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A bid to buff Mississippi's image

A native son aims to counter barbs and jokes about his state.

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Definition No. 6 in the "Urban Dictionary," an online tome written with the usual irreverence of Web-roaming readers, is the one that most gets under Rick Looser's skin. The entry reads: "Mississippi: the most racist state in the nation."

Fed up with the chuckles at his state's expense, Mr. Looser, an ad executive in Jackson, is using the tools of his trade to defend Mississippi from the barbs of comedians, cultural critics, and non-Southerners who suspect that the civil rights movement never really came to the Magnolia State. With all the tongue-in-cheek spin of Madison Avenue, he created a poster featuring Mississippi writers ranging from Richard Ford to Richard Wright, with these words: "Yes, we can read. Some of us can even write." Then he sent a copy to every school in the state.

Until now, heritage groups and state marketing committees have been the primary defenders of Southern states' reputations. Now, Looser's campaign aims to counteract what he sees as a bad rap and to lift the self-esteem of young Mississippians.

But is it possible for Americans to let Mississippi live down its dark legacies of resistance to civil rights?

"There's no doubt that we made our own bed and that Mississippi has been its own worst enemy, but [my] goal is to show the rest of the story," Looser says in a phone interview. So far he's spent about $275,000 of his own money on the PR campaign, which intensifies this month with new posters and a broader distribution.

A conversation two years ago with a 12-year-old Connecticut boy, during a plane trip to Atlanta, spurred Looser to try to remake Mississippi's image. The boy, Looser says, asked him if he hated blacks and how often the Ku Klux Klan marched in his hometown.

With the state's blessing, but no financial assistance, he launched his campaign, "Mississippi, Believe It!" He sent his posters to every private and public school in the state to instill self-confidence in young Mississippians and help them become "ambassadors" for Mississippi. A poster featuring Delta blues singers reads: "No black. No white. Just the blues."

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