temporary residence for a week each year for an extended family…many providing sleeping and eating space for 30 or more family members and guests. (If only 20 folks stayed in each of the 600 or so cabins, that would still yield a total of 12,000, a population almost double the population of the county seat, Philadelphia.)
Clear up to the 1940s, a cabin could be purchased for $100 or so. But as the fair gained in popularity and attracted more and more regular visitors, the cabins began creeping up in price. And eventually, there was room for no more to be built—limiting the total number of cabins to about 600. At that point the “law of supply and demand” drove prices up precipitously. By 1992, the few cabins that came up for sale in a year could go for as much as $30,000 each. And then prices really took off, as described in this 2009 newspaper article…
While residential lots in nearby Philadelphia go for about $20,000, the narrow cabin sites on Founders Square sell for $150,000 to $200,000. People sink another $100,000 or more into tearing down and fixing up the structures… [Source]
Families are willing to spend such outrageous prices for one week’s lodging in very spartan quarters, because that one week in those surroundings is the absolute highlight of their year. Oh, there have for generations been plenty of “organized activities” at the Fair to enjoy during the week of the fair even if you were just a “day visitor”… the horse races, the midway, nightly dances for the teens, singalongs, livestock competitions, and yes, plenty of big pigs to gawk at. But the heart of the fair week is the seven days of non-stop eating and drinking and conversations—and partying—that go on in the “neighborhoods.” It’s like an intense, condensed version of the idyllic “old-time small town friendliness” you may have seen on The Andy Griffith Show.
Families are sitting out on the porches at all hours of the day and evening greeting passersby…often inviting some in for the bounteous snacks and elaborate meals they’ve been planning since early in the year.
Little kids are wandering freely among the streets playing with cousins they may not get to see any other time of the year, seeing old friends, making new ones.
Teens are likewise gathering in clusters “hanging out” together, laughing and having fun.
Periodically day and night everyone checks out some of the special activities down at the central “Founders Square” and nearby exhibition buildings and pavilions and midway.
That includes concerts every year by local and nationally famous performers…many of them Country Western, of course.
But every evening after the last concert featuring some big-name country music star is done, after the teen dance is over, after the community singalong is done, everyone ends up back in the cabins and on the porches. Then the lively conversations—about such topics as memories of fairs past, and catching up with the latest news from the lives of friends and family you may see only once a year—and party atmosphere continue on into the wee hours of the morning… for seven days in a row.
Extend these traditions back through multiple generations since the 1890s, and you can begin to see how this really is different from the usual county fair! And why even when young people grow up and move away from Neshoba County to far-flung parts of the country, they make every effort to come back every year in time for the Fair.
By the way, the county residents who stay in the cabins only account for a portion of the attendees at the Fair. Over a century from the beginnings of the Fair’s history, there can now be 25,000 or more fair visitors each year. Many come just for the day, others stay in motels in area towns as far as 40 miles away so they can visit the Fair two or more days in a row. And these days there are also over 500 RV spots providing another way to enjoy all week at the fair even if you don’t have a permanent cabin.
As you might guess though, the “fair experience” of day-trippers is not part of the same traditions as that of the actual fairground residents. Although, many do wander around gawking at the gaudy cabins—and may find themselves invited in by friendly total strangers to share a meal and be part of family festivities for the day or evening!
I’m guessing that most people reading this blog entry have never heard of Neshoba County Mississippi, its county seat of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the county’s Giant House Party fair. The Fair is famous in Mississippi, but is in such an obscure, rural area of a very rural state that it wouldn’t be expected to be a household word in other parts of the country, from California to New York to Michigan. I never heard of it until a friend from Alabama, who had relatives in that area of Mississippi, told me about it a couple of years ago.
When I first saw the pictures on the Internet of the wild and crazy cabins at the Fair, and read the stories of the down-home Southern Hospitality that the Fair represented, I was fascinated. Maybe even a bit envious of people who can claim such warm generational traditions and memories. I’m a very sociable person by nature, and could almost picture myself sitting in a rocker on the front porch of my own cabin at the fair, smiling and waving at the little children at play in the dusty little streets, chatting up the neighbors, and inviting strangers in for icy-cold home-made lemonade and a luncheon of tasty fried chicken and fried green tomatoes.
Nope, I’d never heard of Neshoba County Mississippi, or Philadelphia, Mississippi myself… except… once I rummaged around the Internet and scratched the surface of the story of the area a bit, I realized that I had heard and read stories of both of them before. I had just forgotten the names.
Unfortunately, once I dug a little deeper, I remembered that Neshoba County—and nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi—had been “household words” across the country once upon a time. Once upon a very dark time. For Neshoba County has had a dark side that belies the bright colors of the cabins of the Giant House Party.
The year was 1964. The Civil Rights movement in the Deep South was at its height. Governor George Wallace of Alabama had given his “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” inaugural speech in January 1963.
The Birmingham “Children’s March” took place in May 1963, making national and international headlines when the local authorities under the leadership of brutal Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor chose to turn snarling dogs and powerful, high-pressure fire hoses on children and teens marching peacefully to protest school segregation.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where a crowd of 250,000 or so watched Martin Luther King give his “I have a dream” speech, had occurred in August 1963.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had been bombed in September 1963, killing four girls and injuring many more parishioners at a church service.
By January 1964 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO—an umbrella organization for civil rights groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality—CORE) were making plans for what was dubbed the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Plans were for thousands of young people from all over the nation, both black and white, to converge on Mississippi to help register voters and to set up Freedom Schools:
In December 1963, during planning for the upcoming Freedom Summer project, Charles Cobb proposed a network of “Freedom Schools” that would foster political participation among Mississippi elementary and high school students, in addition to offering academic courses and discussions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Schools
And thus it was that on January 24, 1964 young white CORE volunteers Michael (Mickey, 24) and Rita Schwerner (22) …
…a married Jewish couple from New York, arrived in Meridian, Mississippi to work with local young black activist James Chaney (21)…
…and other volunteers on plans for the Project.
They were busy with their plans when, elsewhere in the state, a man named Samuel Bowers was making plans for that summer also.
Bowers, along with many other southern whites, was outraged by the civil rights movement, believing it to be an antagonistic movement led by the far left and organized by the Communist Party.
Bowers perceived the original Ku Klux Klan as being too passive. On February 15, 1964, at a meeting in Brookhaven, Mississippi, he convinced about 200 members of the original Knights to defect and join his Klan, to be called the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He became the group’s fraternal “Imperial Wizard.”
Within a year, their membership was up to around six thousand, and they had Klaverns in over half of the counties in Mississippi. [Source]
Including many members in Neshoba County.
And the WKoftheKKK was destined to cross paths with young Michael Schwerner.
White Knight member Samuel Bowers had targeted Schwerner because of the civil rights worker’s efforts to promote racial equality and to get Blacks to register to vote during Freedom Summer. [Source]
For several months in the Spring, Schwerner and Chaney had been visiting Mt Zion Methodist Church, a black congregation in rural Neshoba County, holding freedom meetings with members there, looking to set up a Freedom School.
Their organizing efforts had also captured the attention of whites in Neshoba County, who came to recognize the blue Ford station wagon that Schwerner drove. [Source]
That gave Bowers a target for his efforts to thwart Schwerner.
In his first attempt to kill Schwerner, Bowers assembled 30 White Knights on the evening of Memorial Day 1964 and surrounded the Mount Zion Church while a meeting was taking place inside. Bowers thought Schwerner would be in attendance, but after failing to find him when the meeting let out, the Knights started beating the blacks who were present, then set the church on fire after pouring gasoline inside. [Source]
It sounds horrific looking back, but at the time…a burning of a black church was barely enough to get a mention in the papers…
According to Doug McAdam’s book Freedom Summer, thirty-six black churches in Mississippi burned during the [three months of] Freedom Summer of 1964, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. That’s twelve churches every month, three every week, and one every three days. Any black person visiting a church for worship, voter registration, or other services knew they might die in a blaze. [Source]
Schwerner had been in Ohio at the time working on helping the National Council of Churches find more students to help with the Mississippi Summer Project. When he found out about the church burning, he decided to drive back to Mississippi [his wife Rita stayed behind in Ohio]. Accompanying him were 21-year-old James Chaney, a black man, and Andrew Goodman [a 20 year old Jewish man also from New York, whom they had recruited at the Ohio gathering]. They were heading to Longdale in Neshoba County, where the sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, and his deputy, Cecil Price, were members of the Klan, although the Klansmen never publicly announced it. [Source]
That’s Rainey, on the left below, next to Price. No, Sheriff Rainey didn’t have the mumps that day. News reports out of Philadelphia in the coming months and years often described Rainey as always having a chaw of Redman chewing tobacco stuffed in his cheek.
And that is the last time Mickey’s wife ever heard from him. On June 21 the three men arrived in Mississippi and visited the burned church, talked with people there, and then drove off into the afternoon toward their base of operations in Meridian. They expected to be back in Meridian by 4 PM. But by late that night, Mickey Schwerner hadn’t called Rita to assure her they had arrived.
By the next day Rita realized something had happened to her husband and his coworkers. She filed a missing persons report with the authorities, and then talked to a reporter from the New York Times…
The next day the FBI began searching for the three men, and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered 150 federal agents to be sent from New Orleans to Mississippi. FBI agents found the remains of the car driven by the activists near a river in northeast Neshoba County. The car was abandoned and burned, which led the FBI to name the case “MIBURN,” for Mississippi Burning.
Fearing the men were dead, the federal government sent hundreds of sailors from a nearby naval air station to search the nearby swamps for the bodies.
Although they didn’t find the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the Navy divers who dragged the river discovered two other young black activists, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore; a 14-year-old named Herbert Oarsby, found wearing a CORE T-shirt; and five other black men who remained unidentified. [Source]
Not everyone admitted to believing the latest three civil rights workers were dead…for instance, there was Paul Johnson, who had been inaugurated as Mississippi’s governor in January 1964.
In his inaugural address in 1964, Johnson chose the “Pursuit of Excellence” as his term’s theme and said, “Hate, or prejudice, or ignorance, will not lead Mississippi while I sit in the governor’s chair.” To many, that comment had a hollow ring five months later, when during the investigation of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in June 1964, Johnson offered little or no help. He praised Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey and deputy sheriff Cecil Price. He also dismissed fears that the trio had been murdered, saying “Maybe they went to Cuba”, a reference to its communist regime, as civil rights opponents often suggested the movement was a communist plot. [Source]
Mississippi Senator James Eastland was likewise skeptical, and he expressed his opinion forcefully to President Lyndon B Johnson,
But we don’t have to guess what LBJ’s response was, as you will see from this article of June 25, 2014 in the New York Times…
Fifty years ago this week, three young civil rights activists — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — vanished in Neshoba County, Miss.
That same week, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate and was on its way to President Lyndon Johnson for his signature. Mississippi had been seething with death threats against young men and women who had come to register African-American voters in what they called “Freedom Summer.” Goodman and Schwerner were white New Yorkers, Chaney a black Mississippian.
Thanks to Johnson’s secret taping system, we can go back to that moment and hear the president and those around him reacting to the terrible news.
Yes, this is better than the old You Are There TV show of the 1950s, that had historical fiction “recreations” of significant moments in history! In all of those, the TV writers had to invent most of the dialogue for the events, such as the capture of Jesse James or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But we don’t have to guess exactly what was said in the Oval Office that day, we can hear it with our own ears. (As Americans later did with Nixon’s secret tapes relevant to the Watergate scandal.)
“What do you think happened?” L.B.J. asks his assistant legal counsel, Lee White. “Think they got killed?”
White replies: “This morning they had absolutely no trace. As far as they’re concerned, they just disappeared from the face of the earth.”
Johnson recalls that in preparation for Freedom Summer, he had asked J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, “to fill up Mississippi with F.B.I. men and infiltrate” the Ku Klux Klan and other militant segregationist groups — “that they haul them in by the dozens.”
“The only weapon I have for locating them is the F.B.I.,” he says. “I can’t find them myself.”
He scoffs at the suggestion by his growing political rival, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that the president visit with the missing young men’s parents. “I’m afraid that if I start housemothering each kid that’s gone down there and that doesn’t show up, that we’ll have this White House full of people every day, asking for sympathy,” he tells Kennedy’s deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach. “And congressmen too, because they want to come over and have their picture made and get on TV.”
Asked what he thinks befell the young men, Katzenbach says they probably “got picked up by some of these Klan people.”
Johnson asks, “And murdered?”
“Or else they’re just being hidden in one of those barns,” Katzenbach says. “And having the hell scared out of them.”
When L.B.J. calls Senator James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat and a well-known segregationist, Eastland makes it clear he is anything but sympathetic to the young men’s plight.
“I don’t believe there’s three missing,” he sputters. “I believe it’s a publicity stunt.”
But as much as Lyndon might have wanted to accept Governor Johnson’s and Senator Eastland’s dismissive attitudes to the situation, he couldn’t embrace them very long. The phone rang.
Then Hoover calls the president to report that the F.B.I. has found the Ford station wagon that the three had been riding in. “The car was burned,” he says, “and we do not know yet whether any bodies are inside of the car because of the intense heat that still is in the area of the car.
“Apparently what’s happened — these men have been killed. … This is merely an assumption — that probably they were burned in the car. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.”
“Or maybe kidnapped and locked up,” Johnson says.
Ruefully, Hoover says, “I would doubt whether those people down there would give them even that much of a break.”
Soon the president realizes he must see the young men’s relatives, but wants it done quietly. “Tell them to just come down to your office, and come in that side door,” he instructs Lee White. “Tell them what-all we’ve done, and let me come over and say a word. And I just ought to tell them we’ve found the car.”
White says, “That’s going to be rough.”
When Goodman’s parents and Schwerner’s father entered the Oval Office, Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, heard L.B.J. talking to Hoover about finding the car. She later recalled, “I wanted to leap toward his desk and shout: ‘Tell me quickly. Are they all right?’ ”
Johnson took her hand and described the flaming wreck, saying, “Ma’am, we’ll do everything we can.” [Source]
Another family member who “showed up at the White House” was Rita Schwerner—who most assuredly was not requesting “sympathy.” In a 2014 interview with ProPublica Rita had this to say 50 years later about that meeting:
Q: After your husband went missing, you met with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson, and you used those meetings to call out those two powerful men. In fact, after you brushed away President Johnson’s niceties by saying, “This is not a social call. I’ve come to find out where my husband is,” you were told by his press secretary that no one speaks to the president of the United States that way. How did you manage to say those things? Was it because you believed he had been acquiescent to the violence that ultimately led to your husband’s death?
A: … I guess the answer is, why not? They were true. What was Lyndon Johnson possibly going to do to me? In a way, I was very safe. When I went there, that day there had been discussion with some of the other movement people, “What was the message?” And the message was people are being murdered, people are being brutalized, you’ve got to send protection, you’ve got to send federal troops. It wasn’t just send people to find these bodies, it was send protection, which didn’t actually happen. [Source]
On Tuesday, August 4, all the speculation about hoaxes ended, when the bodies of the three young men were found, not by further searching, but by a tip from an informant.
The bodies were found under a fresh pile of tons of bulldozed mud…
THREE MILES FROM THE NESHOBA COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS.
Just as the Fair was about to spring into being for its 1964 incarnation.
From the New York Times, Saturday, August 8, 1964, four days after the bodies were found:
Neshoba County Fair Unclouded By Murder of Rights Workers
JOHN HERBERS; Special to The New York Times
PHILADELPHIA, Miss., Aug. 8—The white people of Neshoba County put aside today talk of the murder of three civil rights workers and flocked to their fairgrounds for a week of reunion, fun and politics.
But the “nigra issue” was present, nevertheless, just as it has been since the turn of the century when James K. Vardaman, as Governor and Senator, rocked the pavilion with his anti‐Negro thunder.
The Neshoba County Fair officially opens Monday, but most families who own wooden shanties built around the pavilion arrived early, their cars stuffed with mattresses, fresh vegetables and rocking chairs.
B. Hillman, the 86‐year‐old chairman, who is as much an institution as the fair itself, said the people were determined not to let the scandal dampen the festivities.
Some Expected Hoax
“Even though those people [the three young men] didn’t have any business here [translation: they were unwelcome “outsider busybodies”], we don’t believe in that sort of thing [outright murder…],” Mr. Hillman said. He alluded to the three murdered youths, who had joined the drive to break down the state’s pattern of segregation.
“We were all surprised when the bodies were found out by the fairgrounds,” he said, explaining that most whites thought their disappearance on June 21 was a hoax.
“But we are not going to let it interfere with the fair,” he added.
The bodies were unearthed Tuesday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from an earthen dam on a farm three miles northeast of the fairgrounds. [Between the city limits of Philadelphia and the fairgrounds.]
See, there’s one thing I didn’t mention in the earlier colorful descriptions of the Fair…
In terms of the people attending, it never was a colorful fair. Even though the population of Neshoba County has long been about 1/3 people of color, the Fair has been, throughout most of its history, a totally white-washed institution. Any blacks spotted on the grounds would have been either maintenance men, men tending horses at the racetrack stables, or women working as maids.
In recent years you might spot a smattering of blacks actually attending the fair, but they are still in an extreme minority…and none have ever owned a cabin. A commentary online written by a black female reporter who visited the fair for a day with a white male reporter friend in 2012 mentioned an informal “census” they took of how many blacks they saw at the fair. Out of 20,000 or so people… they counted 30 blacks. Some, including the black lady wearing a hairnet and apron tossing a bucket of water out the back door of a cabin, were obviously not visitors but employees of some sort.
I also neglected to mention one very central “attraction” of the Fair beyond the Country Music stars, the horse racing, and the big pigs. The Fair has long been a mecca for politicians running for office. I’ll let Mr. Hillman tell about it:
Mr. Hillman also recalled how the fair had made and broken politicians.
The brand of politics most popular is shown by this year’s  list of speakers. Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the Republican Presidential nominee, and the former Governor of Mississippi, Ross R. Barnett , are among those scheduled for the middle of the week.
Mr. Hillman, a retired lawyer, said the fair first became a political forum when the Democratic primary replaced the convention in the early nineteen‐hundreds, giving the poor whites of the state a greater voice in the selection of candidates. Mr. Vardaman used the fair then to call for total disfranchisement of the Negro.
Actually, Mr. Vardaman called for even more than “disenfranchisement” in his political speeches…
Known as “The Great White Chief”, Vardaman had gained electoral support for his advocacy of populism and white supremacy, saying: “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” [Source]
On August 12, 1964, a New York Times reporter sent in another article about goings-on at the Fair.
PHILADELPHIA, Miss., Aug. 12 — The Neshoba County Fair has been known as Mississippi’s political barometer. Politicking opened at the fair today and all the signs pointed to Senator Barry Goldwater for President.
In the old days, a Republican would not have been welcomed. Today, Mr. Goldwater would have received a rousing reception in the tin‐roofed pavilion.
Automobiles arriving from throughout the state carried Goldwater stickers and many of the wooden cabins where families spend the week while taking in the fair showed Goldwater banners.
“You can tell just by talking to people here that Goldwater will take at least 60 per cent of the vote in Mississippi,” a Philadelphia businessman said. “Our only problem is whether to support him on a Republican or a Democratic ticket.”
Barry Goldwater Jr. was to have put in an appearance but the state Republican organization said he was unable to work it in to his schedule.
Barry Jr. with Ronald Reagan in 1964, both working on the Goldwater campaign.
Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama canceled his scheduled appearance, saying that he could not leave a special session of the Legislature in Montgomery. One of the sponsors of the fair said:
“It’s just as well. We don’t need anything to stir us up at this time.”
He alluded to the abduction and murder of three civil rights workers whose bodies were found last week under an earthen dam three miles from the fairgrounds.
As the political speeches got under way, rumors still persisted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was about to make arrests in the case. According to the rumors — none of them confirmed — five to seven men in the county are suspects and the F.B.I. has been continuing to compile evidence against them.
The incident had a dampening effect on the fair’s festivities, even on the political speeches. Attacks on Federal intervention were toned down a little.
The fair has long attracted politicians seeking state office. Neshoba County is near the geographical center of the state and its 23,000 residents are said to be representative of the state in political preference.
… “When a Governor’s campaign starts you can come up here and look at the bumper stickers on the pick‐up trucks and see who is going to win,” an official of the fair said.
About 600 people ranging from farmers in blue jeans to visiting F.B.I. agents gathered around the pavilion today for the speeches. Others stood under large oaks or sat on the cabin porches and listened. Swarms of chattering children with balloons roamed through the crowd.
Dr. Ney Williams, a Jackson physician who is ardent for Goldwater, asked and received permission to speak, although he had not been on the program. Dr. Williams said he wanted to get Communists out of the Government, to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, eliminate foreign aid, get the United States out of the United Nations and put the F.B.I. to hunting Communists instead of civil rights violators in Mississippi.
But see, all this we’ve been looking at in this blog entry, including the tragic deaths of those young men in 1964, and the Fair politics of 1964, was long ago, right? Why, we’ve already passed the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. Ancient history.
Well, not really.
Notice that in 1964 Barry Goldwater’s son, Barry Junior, was scheduled to show up at the Fair to stump for his daddy’s presidential campaign (although he later had to cancel the appearance because of scheduling conflicts). Guess who did show up in 2016 at that same Fair to stump for his daddy’s presidential campaign?
Yep, Donald Trump’s son, Donny Junior.
And guess which politician, before that, made his very first major campaign speech after winning his party’s nomination, essentially inaugurating his run for president, … at the Neshoba County Fair, wowing the crowd with his oratory? (And the cuteness of his wife…)
Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 1980, testing out the rocking chair
presented to them as a gift by the Neshoba County Fair.
Yup. You could have met Ronnie ‘n’ Donny (Jr) at the Neshoba County Fair—even though it was 36 years apart. Why do you ‘spose a Former Movie Star from Hollywood and a current Spoiled Little Rich Boy from New York would choose to make major visits to an obscure county fair out in the hot and muggy mudflats of Mississippi in a quest to make political hay?
In the answer to that question lies a twisted tale to be told,
winding its way from 1964 to the present.
Look for it in the next entry in this series, coming soon:
(Dog) Whistling Dixie
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