Mississippi, ca. 1980

In 1980, Mississippi had a population of just over 2.5 million, and about 660,000 of those people were under age 15. Generation X in “the most Southern place on Earth” made up about 17.7% of the total population there.  According to the Mississippi Department of Vital Statistics, just over 1.6 million of the state’s residents were white and about 900,000 “nonwhite.” That meant that the state was about two-thirds white, with African Americans (presumably) making up the vast majority of the other third. 

county map for the 1987 governor’s race

The population was also shifting itself around geographically. DeSoto (near Memphis), Lamar (near Hattiesburg), and Rankin (near Jackson) counties all grew by 50% or more, with growth that was mostly white. Eleven other counties grew by 20 – 40%. As for cities and towns, Clinton and Pearl both grew by more than 100%, Southaven by 80%, and Ocean Springs by 50%. 

There are interesting aspects to using a vital statistics report rather than a census report to compile an overview like this one. For example, where a census report would note general numbers showing population change, a vital statistics report offers facts and figures about what was happening. For example, in 1980, the nonwhite birth rate was outpacing the white birth rate by almost double. Also, Table D-2 shows that 572 GenXers got married in 1980: eight thirteen-year-olds, fifty-eight fourteen-year-olds, and 506 fifteen-year-olds. Among the adults, there were 13,846 divorces in 1980, up from 8,211 in 1970, and the vast majority of them were caused by either “irreconcilable differences” or “cruel and inhuman treatment.” 

At the 1980s began, in politics, the mildly progressive William Winter was elected governor in 1979, but that didn’t stop Ronald Reagan from making the now-infamous move of kicking off his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba County with a “states’ rights” speech. During the early ’80s, Mississippi made the progressive move of reforming its education system but its legislature also failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Comparatively, Mississippi has long fallen behind in various ways. in 1980, Mississippi’s poverty rate was the highest in the nation at 24.3%. (By the mid-1980s, that rate was even higher at 25.6%.) Also, in 1983, it was the last state to put public radio on the air.


 

Definitions, Numbers, An Exodus, and the Stories

We’re talking about somewhere in the range of eight or nine million people, born between 1965 and 1980 and raised in the southeastern-most region of the United States, sometimes called the Deep South. Definitions of this place – the Deep South – are amorphous, and they vary. In contrast to the Upper South or Appalachia, this region-within-a-region doesn’t have clear borders. Some definitions are political, others geographic. I have mine, too.

To me, the Deep South is the lower portion of “The South,” usually identified by severe heat and thick humidity, rampant poverty and obvious inequality, staunch protestantism and fierce individualism, and the historical production of the cash crops that led to the use of human slavery. I don’t think anyone disputes the inclusion of the contiguous states Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, but there also are solid arguments for parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as northern Florida and eastern Texas. The Deep South encompasses the Black Belt, but is larger than that, and is part of the Bible Belt, but has more factors to consider. If you were to say that the Deep South, the Black Belt, and the Bible Belt were all the same thing, you’d be wrong. If you tried the easy way and conflated it with the old Confederacy, you’d have a solid half-understanding. And the folks who reduce it to “God and guns” or “Civil War and Civil Rights,” they’re generally correct and somewhat off at the same time.

Similar mistakes are made about Generation X. Media outlets like to use that still image of the Breakfast Club in the library or bring up Kurt Cobain. Sure, okay. Wedged between the Boomers and Millenials, between the turbulent ’60s and the digitized ’90s, we came along during the Cold War and the peak of divorce rates. Before “everybody gets a trophy,” we were a generation marked by a lack of supervision, and the answer for unmet needs was: “figure it out.” Bullying was real, and no one was immune: some kids got humiliated in PE, others in math class, an unlucky few in the free-for-all outside of school. We enjoyed new innovations like cable and the Atari, and for many of us, those became our companions when no one was home. Most efforts to define our generation have been . . . generally correct and somewhat off at the same time.

Generation X was a small generation, and in the Deep South, that held true. These numbers from the 1980 census show a little about us.

Those 10- to 14-year-olds in 1980 were the oldest of us, born mostly in the 1960s, with the two younger groups coming along in the ’70s. Here, I added an extra column, on the far right, with the group just older than us, born in the early to mid-’60s, many of whom were our older brothers, sisters, and cousins. The size of that group is noticeably larger. You can also see, if you follow a state’s numbers backwards from right to left, how each five-year grouping gets smaller, with tens of thousands fewer children in each five-year age range.

Ten years later, in the 1990 census, the shifts are easy to see.

In Alabama, where I live, the state population had grown by 150,000 between 1980 and 1990, but the Generation X population had dropped by 7,000. There were 23,000 fewer 20- to -24-year-old Alabamians than there were 10- to 14-year-olds ten years earlier. (It looks like they grew up and left.) Likewise, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, the population grew, while the number of Xers shrunk. By contrast, Georgia’s state population grew by more than 1,000,000 from 1980 to 1990, and its Generation X population grew by 150,000. (This would have included creative people like actor-writer Tyler Perry, who was born in 1969 in New Orleans and moved to Atlanta around this time.) South Carolina’s Generation X population also grew significantly, by 57,000 people. (That was undoubtedly spurred forward by the popularity of Hootie and the Blowfish, which formed in 1986.) Yet, as a portion of the Deep Southern populace, Generation X diminished in size, from 23.21% in 1980 to 22.52% in 1990.

So, where did those young folks go? To Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas? And if so, why, and what was there? I had friends who left Alabama for Atlanta after finishing college in the ’90s. The lure of the big city. When I would ask why Atlanta— “It’s better than here.”  Personally, I liked New Orleans and Charleston, even Savannah—smaller, older, less stressful cities.

Of course, I stayed put in Montgomery, watched the local exodus from my couch, and have lived a different kind of life than those who went looking for “better than here.” Born in Montgomery in 1974, I never knew the violent city described in Civil Rights documentaries, that ugliness we sensed but didn’t witness. In the 1980s and ’90s, our mythic downtown – where Rosa Parks arrested and where the march from Selma culminated – was desolate and half-shuttered. Then the revival came in the new millennium, driven in part by very public acknowledgments of what went unacknowledged during my younger years, i.e. Civil Rights tourism. I think that, despite the fluid lives of the thousands who moved, most of us did what I did: finished school, built a life, and watched things change.

About ten years ago, when I was first submitting the proposal for my Children of the Changing South anthology to academic presses around the South, one press’s anonymous reviewer sent back the negative comment that no one cares about the ’70s and ’80s, because nothing happened. I disagreed, of course, and moreover, I wondered how a grown, highly educated scholar in the South could think about those two decades and declare that nothing happened. Maybe he or she just didn’t care. But I do, and I know that there are gracious plenty of stories to be told.

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level:deepsouth is an online anthology created in 2020 with the goal of documenting Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s by collecting works of creative nonfiction (personal essays, memoirs, and reviews) about our lives back then and since then. The project is open for submissions.