This weekend, Mississippi celebrated its bicentennial with the grand opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. At the invitation of Governor Phil Bryant, President Donald Trump attended the opening ceremony, becoming the fourteenth president to visit the state while in office. Father and son John and Zachary Hilpert are authors of the forthcoming book, Campaigns and Hurricanes: A History of Presidential Visits to Mississippi, the definitive guide to every presidential visit to the state of Mississippi. Below, they provide an excerpt from their book to contextualize the most recent presidential visit to the state.
John M. Hilpert is President Emeritus of Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. His previous book, American Cyclone: Theodore Roosevelt and His 1900 Whistle Stop Campaign, was published by UPM in 2015. Zachary M. Hilpert is an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. degree from the College of William and Mary. His principal research interest has been the commercialization of disaster imagery in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
Controversy arose immediately when the White House announced that President Donald Trump would visit Jackson, Mississippi, on December 9, 2017, for the formal opening of a new Civil Rights Museum. Media focused the public’s attention on issues of race, as newspaper columns and television screens nationwide filled with stories of related incidents from this administration’s time in office. These immediate and extraordinary reactions underscored the significance of presidential trips to the state. The following is an excerpt from John and Zachary Hilpert’s forthcoming book, Campaigns and Hurricanes: A History of Presidential Visits to Mississippi, available this spring from UPM.
EXCERPT: CAMPAIGNS AND HURRICANES: A HISTORY OF PRESIDENTIAL VISITS TO MISSISSIPPI
Americans evidence endless fascination with the institution of the presidency, and they are generally anxious to see in the flesh any individual who has risen to the office. Even during periods of public disapproval, citizens will mass at rallies or overfill rooms for town-hall style discussions when a president comes to town. Seemingly embodied in one individual are the nation’s hopes, dreams, expectations, and disappointments. How many jewelry boxes have one or more campaign pins tucked away from recent or long-forgotten elections? How many office or home walls have oversized portraits of the current president or of an admired predecessor in the White House? How many hundreds of thousands or millions of political arguments happen each day over coffee, as Americans assess the performance of the nation’s chief executive? How many opinion pages in newspapers would be largely empty if there weren’t a president to support or criticize?
Citizens of an area visited by a president have physical proof that they are valued participants in the life of the nation, important enough that the person considered the most powerful in the world has traveled to see them, to listen to them, and to seek their approval for policies, accomplishments, or candidates for office. Thus, a presidential visit is nearly irresistible; it draws supporters, critics, and the merely curious. All states have histories of presidential visits, but for many states such events are relatively rare occurrences to be savored and recalled for years, even decades, into the future. More communities than not have never been visited by a sitting president of the United States, but still there will be those residents in town who entertain friends and neighbors with stories of their travel to larger population centers where they were so close to a president that they reached out for a handshake.
There are some presidential encounters that no town would desire, namely, those made in response to a disaster – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the like. Yet in those instances, a visit from the president offers comfort and assurance that the region’s tragedy is recognized and that assistance from the highest levels of government is on the way. Mississippi has benefited from such presidential visits in the shadows of several disasters – Hurricanes Camille, Frederic, and Katrina to name a few.
Fortunately for most states, including Mississippi, presidential disaster visits are not the sole category. There are statewide and local candidates of the president’s party to support. There are issues that are highlighted by the successes, problems, or voters of a particular location. There are awards to give, military installations to review, celebrations and commencements to attend, donors to thank, and on and on. Time is precious and travel is expensive. The purpose for each visit must be clear and meaningful.
Mississippi is not the most visited state by presidents of the United States, but neither is it the least visited. These days, Republican chief executives visit Mississippi much more frequently than Democrats, a predictable result of the fact that for sixty years only one presidential election in the state has gone the way of the Democratic candidate. This has resulted, in no small measure, from the success of the Republicans’ Southern Strategy that has given the party a hold on the southeast region of the nation. Mississippi is a prime example of that success.
Despite the state’s half-century history as a Republican stronghold, all eight presidents who served between Richard Nixon’s oath of office in 1969 and Barack Obama’s farewell in early 2017 – five Republicans and three Democrats – made one or more visits apiece to Mississippi. Prior to the Nixon years, only five of the first thirty-six presidents visited while in office, and there were no visitors before William McKinley in 1901. Including that first instance, there have been sixty-nine stops by United States Presidents in thirty-three Mississippi communities during forty-five separate trips to the state.