Mississippians have a preoccupation with genius. We take more pride in?the?God-given and unteachable — William Faulkner’s prose or?Walter Payton’s agility — than?the learned and?practiced. It’s one?of the perverse, often self-defeating contradictions?within our state’s identity: amidst?fields of ignorance, brilliance is nurtured.

Perhaps that’s why we pay close attention when?the MacArthur Foundation awards its annual fellowships, or “Genius Grants.” Yesterday, MacArthur?unveiled?the class of 2014: 21 supremely-talented?individuals in fields ranging from?labor organizing to?jazz composition.

No Mississippian made the list this year, but the MacArthur Foundation published some interesting statistics about the geographic distribution of its 897 previous?fellows. As one might expect, our state has historically been fertile ground for geniuses (which MacArthur, and I, define as exceptionally creative, innovative, and motivated people).

Mississippi fellows have included?investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell (2009), Delta community leader Unita Blackwell?(1992), and public health?activist?Dr. Aaron Shirley?(1993). Other fellows –?civil rights leaders Bob Moses (1982) and Marian Wright Edelman?(1985), historian Dr. Barbara Fields?(1992), and anthropological linguist Dr. Nora England?(1993) — have?strong Mississippi ties.

The statistics published by the MacArthur Foundation credit six Mississippians as fellows?(note: they don’t list names, so I’m not quite sure whom?they are counting). In per capita terms, that?stacks up to 21st nationally, including D.C., but?it’s tops among?states that can be considered Southern. Aside from Virginia, Mississippi produces MacArthur fellows?at more than twice the rate of any?of our regional counterparts.


Mississippi 0.202
Virginia 0.162
Louisiana 0.11
Tennessee 0.095
North Carolina 0.094
Missouri 0.067
Alabama 0.063
Georgia 0.062
Oklahoma 0.053
Kentucky 0.046
Texas 0.04
Florida 0.037
Arkansas 0.034
South Carolina 0.022
West Virginia 0

Note: Population as of 2010 U.S. Census.


Now, our Southern peers?might quibble and say that they stack up better against Mississippi when counting?where fellows are born, not where they lived when they won the award.?Mississippi still comes out ahead, though?by a slimmer margin.

The difference is that all of Mississippi’s fellows elected to stay?home. Other than?Mississippi, only?Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia?– certainly benefiting from?the draw of the D.C. area –?can claim as many or more fellows at the time of their award than at birth.


This is a bit of a paradox for two reasons. First, as Rethink has?written before, Mississippi is the only Southern state that?has lost more residents than it has gained in recent decades. The effect is especially pronounced among the most-educated Mississippians — the MacArthur pool, more or less — who often have to leave for professional or educational opportunities they can’t?find?in their home state.

Second, MacArthur fellows are statistically more?mobile than other Americans. The foundation reports that 79 percent of the 701 fellows born in the U.S. lived outside their native state at the time they won their award. By comparison, 30 percent of the total population and 42 percent of college grads live?outside of the state where they were born, according to Census data.

Yet all of Mississippi’s MacArthur fellows bucked the trend. This small and exceptional sample probably can’t?bear the weight of broad conclusions about Mississippi’s relationship with genius, but I will offer an observation nonetheless.

Creativity always seeks a canvas. Even with?the contributions?of Mr. Mitchell, Dr. Shirley, Mrs. Blackwell, and many others,?Mississippi’s canvas still has many blank spaces?waiting to be filled in. And for those with eager hands,?the state’s?ongoing?tension?between conflict and compassion?offers a?vibrant palette of colors with which to work.

It’s unlikely that?Mississippi?gives birth?to?more geniuses than other states, but we?do?provide?those who have?talent and grit?with the?room to create. Most?won’t win?MacArthur Fellowships or other prestigious awards.?Some might?not earn much recognition?at all. But they can find opportunities to express and fulfill their genius?in a place?that values it more highly than any other.

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