Thanks NLCC for 20 great years

Published 12:22 am Monday, February 16, 2009

As the old saying goes, ‘God willin’ and the crik don’t rise,” my wife Nancy and I soon will arrive in Natchez to participate in the 20th Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, starting Thursday. When it opens I will have attended all 20 of these remarkable conferences. What a privilege; what a blessing!

What better word than “remarkable” to describe this event that was the brainchild of Carolyn Vance Smith. Had the current generation not over-used “awesome,” one might prefer that adjective. In more ways than we have space to discuss here, the NLCC truly is remarkable. First consider its longevity — a fifth of a century. Then there is the appeal of its themes and speakers as well as the popularity of its 20-year director of proceedings, former governor William Winter. And of course there is the support of the Natchez community both in dollars and in attendance.

Not only is the celebration remarkable for the outstanding support Natchez has given it, the NLCC is remarkable because of what it has given back to Natchez as measured in national publicity, tourism income, educational benefits to adults as well as students and improved race relations. The list goes on.

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Not only has the NLCC maintained an amazingly high standard for topics and speakers, but it has grown in scope. Now it boasts four sponsors: Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. In 1994 it inaugurated the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award (generously underwritten by The Natchez Democrat). In 2002 it inaugurated the Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting. From its inception, the Mississippi Humanities Council has partially funded the NLCC, and for most years so has the Mississippi Arts Commission. These federal funds, re-granted by the two state agencies, were wisely spent. I doubt if any humanities programs in any of the 50 states have been attended by such large crowds in proportion to the dollars granted.

Two other programs incorporated into the NLCC worthy of mention are the William Winter Scholarships and the William and Harriet Vance Memorial Fellowships. The former are awarded to several dozen students, faculty and professionals who represent the humanities divisions in their respective academic institutions while the latter provide for the participation of public school teachers.

Still another interesting feature of the NLCC is its advisory board that is comprised of some 50 men and women from across the nation whose careers span the worlds of arts and letters, business and even the federal judiciary. The widespread volunteerism of so many Natchez citizens also explains the long-term success of the NLCC founded by Carolyn Vance Smith who remains as co-chair along with Kathleen Jenkins, Jim Barnett and Marie Antoon.

Many readers of The Natchez Democrat recall the creative themes that attracted so many outstanding speakers from all over the United States and even from overseas. The Natchez Trace was the topic of the inaugural conference in 1990, one that I will never forget. It was my luck to follow the noted author Robert Remini, who spoke on Andrew Jackson and who received a thunderous standing ovation. Remini attracted large crowds during several subsequent conferences. All 19 of the subsequent programs have been winners. One of the most popular — to my surprise — was “Biscuits, Gumbo, Sweet Tea and Bourbon Balls.” But all have drawn large and enthusiastic crowds. The one that opens in just a few days — “Southern Women Writers: Saluting the Eudora Welty Centennial” — undoubtedly will be another “crowd pleaser,” if you will pardon this hackneyed but accurate term.

Nancy and I anticipate seeing many familiar faces in the crowds that this appealing program will attract. Meanwhile, we say “thank you” to Natchez for these 20 memorable events. We hope to see you there.

John D. W. Guice is a professor of history emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi.