JACKSON, Miss. -- For Rick Looser, the last straw came on an airline flight a couple of years ago when a 12-year-old Connecticut boy sitting next to him asked, "Do you still see the KKK on the streets every day?"
That prompted the Mississippi advertising executive to spend his own money on a campaign to dispel Mississippi's image as a forlorn state of poor, illiterate, racist "good ole boys."
"Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state in the country," Looser said. "The old stereotype of the short, fat, white, bald men in suits smoking cigars just doesn't carry weight."
Looser's campaign -- "Mississippi, Believe It!" -- doesn't shy from the fact that the state has a segregationist past, or that national studies consistently put it near the bottom in education and near the top in poverty and obesity. But through its website, posters, T-shirts, and other merchandise, the campaign seeks to show another side.
One of the slogans -- "No Black. No White. Just the Blues." -- notes that the state is a cradle of the blues and home to such greats as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters.
Another says, "In Mississippi, We Always Have Our Hand Out. But It's Usually to Give, Not Receive," noting that for eight consecutive years Mississippians have given more per capita to charity in relation to income than residents of any other state.
The debate over exactly what Mississippi has to offer came to the forefront last month when Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, told The New York Times, "Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?" Rangel apologized days later.
Looser plans to send Rangel a shirt with the slogan "Yes, we can read and a few of us can even write," which is part of a campaign to highlight the state's literary giants, such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and John Grisham.
"If he is truly sorry, we want his staff to take a picture of him in the shirt and send it to us," Looser said. "That will close the chapter on his apology."
Looser has spent about $300,000 overall on the year-old campaign.
Looser, president of The Cirlot Agency in suburban Jackson, said the biggest stumbling block remains Mississippi's racial history. Several of his ads meet this head-on, including one that touts the state's status in electing blacks. The slogan? "Meet a Few of Our New 'Good Ole Boys.' "
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, agreed that Mississippi does not always deserve such a bad rap.
"People think that the Klan and white supremacist groups in general are Southern artifacts, but that simply is not the truth," Potok said.
"We see as many hate groups, and certainly as many hate crimes, in Northern and even coastal states. It's a cliché that has some residual truth, but essentially doesn't describe the situation as it is anymore."
But even Potok couldn't help taking a jab at Mississippi: "Over here in Alabama, we say, 'Thank God for Mississippi' or else we'd be last in everything."
Looser has also sent his "Mississippi, Believe It!" posters to every school in the state, seeking to instill a sense of pride in youngsters by showing others who have made it from the state, including entertainers Elvis Presley, Morgan Freeman, Faith Hill, and Leontyne Price; sports greats Brett Favre and Walter Payton; and Dr. James Hardy, who performed the first lung transplant and the first transplant of a chimpanzee heart into a human.
"I have kids in school and I want them to see those wonderful people and know that being raised in Mississippi is not a disadvantage," Looser said.
"It's an advantage," Looser added, "and they can be anything they want to be."