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a depth report by the university of mississippi’s MEEK school of journalism and new media

The Roads of Broken Dreams

Can a new Delta arise from the rot of the Old South?

SaLLy mcdonneLL BarkSdaLe honorS coLLeGe aT The

unIverSITyof mISSISSIPPI Providing students a vibrant center of academic excellence to help them become outstanding in their fields and engaged citizens of their communities and the world

Lillian A skins

The Roads of Broken Dreams Can a new Delta arise from the rot of the Old South?


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The state must provide some form of public early childhood education to get poor children on the right track before kindergarten. Too many are too far behind by the time they hit school. The Delta must find a solution to its de facto segregated schools if it is ever to lure significant new business and industry and stop the exodus. Parents who send children to private academies will not move them to public schools until they see clear proof that public schools can provide a quality education.


DE L T A c o n c l u s i o n s



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The state should consider helping fund several KIPP schools in the Delta such as the ones popping up in Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. The kids admitted to these high-standards, public charter schools are 96 percent black and underachievers. The students have longer school days, skilled teachers, school on Saturdays and have a record of sending 85 percent of their graduates to colleges and universities. The almost all-black KIPP school in Helena, Ark., just graduated a senior class in which every single student has been admitted to college. Mississippi legislators ignore that record of success at the state’s own peril. Schools must find a way to recruit larger numbers of Teach for America teachers who bring intelligence, eagerness, ambition and a determination to help the children.


The Barksdale Reading Program’s plan to loan top-notch principals to troubled schools needs to be continued and perhaps expanded to cover more at risk schools. If poor Delta parents don’t make education the major priority for their children, schools will continue to struggle and students are not likely to excel. Mississippi needs to create a program to counsel and motivate generational welfare families, including instruction on how to create a home environment conducive to education. MERIDIAN VICKSBURG



The Delta needs to follow Tupelo’s example and have health professionals track all students from birth to high school graduation in terms of inoculations, general health and physical condition.



The Delta’s influence in the world of duck hunting is growing. The Delta needs to do more to promote itself as a hunting and fishing paradise, with seasonal lodges that cater to out-of-state clientele. That would also stimulate sales of hunting and fishing gear.


The Mississippi Delta

The state has made a good start at attacking the Delta’s obesity problem in the schools. But it needs to more aggressively push exercise requirements. Regular weight and physical condition report cards need to be given to students and their parents and the health department needs to be given power to monitor and even change the program.


The state and the towns of the Delta need to do more to promote Blues tourism and cultural tourism in general. Every small town can’t reap a Clarksdale-like windfall from the Blues, but the larger cities of the Delta can stimulate their economies by developing clubs, recording studios and a souvenir infrastructure. With state and local money, Mississippi needs to push hard to develop civil rights tourism. Many Delta cities played key roles in the civil rights movement. Most of the tourists flocking here for the Blues are white. A civil rights museum in the Delta might draw more black tourists and stimulate cross-tourism with the Blues scene. Museums in Birmingham, Montgomery and Memphis draw thousands of tourists a year. The days of luring small plants here based on cheap labor are over. The key cities in the Delta need to study the Viking model in Greenwood, where a locally-owned appliance manufacturer trains and employs hundreds of local residents for skilled jobs producing quality products.



It is difficult for divided cities and regions to prosper. In key cities throughout the Delta, black and white officials and community leaders are working together better than ever before. The entire region needs to adopt that philosophy of unity if it is to successfully recruit new residents and new business.


The Delta seeks salvation Amid the carnage of race and poverty, something is stirring in the dust of the Delta. Is it hope? B y JOSEPH WILLIAMS

R ei d Kelly

Along Highways 3 and 49 in the north Mississippi Delta, things are bleak. Towns are crumbling and looted of any pleasant veneer. Empty buildings, once home to industry, rot on a landscape known for its fertile soil. People and stray dogs wander aimlessly through sagging shells of towns. The dismal stretches of roadway look bombed out and broken, like they’ve been through war. Once roads to riches, they have become roads of broken dreams. Those who remain, who haven’t died or fled, are bewildered. It was only 20 years ago that prospects were reasonable. Twenty years before that, there was prosperity and opportunity. Before that, unimaginable wealth in the land of King Cotton. But what is most beguiling about this vast, flat, sun-broiled landscape is not that it was once a place of plenty and now a desperate land, but rather that people remain at all, people who love a region that has forsaken them and a people that betrayed them. In the most unlikely places, plans are being drawn for a people’s reconstruction of a place most consider doomed or already dead. And the idealists are gaining traction. What started as grocery counter chatter now fills agendas for local city boards and national committees. For the first time in a long time, hope is stirring.You cannot listen to its apostles, cannot watch the new cooperation between black and white without thinking this: The Delta may have a chance. Drive the roads and you will see. Clarksdale, once a place that bitterly fought integration, has cashed in by em-



bracing the black man’s music. Calling itself “the real thing,” it has become a magnet for Blues tourists, luring people back downtown to join the party. Marks, launching pad for the Poor People’s March on Washington in the 1960s, now has black and white leaders working together on Christmas parades, unity celebrations and special church meetings. There is talk of an Amtrak stop, of a museum or souvenir shop built around Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Mule Train. Sumner, having apologized for the acquittal of Emmett Till’s killers, has a biracial committee working to restore its decrepit courthouse and create an Emmett Till museum and civil rights trail to attract tourists. The town that hosted one of America’s most outrageous denials of justice now promotes that very history in a quest for survival. Lambert. Sledge. Indianola. Greenwood. Town after town, big and small, is rising up and fighting to remake itself. They know it will not be easy. But they do not lack for determination. Nor dreams. Nor hope. The hope depends on the quality of people born of this hardscrabble existence. They wrested the farms from impenetrable wilderness, leaving the Delta the most altered landscape in America. The most impoverished among them ignited the flame of American music. They battled and bled for race, class and, now, survival. Deltans are nothing if not fighters. The present conflict, the one for survival, is something unprecedented. In the past, residents haggled, often violently, over rights and recognition in a land of privilege. Now it’s a tooth-and-nail war not against one another but against death and desperation, against a bitter civil rights history, crippling poverty and unemployment, poor health and failing schools. A new wilderness of some of the most depressing, discouraging circumstances in the country has grown up around those who remain. “How do you rebuild a nation that has been totally destroyed?” asks Pete Johnson, the former state auditor who until this summer headed the Delta Regional Authority by appointment of President George Bush. Johnson said the Delta, in size and uniqueness, is not unlike a small nation within a nation.“And when you look at this region and the history of this region, it’s had one calamity after another.” He begins to list the calamities, assessing

Jo seph Will iam s

Some of the nation’s worst poverty strangles many small Delta towns.

Joseph Wi ll iam s

The streets of too many rural towns offer little hope for young people. the enemy: Slavery. Civil War. Ensuing anarchy. Sharecropping. Mechanization of agriculture and the subsequent loss of jobs. Civil Rights strife. NAFTA-era desertion of manufacturing. Widespread unemployment and poverty. Poor health and education. Mass depopulation. His organization, a funnel for federal and state grants and a platform for Delta leadership to unite, enumerated these challenges, their historical context and their present

F L E E IN G T H E D E L T A The Delta’s population has been shrinking for decades. Along the Roads of Broken Dreams, it’s dropping fast. Percent County 1980 1990 2000 2008 change Coahoma 36,919 31,655 30,622 27,272 -25.8 Quitman 12,636 10,490 10,115 8,724 -31.0 Tallahatchie 17,157 15,210 14,903 13,027 -24.0 Source : U. S . Ce nsus

incarnations, and devised a strategy. “We’re addressing it from every angle you possibly can. Can we beat it? You bet we can,” Johnson said.

His list of problems centers on one fact: the Delta was built on an underclass. Time was, the Mississippi Delta was nothing more than a tangle of hardwood, vine and mystery. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was a no-man’s-land, the last American frontier. When fertile soil was found under the woody tangle, settlers vigorously flattened the rich alluvial plain. The area was 90 percent virgin wilderness in 1870, the province of panther, bear, bobcat and cottonmouth moccasins. By 1890, every Deltan lived within five miles of a railroad. Slaves cleared all that undergrowth for their cotton-farming bosses. The Civil War uprooted this status quo, and afterward,



Johnson said,“the Delta region was considered the wild west.” It was anarchy, and from the ashes rose a kind of sanctioned slavery called sharecropping. Labor was paid in room, board and loose change. Like slavery, there was no way up for the sharecropper. He was a tool, his children products. And, like any tool, he became outmoded. In the middle of this century, chemical and tractor technology transformed agriculture. Four men, a machine and a sprayer could do the fieldwork of hundreds. Mechanization “knocked the blocks out from

that kept national employment numbers in check largely avoided the Delta. Farming and banking families coasted out of town on old money while the underclass floundered like fish on the banks of the Mississippi. Poverty and desperation are the new status quo. They shadow every part of life and every glimmer of hope in the Delta. Diabetes, heart disease and obesity are as common as cotton, corn and soybeans. Too often, public schools fail to offer even a veneer of ambition. People pass time in the shadows of abandoned infrastructure.

health and social services while coalescing that sense of local pride and determination. But what may be the region’s biggest hope – tightly focused dignity – could be its biggest impediment to survival. “The issue is small towns, the nature of small towns,”Wilson said. Much of the local effort in the Delta, he said, is too tightly focused. People are asking the question, How do we save Lambert, Sledge or Sumner, when they should be asking, How do we save Tallahatchie County, Quitman County, the Delta. “Those towns existed on an economic

“With no pain there can be no gain, and the pain of higher unemployment now is creating a vortex of people wanting to come together and make something happen.” B la ke Wilson, pres i de nt of the M i s s i s s i ppi E co nom i c C oun c i l ,

under the huge labor force that was here,” Johnson said. But make no mistake, despite a struggling lower class, the Delta, still the courtyard of King Cotton, was one of the richest regions in the country. Clarksdale, for example, boasted five Fortune 500 companies as late as 1974. Now nearly half of its downtown buildings are empty. Then Civil Rights shook the nation. In the Delta, where the gulf between rich and poor, white and black, was greatest, the tremors threw the region again into anarchy. In the public eye, the Delta became the murderer of Emmitt Till,“the poorest place on earth,” an incubator for black strife and the nation’s third world. Blacks that rose up were beaten down, the rich bemoaned a paradise slipping through their fingers and whites fled first the newly integrated public schools and then the region altogether. Factories, mostly small cut-and-sew operations, sustained the workforce that remained. Then the North American Free Trade Act passed in the late 1990s, incentivizing corporate relocation abroad. With a historically uneducated, agrarian workforce, the high-tech and research-intensive industries and entrepreneurial ventures

But finally, with a national recession that pushed the region to the brink of demise, a dormant sense of pride is welling up among those who stayed. Many of the nay sayers have fled, and a rarified population looks at its beloved motherland and says, This won’t do. “With no pain there can be no gain, and the pain of higher unemployment now is creating a vortex of people wanting to come together and make something happen,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, which, ironically, was founded by a group of Delta businessmen in the 1940s. Everywhere, the effort to revive the land is gaining momentum. There are shadetree operations like Lambert’s Blues after School educational program consisting of one octogenarian with two guitars, a drum kit, a cobbled together building and a handful of students. There are multimillion-dollar government programs like the Delta Regional Authority, which claims that, for every DRA dollar spent between 2002 and 2007, $15 was added to the Delta’s per-capita income. And in between, local, regional and state efforts offer education,

base that was agrarian, so those towns now have to shift what they’re offering to a different economic base,”Wilson said. For villages that have traditionally preferred local projects under local control, their best bet, he thinks, is to support their county seats and regional employers with bedrooms, labor and small-town charm. Regrettably, many of the smallest towns may simply disappear. The potential key to what separates those who live and those who die: cultural uniqueness. This prospect has towns everywhere scrambling to recognize their significance, and in a region as historically tumultuous as the Delta, there is a lot to grab onto. On the large side of the spectrum is Clarksdale, population 18,000. With the help of big-money investors such as entrepreneur Bill Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman, Clarksdale has become a worldwide mecca for Blues tourists, billing itself as the birthplace of America’s music. Inns, clubs, museums, hotels and restaurants sprout from the Clarksdale concrete hoping to satisfy a world curious about the forefathers of rock and roll. Creativity abounds. Clarksdale’s Shack

Up Inn, for example, physically uprooted the region’s heritage when it relocated and renovated almost a dozen sharecropping shacks to be rented to Blues tourists. But, with a few exceptions like Shack Up, the money hasn’t started flowing freely yet. Ground Zero Blues Club, Freeman’s and Luckett’s totem to Clarksdale’s musical heritage, is in its ninth year and only now is beginning to show a profit. “We’ve got some great anchors, and that’s going to be what you build on. That’s how you build a critical mass,”Wilson said. “Communities need to find their niche and build on it.” The residents of Indianola, for example, combined their constricted purses to raise over a million dollars for a Smithsonianquality museum devoted to legendary bluesman B.B. King. Sumner is desperately trying to embrace its history as the place where Emmett Till’s murderers were set free and market its sordid Civil Rights past. Even tiny Sledge hopes to get country music star Charlie Pride (“Kiss An Angel Good Morning”) to take interest in his deteriorating birthplace and maybe even help with a museum. But, as Wilson and Johnson pointed out, hope for these towns depends on critical mass and tipping points. Each town and each county must support itself on its taxes or die. There is a unique revenue line, a tipping point, past which each municipality must push to justify its schools, sewers, utilities, police officers and government. Historically, the trends have retreated from these tipping points, embodied by Falcon’s closed and derelict junior high school and its failing water system, Sledge’s double-wide trailer that serves as its city hall and Lambert’s three-job mayor. For some, it’s too late. A corner store does not make a town. The rest must reinvent themselves, offer something enticing and attract taxpayers. But to succeed, the Delta must confront perhaps its most vexing dilemma. Along Highway 3 and 49, you’ll hear again and again that the biggest impediment to reinvigorating the tax base in the Delta, to attracting newcomers and keeping the born-and-bred youth who flee from the region like a plague, is the schools. Tourist dollars might trickle in, but to establish an entrenched tax base these counties must offer an education system that doesn’t perpetuate a culture of mediocrity. Fully twothirds of Delta school districts are failing or at risk of failing.Yet the state is near the bottom in terms of per pupil expenditures. Like most of the Delta’s hurdles, the problem with education goes back to slavery and sharecropping. Working-class blacks, which was nearly all blacks, were taught to disregard academia in favor of

field work. Then, desegregation sent the whites packing to racially homogenous private academies. Now many Delta schools are 90 percent black and some dropout rates float around 50 percent. Only 13 percent of ninth graders in Mississippi public schools right now will go to four-year colleges. Dwindling tax bases due to depopulation left public and private schools alike struggling for funds. It could be argued that the biggest distinction between the academies and the public schools now isn’t academic but ethnic. All this while public schools in more affluent areas thrive comparatively. To level the bar, the state created a program 12 years ago that would provide need-based funding to struggling schools. The state, however, didn’t fund the Adequate Education Program for nine years. Amidst the current recession, the governor cut funding for education across the board, and the program remains ineffectual. “What is the net effect of failing to (fund the AEP)? It is basically shortchanging almost an entire generation,”Wilson said. To fill the gap, national programs like Teach for America and local efforts like those of the Barksdale Reading Institute and several countywide operations like Youth Opportunities Unlimited in Quitman and Tallahatchie counties have stepped in to address every level of academic shortfall. The problems, Wilson said, orbit three primary issues: unqualified teachers, unambitious administrators and uninvolved families. To address the first two issues, Teach for America has become a major force for Delta school leadership. From 32 teachers in 1991 to about 400 today, TFA is injecting the region with some of the nation’s best talent. The organization also tries to place its TFA alumni into local administrative positions to create from within a culture of excellence. The similar Ole Miss-based Mississippi Teacher Corps, modeled after the Peace Corps, regularly dispatches smaller numbers of bright young teachers from around the country into the Delta for two-year tours. Also, the Barksdale Reading Institute is erecting significant early-education programs around the state and embarking on a multi-million-dollar plan to place highperforming principles in failing schools. “The problem can’t be tweaked. We’re not talking about fine-tuning a Lamborghini here. We’re talking about fixing something that is profoundly broken and dysfunctional in many, many instances,” Claiborne Barksdale said. With so much effort being pumped into in-class performance, the most difficult ob-

stacle is out-of-class performance. Families in the Delta often consist of a young, single mother, a drop-out probably, who depends on relatives and friends – many of whom also are dropouts or welfare clients — to balance her child-care responsibilities with whatever work she can find. This prototypical family works under generations of welfare and academic apathy. There is little time, consideration or resources to promote a child’s education. But the powers that be are rallying to fight such a daunting status quo. TFA teachers are taught to involve families as much as possible. The Barksdale Reading Institute, backed by the state chamber of commerce, is sponsoring a statewide daycare initiative to secure early childhood education. And numerous town, county and church organizations such as YOU and Delta Missions are pumping energy into big-brother type programs and adult-education classes. Can the efforts overcome such a deeply ingrained, generational problem? When asked, Wilson said,“Would you have us do nothing?” He takes an incremental view, a small steps approach that he says was embodied by a state highway initiative that put every Mississippi resident within 30 miles of a thoroughfare. For 20 years, the state laid about nine miles of four-lane highway down at a time, alternating between counties to avoid any political heat. Now, he says, the completed project is the envy of other states. It could be the same for education reform. It could be the same for cultural heritage tourism. The trick, he says, is to keep moving or die. “You can’t look at the current economic crisis and say that’s a reason not to do it. You’ve got to get in there and start,” he said. In the end, the troubles of the Delta represent a huge cycle of failures. Especially if tourism doesn’t catch fire across the region. Without education, intelligent working people and industry won’t move there. Without industry, there’s no money to be spent on communities and families. Without money, communities can’t support their young people and small businesses. Without businesses and young people, there’s no reason for people to stay, no one to stop the hemorrhaging population. Without a population, the infrastructure they leave behind will dissolve, and the wilderness the Delta settlers spent so much time beating back will overcome the ghost towns between the vast expanses of farmland. Many say it’s past the point of recovery. Others, out of pride, ambition or pity, are betting their livelihood it can come back. But what is strikingly certain is that, if the current, massive efforts to save the region don’t work, nothing will.



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Jessica Amos (right), now an 11th grader, made the highest geometry score in Arkansas on that state’s standardized geometry exam. With her is Amanda Johnson, a KIPP school director.

A solution spurned?

KIPP’s high-energy charter schools are working wonders with underachieving minority children. But not in Mississippi. B y Joseph William s report ing from We st hele n a , ar k .

Roy Williams attended West Helena, Ark., public schools for seven years. He didn’t study. He didn’t read well. He didn’t care. In fifth grade, his teachers put him in special education. “They said I couldn’t do it,”Williams said. “They said I couldn’t do the work the other

kids were doing.” Then the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) school, an academically intensive public charter school that is part of a network of 82 spread across the nation, opened downtown. A KIPP teacher told Williams he should enroll. “He showed me if I keep going down this path, I’m going to be in jail or on the streets or somewhere like that, so I took his advice,”Williams said. His

mother agreed and took the opportunity to advance her son, unlike many others in her position. Now, Roy is a voracious learner. Since he’s been in KIPP, his standardized math test scores have jumped from “below basic” to “advanced.” Every year his teachers pulled him forward. His English scores crept from below basic to basic to proficient. Now in the eleventh grade, he is aiming

KIPP teachers stress student participation in class and they usually get it. for a mechanical engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy. Once just another discipline problem from a low-income, single-parent home, he and hundreds like him, with the help of KIPP, are obliterating the notion that race and economic status will determine how well students do in school. “People equate black and the Delta with underperforming and white with success,” said Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP: Delta. He paraphrased former president George Bush, referring to the “soft racism of low expectations.” West Helena, in the Arkansas Delta, is little different from its Mississippi counterparts. Its factories and elevators rust over a close, concrete desert at the base of the Mississippi River levee. Its population trickles away at an average of a percent a year. About a third of its residents scrape below the poverty line. It too has suffered a segregated, troubled school district since the federal government mandated desegregation 40 years ago. But KIPP, with an Arkansas enrollment of only 540, can only go so far to undo the decades-old problem of under-achieving schools in the Delta. And despite its stellar record of turning poor black kids into high achievers, it isn’t likely to go anywhere in Mississippi where a bill that would have cleared the way for KIPP to operate here was

shot down in the 2010 legislature. So in the struggling counties east of the river, parents and students toil virtually without choice. The whites go to private academies and the blacks go to public schools. With about a 98 percent black student majority in most Mississippi Delta school districts, the racial divide between the academies and the public schools is little different than the divide between white and black public schools before integration, except that whites now pay both taxes and tuition for local education, a fact many begrudge. But with the mass depopulation of the Delta, white academies are also suffering from lack of funding. “Each of them are seeing the funding pies grow smaller, the resources are getting less, but they’re not quite willing to come together to make this work,” said Ron Nurnberg, KIPP board member and executive director of Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta. To answer the public education problem, Teach for America is constantly redoubling its efforts in the region. In an area that consistently needs about 1,000 more teachers than it has, TFA injected 232 bright, young teachers into the Delta last year, three times the number from the year before. This fall, there are about 400 TFA teachers in Mississippi, many of them in the Delta.

Teach for America’s efforts, along with those of others such as the Barksdale Reading Institute which recently bankrolled a $4 million project to put highly effective principles in underperforming Mississippi schools, are working hard to bandage gaping wounds that opened long before integration. For generation upon generation, the black culture of the Delta was not encouraged to value education. If anything, it was discouraged. Blacks arrived in Mississippi first as slaves, then as sharecroppers. Education was seen as a threat to undercompensated labor, so they were taught to work hard and please their planter bosses. When the farms became mechanized, and later when small manufacturing plants uprooted for cheaper far-away lands, thousands of black people in the Delta were left without jobs. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare reforms swept in, compensating the unemployed. Too many never saw a strong enough reason to get a high school diploma. Now, the dropout rate hovers under 50 percent. According to a 2000 Community Development Society report, 57 percent of African American adults don’t have an eighth grade education. “When you talk to parents and educators, they all tell you they want the best for their students, but they’re not sure how to do that



or what that looks like because parents come from undereducated systems themselves,” Nurnberg said. After total desegregation was forced upon schools in 1969 to 1971, the schools suffered from a sort of segregation hangover. “I’m one of the few that says the way schools were desegregated actually had a massive negative impact that I don’t think we’ve recovered from,” Shirey said. He said the federal government forced the sudden integration of entire districts with no allowance for incremental reform, which coalesced resentment among those who didn’t want change. Thus, whites flew from the public schools and created their own racially homogenous private academies. Between 1969 and 1971, 40 new segregation academies opened across the Delta to absorb the herds of white students whose families didn’t want them in class with blacks. Dozens of white teachers fled to the academies. White-run school boards moved to cut taxes and legislators carped about school funding and complained of incompetent teachers. To this day, it remains difficult if not impossible to pass a school bond referendum in parts of the Delta. Mississippi remains at or near the bottom in per pupil education spending. “You create a culture of mediocrity and then you have failing schools, and you say, why do we have failing schools? Well, because we’re making poor hires,” Nurnberg said. Quality leadership, he said, working to create a culture of excellence in a district, is the real hope for recovery. Both Teach for America and KIPP use strict training programs to develop their teachers. Both provide advancement incentives based on performance, not tenure. To some, merit-based teacher advancement is controversial. Teach for America and KIPP have both come under fire for moving bright young teachers ahead of experienced teachers. The prospect undermines a longestablished way of doing things on which many teachers pin their jobs. For example, KIPP persuaded Arkansas to agree that KIPP teachers don’t have to be certified by the state. Shirey said this wasn’t the easiest agreement. “What does that mean if we can hire noncertified teachers and have equal or greater success? Think about the implications,” he said. And, so far, KIPP’s uncertified teachers are out performing the district schools. Their student population is 97 percent rural black. Eighty-five percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Yet, KIPP students consistently outperform the state on Arkansas’ standardized exams, and KIPP kids in junior high and high school receive marks twice and three times greater than the local school district. Last year, they had more black students pass the Advanced Placement Calculus exam then any school in the state: three.

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Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP-Delta in Helena, Ark. “It’s a sad number. It doesn’t make sense,” Shirey said. Everyone who wants to save the Mississippi Delta agrees that this is what they need: a school populated with teachers who care, teachers who will come to students’ homes to help them, leaders who will put fire to the status quo. So why not KIPP? Politics has a lot to do with it. A bill that would have paved the way for a limited number of charters, including KIPP schools, was offered by Rep. Cecil Brown (D – Jackson), chairman of the House Education Committee. But it died in committee and Mississippi missed a chance to lure KIPP to the very region that needs it most. Many black legislators opposed bill. Instead, the legislature passed Senate Bill 2293. It allows a majority of families whose students are enrolled in a chronically at-risk school to petition the state for permission to replace that school with a new “conversion charter school” with parents to provide oversight. But in the Delta, where blacks are traditionally suspicious of charters because of the long history of private academies, parental support is not likely to exist for a KIPP school to become a conversion charter school. State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Marks), whose district covers four north Delta counties, said he voted against Brown’s bill for three reasons. First, he wasn’t satisfied with the way it was written. It wasn’t strict enough to ensure the KIPPs got in and underperforming charters didn’t. (Across the south, there are several examples of poorly run charters that fail to teach much and rack up questionable expenditures.)

Second, he was suspicious of funding. Since they are public charter schools typically get some funding from the state. Already, too few resources are divvied up among suffering schools like so many grains of rice. If charters took their slice of the pie, it might create too big a drain on the already delicate Delta districts, leaving students who aren’t enrolled in KIPP under even worse circumstances. Third, his constituents – the vast majority of whom are black — are against it. Jackson said there’s a “distrust between communities. Because academies exist and the public schools exist, there’s a gulf between the communities, and so the African American community thinks charter schools are another way for academies to succeed.” Many believe charter schools can become Trojan horses, private schools cloaked as public to get more funding. Jackson said he’s open to charters, but groundwork needs to be done to gain public support. “I could easily see struggling academies convert to public charter schools and we would have the same setup as in the 1960s with even less money for the public schools,” said Howard Hollings, 57, who just retired after nearly 20 years as an administrator, nine of them as superintendent of West Tallahatchie High School. “Maybe,” he said, “after those of us who grew up in the time of instant academies are dead and gone away, that will change.” Hollings, the first black member of the Sumner Rotary Club, started out in segregated schools in Yazoo County, using worn, outdated hand-me-downs from the white schools. He didn’t see a new textbook until 1968. The total community, he said, has never

bought into the success or the survival of public schools. “And the Delta is dying as a result.” Too many black children arrive in public schools without ever having a parent spend time reading with them. They arrive already two years or more behind those whose more educated parents have read to them and pushed school almost from birth, he said. As for the KIPPs and their impressive record, he says, “I’d like to see whatever ingredients they use infused into the public schools. Why can’t we just transfer it over? We have to work with all children.” Instead of embracing KIPP, the state has formed a cozy relationship with Teach for America, which provides a similar perteacher wallop. But TFA serves under a kind of forced fragmentation. Where charter schools are designed from the ground up, TFA teachers are dispersed, working in small packs of ideologues trying to achieve reforms as they go. For this reason, many TFA graduates move into KIPP or similar charter schools. “In the district school, I felt like I was working hard, and maybe the person next to me was working, but the person on the other side, not so much, and I was sending my kids to a teacher that maybe was working hard,” said Amanda Johnson, a KIPP: Delta school director who worked in public schools after graduating from TFA’s two-year training. But in Mississippi, TFA is initiating a full-court press, flooding the district with TFA students and alumni. They pick recruits who show ambition, and some manage to quickly move up to become principals and administrators. By doing this, they’re attempting a state-sponsored overthrow of mediocrity. There are still holes to be filled. The Delta still doesn’t have its teacher needs met, and it’s far from filling every position with high-performing teachers, but dents are being made. “I don’t think charters are the single answer. I think they’ve created a spotlight on new ways of doing things,” Nurnberg said. “It’s an experiment in progress, but I have full faith it can (work).” TFA started moving into the Delta in 1996. That initial group of 32 teachers represented one of the first modern education reform movements in rural America. “We didn’t have models for success,” he said. “Everything looked alike, and it was this culture of mediocrity in my opinion. So, we had to show, one, that these kids could learn because there were a whole lot of people here who didn’t believe it was possible.” Shirey echoed this account. He said when KIPP opened in West Helena eight years ago, people asked him, “Can black kids really learn? Literally, can these kids really learn? It was a little bit like stepping back in time.” Now, 85 percent of his first graduating class is off to four-year colleges. The others are off to two-year colleges. Nurnberg hopes to recreate this success

k i pp s chool s KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is a network of 82 high standards public charter schools, financed by state money and private donations.There are no KIPP schools in Mississipi. Here are some characteristics of the schools: The school day is longer than regular public school days. Students attend school Monday through Saturday. There is also a three-week summer session. Attendance and good behavior are stressed and so is homework, loads of it. Teachers go through intensive training before being allowed in a classroom. Teachers are often motivators and innovators. Teachers are expected to be available by phone at night in case students have questions about homework. Teachers even sometimes go to a student’s home to help with homework. Parents must agree to make sure homework gets done, get students to and from school on time and participate in school life. There is no tuition. The schools often excel at standardized tests, refuse to compromise high standards and about 85 percent of their graduates have gone on to college. Of the more than 20,000 KIPP students, 90 percent are African-American or Hispanic/Latino. For more information, visit Source : kipp s chool s

in the Mississippi Delta through TFA. But it requires working from the inside. KIPP, being new and directed toward families interested in their children’s education, ends up with students with home support. One of the biggest plagues in Delta public schools is parents who don’t invest time in their children’s education, parents who may not be likely to invest the time and energy needed to support a KIPP child. “What makes a difference is the families are engaged in the children’s education at KIPP,” Jackson said. “That makes all the difference in the world, and at public schools, you have to take what comes through the door, and what comes through the door may not be the child that has the parents behind them.” Many of these parents are young. Mississippi is third in the nation for teen pregnancy, a rate many say is fed by welfare programs that pay single mothers more money for each child. Less than half have high school diplomas themselves. The challenge for TFA is to bring such children under their wing while also inciting the parents to become involved. Thus, the Delta’s tortured racial history defines its suffering education system. Many working to transform the region say that by creating effective public options like KIPP or a TFA-led public school, whites

will finally consider an integrated education. But everyone agrees that’s an uphill battle. KIPP has been garnering staggering ratings in Helena since it got there, but still only three percent of its students are white. Whites donate money, Shirey said, but they don’t participate. “They shake your hand, and they send you a donation, and they say, y’all are doing fantastic work in there, and they’re sincere in that comment, but they would never consider putting their own kid in there,” he said. But Shirey and Nurnberg believe de facto integration can happen. Maybe in ten years, maybe in twenty, but, “If we can show that we’re building these models of success,” Nurnberg said, “white families who are spending their hard-earned money getting an inferior education are going to think, gosh, is it economics, or do I have to readjust my thinking.” Meanwhile, those parents that had the initiative to send their students to KIPP in West Helena are enjoying the fruits of a good education. Jessica Amos, an eleventh grade student who joined KIPP in the seventh grade, said her mother made her go to KIPP. Her mother’s a school counselor, and she heard from her colleagues that junior high is where she’d lose her daughter. “They kind of drift off in the opposite direction (after elementary school),” Amos said, explaining what her mother was told. “So she said she wasn’t going to let me go off in that direction, that she cared enough about my education and my behavior that she wanted me to be in an environment where I could promote myself.” So she went to KIPP. Now she’s on the honor roll and, in the ninth grade, she got the best geometry score in all of Arkansas on the standardized exams, an unprecedented success for a single-parent black girl. But Amos is part of a tragically small minority. There’s no doubt most underprivileged Delta students would thrive in KIPP, but without a home supportive of education, or without a state willing to embrace more charter schools, they won’t get the chance. Otherwise, they enter the troubled public school houses of the Delta where, Amos said, most of the leadership just doesn’t care. “If your teachers don’t care, and they’re the ones that are supposed to be giving you this information, then, it’s like, why should I care?” she said, adding that KIPP is the “exact opposite.” But now more than ever, students have the chance to study under high-performing, caring teachers planted like rows of cotton in Delta public schools. Will it be enough to turn these institutions around without starting from scratch? Can independent teachers and principles clean and reform a system that is four decades in the gutter? “It’s a matter of critical mass and tipping points,” Nurnberg said. And he, for one, is hopeful.


Clarksdale sings the blues The music of Muddy Waters may not save the home of the Blues, but it’s certainly put it on the map. With a break or two, it might help jump-start a real revival. By Natalie D ic kson report ing from cla rksdale

It’s in the dirt here. It rolls with the waters of the mighty Mississippi. It beats with the wings of migrating ducks. A blue rhythm rising up to a flat, gray sky and pounding a 12-bar beat on fields of soy and cotton. The beat still pounds, but what was once a region as rich as the Delta soil itself has become a shadow of its former glory. In Clarksdale, arguably the home of the Blues, 61 of the 152 buildings in and around downtown are empty. Few cars roll down the streets of what was once a bustling shopping center that drew customers from miles around. And no wonder. The city has shrunk from 20,645 residents in 2000 to just barely 18,000 in 2008. But when the sun sets, the mournful, rhythmic wail of the Blues echoes through the streets. To some, the whine of a slide guitar is a reminder of the harsh sharecropping conditions that produced the Blues. To Clarksdale, it is the sound of hope. Lillian A skins

R ev i v i n g the B lue s

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On a porch at the Shack Up Inn, bluesman Juke Joint Johnny prepares for a show at a Clarksdale club.

On most days in Clarksdale, the streets are pretty empty. A few cars run up and down Desoto Avenue and Third Street. And downtown on Blues Alley, there is hardly a soul for the Mississippi sun to shine on. When darkness falls, though, cars roll to a stop in front of a gritty building by the railroad tracks. A sagging couch leans against the outside wall on the Ground Zero Blues Club porch. It looks too dirty to touch, just like the peeling walls covered with names and messages scrawled in Sharpie. The names and messages continue on the inside. Tami G and Matt G from NYC, Rick and Debbie Hanis of England and Lina from Lebanon. The names give credence to the relative

The Crossroads of U.S. 61 and 49, where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play a wicked guitar. success the blues club has found ever since its opening in 2001. “We built it and they came,” said Bill Luckett, Clarksdale native, lawyer, and gubernatorial candidate. Luckett, along with Memphis entertainment executive Howard Stovall and Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman, bought and reworked the old, abandoned Delta Grocery and Cotton Co. building, turning it into a modern-day juke joint with all the dirt and tackiness of its historical counterparts. The club now hosts live music Wednesday



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The Ground Zero blues club brought new life to downtown Clarksdale, drawing tourists from Europe and Japan. C l a r k s d a le S n a p s hot Incorporated: 1882 Population in 2000: 20,645 Population in 2008: 18,645 Black: 69 percent White: 30 percent Per capita income: $15,431 Median household income: $26,152 People in poverty: 36.2 percent History: First mechanical cotton picker demonstrated in 1946 at Hopson Plantation. Home of legendary Bluesman Muddy Waters. Source : U.S. Ce n su s

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“We built it and they came.” Bill L u c k e t t | co - ow n er of the G rou n d Zero B lue s Club

through Saturday nights, usually filling up on weekends with people from as close by as Martin Luther King Avenue to as far away as Tokyo, Japan. With a pool table in the front, stage in back, bar on the side and tables in between, it’s nearly impossible to get through on a crowded night. But the crowd doesn’t mind. Enthralled by the raw sounds coming from any number of musicians, such as Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry or Terry “Harmonica” Bean, they dance and drink, in their seats or by the stage, with beer bottle or clear plastic cup in hand. Crowds this big must mean success, but in all its years of operation, the Ground Zero Blues Club has never made a profit. In fact,

this year may be the first. That’s not the point, Luckett said. For Luckett, the motivation for Ground Zero and his other construction and restoration projects is one part hope and one part, as he jovially puts it, crazy. But at the base of his motivation is the fact that Luckett just likes to pick up a hammer and nail away his weekend. “I’m a frustrated architect,” he said. Just down the road, Luckett co-owns along with Morgan Freeman a fine dining restaurant called Madidi. It also has not made a profit since its opening in 2001. But like the other blues clubs and shops, both Ground Zero and Madidi attract people to Clarksdale, Luckett said. Luckett is proud of what the blues has done for Clarksdale. But he is also pragmatic. The Delta can never depend fully on the blues, he said. In a way, cotton will always have to be king. “The Mississippi Delta has the richest land this side of the Nile,” he said. “I don’t see the Blues ever replacing agriculture here.”

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The Shack Up Inn is a testament to the drawing power of a good gimmick. Who would have thought people would pay to stay in a sharecropper’s shack?

Stuc k o n the B lue s Others in Clarksdale, though, are banking a lot more on the Blues than just a couple jobs and barely breaking even. Mac Crank, a longtime Blues fan, recently moved to Clarksdale to become director of Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc. In Crank’s eyes, the Blues is the very thing to help

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“We built our business on New York, L.A., Europe ,” says Guy Malvezzi, one of the owners. Left: One cabin has a piano, in case you want to play the blues yourself.


Clarksdale get back on its feet. “The Blues is our primary engine,” Crank said. Begun in 2008 on grants and donations from the city, county and local businesses, CRI has spearheaded efforts to improve and promote Clarksdale. Crank believes the drowsy downtown must first be improved before people and industry will move back. And whereas the Blues is not really what Clarksdale is aiming at, it is a starting point. “The Blues is not an end in itself,” Crank said. “But it’s a vehicle to re-establish downtown.” The thinking goes that the Blues can attract tourists, tourists will attract more small businesses and support existing businesses, more tourists and businesses means more money spent in Clarksdale, which means more tax revenue, which can then be used to improve the community. “If we can create an environment, then (industries) will stay here,” he said. Across from Ground Zero, Clarksdale already has a Blues museum, complete with legendary bluesman Muddy Waters’ cabin. To further add to Clarksdale’s attractions for travelers, CRI has started brainstorming and grant-writing for future projects. It has almost enough money to add a weir to the Sunflower River that runs along the south side of downtown. That would improve the looks of the riverfront and keep the Sunflower navigable for longer periods. There are plans to build boat ramps, offer boat rides, stock the river with fish, and build a riverside hiking trail and “a Cultural Heritage Walking Trail.” Crank has even secured an old railcar to put back on Clarksdale’s once busy but now silent railroad tracks.

See i n g R e s ult s

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A prime example of rustic sharecropper chic.

Blues tourists helped Coahoma County take in $316,916 from room and restaurant taxes in 2009 – more than most other Delta counties but paltry when compared to casino-rich Tunica County, which raised $2,263,739. Tourists have also helped create jobs in a county that badly needs them. In 2009, a total of 870 jobs in Coahoma County were directly related to travel and tourism, according to the 2009 Travel and Tourism Economic Contribution Report. Visitors spent an estimated $50 million here, more than all other Delta counties except the casino counties of Tunica and Washington ; and over $5 million in state and local taxes and fees were attributed to travel and tourism, also significantly higher than other Delta counties, except for Tunica and Washington. Impressive numbers for a county where a third of the 27,638 citizens are mired in poverty. But no Delta county except Tunica is even considered a main contributor to Mississippi’s growing travel and tourism industry, which now ranks fifth in statewide employment.

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Each cabin is decorated differently but the style is always eclectic. . T he blue s br i n g s mo n ey Clarksdale’s blues tourism has a significant effect on the Coahoma County economy, according to 2009 statistics. Coahoma County received $316,916 from room/ restaurant taxes in 2009.That’s far more than most Delta counties, but not close to casino-rich Tunica County, which raised $2,263,739. A total of 870 jobs in Coahoma in 2009 were directly related to travel and tourism. Over $50,611,304 was spent by visitors in Coahoma County, more than all other Delta counties except Tunica and Washington. Over $5 million in state and local taxes and fees were attributed to travel and tourism in Coahoma, significantly higher than other Delta counties except Tunica and Washington. Source:Travel and Tourism Economic Contribution Report

Taking a cue from Clarksdale, other towns and even the state of Mississippi are starting to spread the Blues gospel. Indianola opened a $15 million state-of-the-art B.B. King Museum in 2008. And Mississippi has created a blues commission, chaired by Luther Brown of Delta State University in Cleveland. It has already planted more than 100 blues markers throughout the state, more than half of them in the Delta. There are those in the Delta who look at the markers and dream, glassy-eyed, of busloads of tourists coming down from Memphis to see the rural land that birthed the blues. They think that perhaps music is the magic cure for the region’s rapid decline. But the Blues Trail has only just begun. It will take a long time – if ever — for the rest of the region to catch up to Clarksdale. “It all went crazy in 2000 when Bill and Morgan opened Madidi, then Ground Zero,” said Guy Malvezzi, a Clarksdale native and one of three owners of the odd but successful

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The bathtub is almost big enough to swim in. Shack Up Inn. The inn started as a musician’s getaway in 1998. Its shotgun houses with fading plywood and creaky porches soon became a popular retreat for people from all over the world. “We built our business on New York, L.A., Europe,” Malvezzi said. And although the economy’s crash last October has decreased the number of outof-state visitors, the number of locals who visit has significantly increased. Business is actually up 15 percent, said Malvezzi.



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Roger Stolle of Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art helped start a Juke Joint Festival that draws thousands. The same locals who once shook their heads in amazement that wealthy outof-towners would pay $60 to $100 for a night in an old shoddy, but air-conditioned sharecropper’s shack, are finally realizing the value of their culture. When the Shack Up Inn first opened, some other business owners looked warily at their new competition, Malvezzi said. But now, all have come to the realization that in a town as small and down-and-out as Clarksdale, they should feed off each other. Frank Ratcliff owns Clarksdale’s other hotel oddity, the ramshackle Riverside Hotel. Ratcliff, known endearingly as “Rat,” said whenever the Shack Up runs out of rooms, they send people his way. He does the same for them, he said. There’s no bad blood between them, and no need for it, especially around Clarksdale’s festival season. The season kicks off in April with the Juke Joint Festival and carries through to October with the Hambone Festival. Rat has people book months, even a year in advance to room in one of the hotel’s famous lodgings. Countless music legends like Bessie Smith, Ike Turner and Muddy Waters have stayed in the Riverside. And Rat boasts that everything is in its original form, except for the mattresses. But even with a loyal customer base who flee to the Riverside to commune with history or to enjoy the local music, Rat is not convinced the Blues has what it takes. “I’ve seen ( Clarksdale ) up and down,” he said. “I hope (the Blues) can make it grow.” Roger Stolle, owner of Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, moved from St. Louis in 2003 to Clarksdale. He left a great

job in marketing, he said, all for the Blues. Almost a year after he opened Cathead, which he describes as “the store I always wanted to walk into but could never find,” he helped start the Juke Joint Festival. The festival has grown each year. It featured five nighttime venues in 2004, and now, in its seventh year, it has 16. Last year it attracted around 3,500 people, according to the $10 wristband sales, and 43 states and 15 foreign countries were represented. As for the 2010 festival, hotels that usually do not book up until festival time were already full in early March, Stolle said. A lot of festivals are held out in open fields, away from downtown businesses. The Juke Joint Festival is held in the heart of Clarksdale. For most businesses, Stolle said, Juke Joint proves to be their best weekend of the year. “It’s embarrassing how people gush about it,” said Stolle, who personally checks up on local businesses and hotels, soliciting input and feedback.

F i ght i n g a L o s i n g B attle ? But others think one successful festival is not enough and see the Blues as nothing more than a sentimental try at stimulating a fatally flawed economy. Peyton Self grew up in Marks, just down the road from Clarksdale. His family lived in mansions in a compound many call Self Circle. They were dominant farmers and bankers in the little town, well-respected and wealthy. Self looks back on his childhood fondly and remembers Marks as a “thriving little economy.” But with the mechanization

of farming taking away hundreds of people’s jobs and the subsequent decline in population, Self sees the glory days of the Delta as “gone with the wind.” Self stopped farming in 2006 after a fouryear drought, then moved to Oxford. Self said he considered his life’s calling to be to stay in the Delta, but now, there’s no reason for anyone to stay. When people ask him why he left Marks, Self replies, “Well, Marks left first.” The problems lie so deeply in the Delta that not even the renewed popularity of the Blues has the potential to fix them, he believes. “I think it’s great (what they’re doing in Clarksdale ), but it’s just putting off the inevitable,” he said. “Even if Elvis came back and moved to Clarksdale, it would help, but it wouldn’t save it.” The real issue is not attracting tourists, he claims. The real issue is that there are no opportunities to entice people to move there or cause children from the Delta to stay. “There are no decent grocery stores, no decent schools,” he said. Until people can live there and stay there, the Delta will not be fixed, he said.

Ag a i n s t the O dd s For some who still remember the glory days of the Delta, though, staying here is well worth it. On many weekends, Bill Luckett will be in downtown Clarksdale working on one of dozens of properties he has bought and redone over the years. In 1992, he began buying houses, then small buildings, then large buildings. He has already restored the Bank of Lyon building outside

joseph w ill iam s

Most days, it’s hard to find much action in Clarksdale. But local leaders say rebirth may be around the corner. Clarksdale, the Bank of Clarksdale and the Hotel Clarksdale, which he turned into Hotel Clarksdale Apartments. His latest projects include the seven-story McWilliams and the four-story Alcazar Hotel buildings downtown, once two anchors of a bustling business district. Although his apartment complexes stay full, he said, he is fighting a losing battle for some of his other projects. Luckett just recently had the Alcazar’s ancient elevator repaired, but the four stories of empty rooms and broken

windows will take years and millions of dollars to restore. A reopened Alacazar would be a definite boost to the city. But it won’t be nice buildings or even the Blues that bring Clarksdale back; the school system needs restoration, he said. In essence, the schools in the Delta are still segregated, and both the heavily black public schools and heavily white private schools fail to offer quality education, he said. “We need a good, viable, diverse public school system,” he said. Otherwise, industry

will stay away and people will just keep slowly moving off. But that’s not why Luckett single-mindedly attacks these massive projects. Even if the Alcazar reopens with 80 percent occupancy, the $7 million project will still lose about $30,000 per month, he said. So why on earth is he spending so much time and money on it? Luckett pauses, shrugs. “I don’t know why I do it,” he said.“I’m just crazy.”



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“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to save something that was built with someone else’s money,” Luckett says.

One nail at a time In Clarksdale, Bill Luckett toils to rebuild landmarks, economic vitality and pride. By Natalie D ic kson report in g from cl ar ksdale

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It will take a lot of work to fix the McWilliams Building. Once, a doctor had his office here (above and upper left).The halls (upper right) are still littered with debris.

One man, two buildings and 11 stories of rot, dust and cobwebs. The plans to renovate and revive two of Clarksdale’s most iconic buildings will require years of work, crews of men and millions of dollars. None of that seems to daunt Bill Luckett, though. After all, he’s done it dozens of times before, partly as a hobby, partly as acts of historic preservation and partly, as he lightheartedly puts it, “just crazy.” Luckett began building and renovating when he was just a boy. He attended St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Clarksdale until the eighth grade and would build tree houses and cabins across the street. “I just build bigger buildings now,” he said. In fact, he has built three “bigger buildings” in addition to the 32 housing properties he renovated. He’s also working on the renovation of Clarksdale’s four-story Alcazar Hotel and seven-story McWilliams Building. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction to save something that was built with someone else’s sweat and money,” Luckett said. In his work as a lawyer, he helps people or companies on paper. But fixing a building is more tangible. It’s a process you sweat over, and a result you can touch. The results of Luckett’s weekend projects, though, have been much more than some new roof tiles and paint for the town of Clarksdale. As reported in the Mississippi Business Journal on Oct. 22, 2001, Luckett’s properties provide around 100 jobs. And some people consider one of his biggest projects to be a catalyst for Mississippi’s finally recognized tourism jewel: the blues.

“It all went crazy in 2000 when Bill and Morgan opened Madidi, then Ground Zero,” said Guy Malvezzi, another Clarksdale entrepreneur and businessman — an owner of the oddly popular Shack Up Inn. Luckett had served as Academy Awardwinning actor Morgan Freeman’s lawyer for some construction contract issues, and the two were friends. Both were natives of the Delta, and both had a heart for its struggles. They jointly opened a fine dining restaurant called Madidi in downtown Clarksdale. Then Freeman began to notice the tourists Clarksdale was attracting as a mecca for blues lovers, Luckett said. So they, along with Howard Stovall, renovated the old Delta Grocery and Cotton Company Building into the Ground Zero Blues Club. Luckett has helped to renovate Clarksdale, in a way, by renovating Clarksdale properties, providing jobs and a major stimulus to the blues engine of Clarksdale tourism. Now Luckett is trying for a bigger renovation project: the state of Mississippi. When he’s not working at the Luckett Tyner Law Firm or fixing a broken window, he is out campaigning to be the next governor. He sees education and health care as the most important items that need fixing in Mississippi. These are projects that can’t be solved on the weekend, though. Recently Luckett, 62, walked briskly up the seven flights of stairs in the McWilliams Building, explaining they were just now putting in an elevator. Then he walked quickly back down to determine what he should do next. Perhaps fix a broken window or paint a wall, or perhaps, even more daring, fix Mississippi.


sumner seeks



Emmett Till Commission works to restore courthouse, bring people together

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Fifty-five years after Emmett Till’s murder, the haunting ruins of the old store at Money still stand.



courte sy of the Ta lla h atch i e Cou n ty Tour i s m Depa rtme n t

J.W. Milam, left, and Roy Bryant were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury, then confessed in Life magazine. By N ata l i e D i c k s o n report i n g from s umner

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hey passed the pen around the table. Black hand to white hand, white hand to black hand. And one by one, all 14 wrote their names on an antique brown sheet of paper. And as they signed, they cried. They cried because this was much more than a sheet of paper. It was the product of meeting upon meeting of argument and discussion; it was justice for the family of the murdered Emmett Till; it was blacks and whites coming together in a place long haunted by ghosts of race wars past. Finally, the dream of salvation was beginning to take shape in little Sumner. On Oct. 2, 2007, the national news media showed up outside the courthouse along with more than 400 people to watch the Emmett Till Memorial Commission apologize for a miscarriage of justice that took place there in 1955. In September that year, an all-

white jury quickly acquitted two white men who would later admit to murdering Till, a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago who is said to have whistled at a white woman. Now, the commission is making steady progress on its next challenge: restoring the courthouse to its 1955 design. Plans call for a state-of-the-art Till museum, welcome center and multipurpose building, a combination some folks hope will lure tourists, save the crumbling courthouse and resurrect the shrinking town. At an April 5 meeting, 17 of the 19 members of the commission met in the Emmett Till Multi-Purpose Complex to hear reports. Chicago was sending 12 high school students to spend the night in the courthouse. Selma, Ala., had invited the commission to visit its civil rights museum. The commission had found possible help from nearby Mississippi Valley State University to record and preserve oral histories for the museum. As Jerome Little, president of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, brought up the oral histories, Johnny B. Thomas, the mayor of Glendora, spoke up.

Thomas’ little poverty-stricken town, just down the road, has its own Till museum, albeit much more humble than the one planned for Sumner. Glendora had already acquired a grant on its own to gather artifacts and interviews related to the Till case, Thomas said. And officials planned to move forward with it. There was tension in the air when John Wilchie leaned back in his chair and said to Thomas over his shoulder: “So, what you’re saying is you’re one step ahead of us.” Thomas softened and slowed his voice in reply. “Not a step ahead, a step with you.” It was a calm reply in what could have been a contentious situation. The members of the commission come from different backgrounds and different tiny towns. And although their mission is clear – to honor Till and help the town through rebuilding the courthouse and attracting tourists – some members inevitably come to meetings with their own agendas. Thomas, determined to do whatever he can for his beleaguered town, was one of them, said some commission members. This time, the tension was dissolved easily, but such hasn’t always been the case. Before the commission could even sign the letter of regret, it had lost five of its original 19 members. Some had left disappointed when the commission didn’t seem to be meeting their expectations. The blacks on the commission and in the community called for justice, while the whites wanted to restore the courthouse. Some just wanted to bring jobs to the county, while some believed jobs and money should have nothing to do with Till’s legacy. One day in 2006, the Sumner courthouse filled with angry whites and blacks, said Little, who, along with fellow Supervisor Bobby Banks, started the Till commission. Each group felt the other would somehow take over, he said. The blacks felt Till’s name would be exploited and taken over by the whites, and the whites felt the commission’s efforts would turn into “something like Jesse Jackson” and be taken over by people from all over the country, Little said. Little was determined not to let that happen, he said. But some people had a difficult time believing. “They had so little faith in me and Mr. Banks,” Little said. Little and the commission found middle ground by envisioning a restored courthouse, complete with a Till museum and Sumner welcome center, all honoring the Till legacy and offering jobs and opportunities to Tallahatchie County. The key to satisfying most people was the courthouse. A restored courthouse with a Till museum would ensure that county jobs stay in Sumner. Tallahatchie has two county seats and two courthouses, and there is occasionally talk of consolidation. Sumner is the smaller of the two by far. If the courthouse were to disappear in the name of cost cutting, some in Sumner feel the town might disappear as well.

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Old times here are not forgotten. A Confederate statue, an American flag and state flag stand sentinel in front of Sumner’s courthouse. A marker nearby notes a miscarriage of justice took place here. Sum n er S n a p s hot s Incorporated: 1900 2000 population: 407 2008 estimate: 349 White: 58 percent Black: 39.1 percent Per capita income: $26,708 Median household income: $30,912 In poverty: 37.2 percent History: Named after a former Confederate officer who had part of one arm blown off by a cannonball in the Civil War.The land along Cassidy Bayou is considered some of the most fertile in the world. Source : U. S . Ce nsus

“The hope is to revitalize Sumner and Tallahatchie County through this tourism piece,” said Little, mindful that civil rights museums in places such as Memphis, Montgomery and Birmingham draw thousands of tourists every year. People have sometimes doubted the Till commission’s goals, though. During a 2006 meeting, plans for a group of students from Atlanta to visit Sumner were being discussed. A commission member mentioned that since Jesse Jackson was in the Atlanta area, he might take an interest in the commission and come down as well. A white member of the commission became very upset, waving her hands and raising her voice at the thought of Jackson visiting, Little said. She almost left the commission at that moment, but members persuaded her to stay. Others have been even more public about their disapproval.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2007 that retired preacher G.A. Johnson likened the commission’s efforts to a greedy plan to capitalize on an innocent boy’s name. “They slaughtered this boy and now they want to come back and raise money off the death of that child – God forbid,” Johnson said. Even those hired by the commission held serious doubts at first. The group hired Belinda Stewart architects to work on plans to restore the courthouse, and Brenda Blakely was sent to Sumner as a professional grant writer to help raise money for the construction. At first, Blakely was a reluctant participant. “I didn’t like the particular approach they were taking with Emmett,” she said. The project seemed more of a scheme to use Till’s name to get money, she said. So for the first six months she was assigned to the project, she did little. But over time, she realized the commission was slowly uniting the town and healing old wounds, she said. “The process of them reconciling has been as important as the project itself,” Blakely said. Blakely spoke of Little’s determined diplomacy, making sure to address disagreements and keep people working together. “I have seen Jerome personally go and apologize to people after meetings,” she said. “In one week, he apologized 12 or 15 times.” It was only early this year that she really began to realize the commission was achieving reconciliation, Blakely said. In a place with such history, it seems such goals always come slowly. The letter of regret came about after a year and a half


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Rev. William Milam, pastor of First Baptist Church, is distantly related to one of Till’s killers. He doesn’t think the Sumner of today should share blame.

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Dozens of people stood on the lawn watching the networks conduct interviews and waiting for word from inside.

courte s y of the Ta ll a h atchie C oun ty Tour ism D epartme nt courte s y of the Tall a hatch ie Cou nty Tour is m Departme n t

The late John Whitten, Jr. represented the killers. Right, his son, John Whitten III, is the county attorney and a critic of the Till Commission.

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Carolyn Bryant, left, told her husband that Till grabbed her hand, put his arm around her waist, propositioned her and whistled at her.

of discussion and revision. Susan Glisson of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss was called in to help draft the letter. Glisson had worked with a group in Philadelphia, Miss., on a similar letter about that town’s role in the death of three civil rights workers in the early 1960s. The Philadelphia effort helped bring black and white communities closer together. They even helped persuade state officials to reopen the murder investigation and, eventually, convict the man who ordered the murders. But the letter Glisson submitted as an example for the Till commission had one major problem: the word “apology.” In Sumner, the word was trouble, for “apology” implies guilt, and many in Sumner feel they had nothing to do with Till’s murder. The commission went back and forth on whether to use the word. Finally, Frank Mitchener, a former president of the National Cotton Council, suggested the word “regret” as a substitute. The commission sent a group to Chicago to discuss the letter with Till’s remaining family. After some hesitance, the family agreed to the wording. Even today, the Till trial remains a sore spot for many in Sumner. And some feel the commission’s efforts do nothing to help. “I see it as more divisive than anything,” said John Whitten III, the county prosecuting attorney. His late father, John Whitten Jr., was one of the Sumner lawyers who defended the two killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. The trial fell into Sumner’s lap by happenstance. The kidnapping and murder occurred in Leflore and Sunflower counties. Till’s body, however, was found in the Tallahatchie River within Tallahatchie County’s borders. Tallahatchie County never should have had to deal with the Till trial, so an apology for something that never should have happened in the first place is unwarranted, Whitten said. Others simply believe the present-day town should not be held accountable for tragedies of the past. “I’m not sure if the community owns a decision of 12 (jurors),” said the Rev. William Milam, pastor of Sumner’s First Baptist Church. Milam moved to Sumner a few years ago after being away from the Delta since 1984. When he first came to Sumner, he said, his aunt took him aside and told him there was something he needed to know. Milam was distantly related to one of the murderers, J.W. Milam. Discovering the family ties didn’t change his opinion of what happened. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice, he said. The jurors who acquitted Milam and Bryant are absolutely responsible for their decision. Shame on them, but even more


shame on the murderers, he said firmly. He is still doubtful how much responsibility the Sumner of 2010 should take for the Sumner of 1955, though. Meanwhile, the courthouse has been approved as a site with national significance on the National Historic Registry. Now Blakely is working to have it designated a national landmark. Although the courthouse was remodeled in 1972, many of the original materials, such as the wood and windows, are still available. But to return it to its exact 1955 likeness, several million dollars will be needed. With the renovation of Wong’s Market and Grocery across the street for the welcome center and improvements planned for the Emmett Till Multi-Purpose Complex on Highway 49, the project totals $12 million. It has won five grants, both state and federal, for the restoration of the courthouse foundation and the original windows, Blakely said. That leaves $9 million to go. But things are picking up and people are beginning to catch on, she said. The Mississippi Development Authority has shown interest in developing a civil rights trail for tourists, which would include Sumner’s courthouse. And the Smithsonian has shown interest in helping guide efforts to develop an interpretive Till museum. Little even talks of possibly sharing Till’s original casket with the Smithsonian. But with the economy still in a slump, money from the federal, state and local governments is hard to come by. For now, Mayor Smith Murphey is content to watch from afar. The town recently slashed its budget by 40 percent and is in no position to help. He sees no particular harm in the Till commission, though. “As long as the town doesn’t have to come up with the money to make it go,” he said. Murphey admits that the courthouse attracts visitors, but with no significant stores, restaurants or lodging, tourists do not necessarily mean money. There’s not a motel or, for that matter, a traffic light in all of Tallahatchie County. Once thriving with a movie theater and honky-tonks, several grocery stores, drugstores, two doctors’ offices, an active railroad and a three-story inn, Sumner no longer has even a place to sit and order lunch. The square is quieter now. Businesses include a Regions bank branch, law offices and drugstores. It is hard to imagine busloads of tourists in the tiny town square. “We’re happy to have (the tourists),” he said. “As far as that bringing money into town, it’s not likely.” Little insists with religious fervor that it is only a matter of time before the restoration of the courthouse and Till’s


Emmett Till’s champion

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Jerome Little started out chopping cotton. Now he runs the county.

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Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, told Jerome Little that his election to head Tallahatchie’s government meant her son did not die in vain. legacy bring redemption to Sumner. As evidence, he points to small victories such as the establishment of the county’s first department of tourism and recreation, which provides seven jobs. He also points to himself. Little grew up on Mitchener’s plantation just outside of Sumner. He ran for the county board of supervisors seven times before winning in 1993, becoming, along with Banks, one of the first two African-Americans on the board.

Upon his victory, he called Emmett Till’s mother, in Chicago to tell her what was happening in Tallahatchie. “I wanted to let her know we had made it,” Little recounted, tears welling up in his eyes. Sumner was changing, he assured her; it was not the same place it had been in 1955 when Emmett Till came down to visit his uncle and returned to Chicago in a coffin. Till’s mother said she now knew her son had not died in vain.

A young black boy leans on his hoe at the end of a row of cotton. The sun scorches down as he looks back at the rest of the cotton choppers still sweating, backs bent. Out on the road, a pickup drives by with a radio antenna, dust billowing behind it. The boy dreams of himself years from now with his own radio antenna, no longer chopping cotton, but in charge, maybe not of a cotton patch, but in charge of something. At the time, he didn’t know what he wanted to be in charge of, Jerome Little said. He just knew he wanted it. Now, Little heads the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors. He, for one, recognizes the irony. “I was born and raised on a plantation. Now I’m the president of the board of supervisors,” he said. As supervisor, he’s fixed roads, built housing units and, now, embarked on a journey to revive his ailing home county through the honoring and marketing of Emmett Till’s legacy. Little traces his interest in politics back to the words of a Marine Corps superior. Just after school, Little joined the Marines and traveled around the world on big cruisers. When he came back, an officer told him he should be in politics. He seemed to have a knack for it, the officer said.

In Tallahatchie County, they once killed a black kid who whistled at a white woman. A half century later, a black man, Jerome Little, leads the county. By Natalie Dic kson report in g from Sum ner

Little entered the very next county board election. Little doesn’t give up easily. It took him seven runs, two lawsuits and 17 years of working at the state prison at Parchman before he was finally elected. He ran for the first time in 1979. Eventually he and six others, known as the “Magnificent Seven,” sued the county two times to redistrict. The second time the group sued, in 1992, a federal judge redrew the county map more extensively. As soon as Little saw the new district lines, he knew he would be on the board, he said. The judge ordered a special election, and Little was voted into office in 1993. Since then, it has been nothing but politics, Little said. He plans to run again in 2011 for another fouryear term, even at age 57. After that, perhaps again. “I love politics. I eat it and sleep it,” he said with a big grin. He loves being able to get things done, he said, and he loves having an agenda and working to see it through. And there is little, if anything, that will stop him from seeing his agenda through. His deep black skin once would have stopped him from serving on the county board, but no longer. His trouble pronouncing words such as “tweak” (he says “teek”) and “artifact”

(he doesn’t even try this one) might have been a handicap when he spoke to the board or the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. But it hasn’t hurt his effectiveness. “I feel like I can stand in a room with anyone,” he said. The world of politics does not seem to have hardened Little, though. He quickly tears up when he starts talking about the conversations he had with Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, before she died. And he is never shy to apologize. Brenda Blakely, a grant writer hired by the Till commission, said she has seen Little apologize as many as 12 times in one week to try to repair hurt feelings among commission members. It’s all just part of getting the job done, Little said. One night, after a commission meeting, most members rushed home to watch Duke play Butler in the NCAA basketball championship. Little stayed behind, cleaning up and answering questions. This was more important, he said. At the end of the night, he locked up and went to his pickup truck. The next day he would be working on his next campaign or some board or Till commission business. As he drove away, a tall radio antenna, attached to the rear of his truck, bent in the wind.



fighting the good fight Josie Fleming wants to make sure that Marks is never without a newspaper. by joseph william s | report i ng from m ar k s

“Of course, I was a baby, but it seems to me my playpen stood right about here,” says Josie Fleming, waving a hand around a dark place near the back of a cave-like newsroom, the home of the Quitman County Democrat. Sixty-seven years ago, the playpen squatted near a lean-to that housed a darkroom. Now, the lean-to stores piles of useless hot-type equipment: various saws and small forges once used to render metal letters and design elements on the spot. But really, not a lot has changed in the cave since Fleming was a baby. The hulking, esoteric equipment that her father used still fills the room, though outmoded and long dormant. “What am I going to do with this stuff? Scrap metal?” she said, exasperated that her father’s linotype and various presses take up more room than the current Democrat operations. “Other newspapers seem to have sense enough to sell their equipment,” she added, but when she talks about the individual pieces and the decorative fonts and type, it’s obvious she’s kept the cave intact for more than just negligence. “To me they are works of art,” she said. There’s a sense the room has been left untouched because Fleming loves what the newspaper was. Her father, she said, took his job as the local record-keeper seriously and she’s proud to have inherited that torch, particularly since her husband, John, died a year ago, leaving her in full control. She said a Democrat has gone out every week she can remember, including the weeks her husband, father and mother died. “If they lose their newspaper, they lose an advocate that’s down in black and white every week,” Fleming said. Over the years, it’s been the victim of several historic hardships. Across the land, some old-time papers — including, just this year, one of Clarksdale’s two papers — shuttered as readers went online and advertisers gave up on print. Fleming’s biggest advertisers — a local bank, an energy company, the local classifieds — all uprooted

from the pages of the Democrat. Quitman County is getting smaller every year. Fleming’s customer base is shrinking. Now the paper gets a lot of its income from the legal notices the county publishes. “I am doing this now to make sure this community does not lose its newspaper,” she said. Fleming considers the paper a kind of identity that, if lost, signals the loss of the county’s spirit. Her assessment is historically consistent. The Democrat opened the year of Marks’ founding: 1907. Fleming’s father bought the newspaper in 1938. It saw the region through its birth, glorious teenage years and present ailing adulthood. The cave is an unkempt museum of newspaper publishing over a century, but just because Fleming doesn’t use the equipment anymore doesn’t mean the Democrat is up-to-date. There’s only one computer, and Fleming still cuts and pastes her pages with scissors and glue — small-town headlines like “Feral dogs cause problems” and “Free cooking classes for 4th and 5th graders offered at extension service” — and sends the leafy bunch to a printer in Panola County. In the meantime, her 1,260 issues are laid out by hand every week, a circulation she’s watched decline steadily over the years. She said most of those issues go to newsstands as many Quitman County residents can’t afford the upfront $25 subscription charge. Times have changed, she said. “People are dying and there’s nothing to bring young people in. We have a terrible, vicious cycle of welfare mothers. I’m sorry; I’m not racist. It’s here,” she said. “I go to the grocery store and I feel a mixture of despair and so much pity sometimes it overwhelms me. What to do?” Keep working. Fleming said she’s got her Steel Magnolias, friends who pitch in to help her keep the paper going. So for the sake of the record keeping that’s in her veins, she’ll publish the Democrat as long as she can. She doesn’t have the time or resources to do in-depth stories like one on the vicious

cycle of welfare, the woman purchasing businesses up and down Main Street or the random instances of hope sprouting all over Quitman. But she does note the town’s accomplishments, its deaths, births, weddings and awards, just as, she said, someone should. “I manage to give dignity to everybody. Our high school was almost taken over by the state. But our cheerleading team placed something like seventh in the nation in their category. I put them on the front page,” she said. “I love this paper. It keeps me from sitting at home and wallowing in grief. I still miss my husband and I am still in love with him.” Fleming was living elsewhere when the Mule Train came to Marks. The paper didn’t print a word about it. “My mother ignored it,” Fleming said. “She was frightened. … Who but Hodding Carter, who was independently wealthy, had the courage to say the truth back then?” Years later, when Josie and John were running the Democrat, it ran a special centennial edition. They made sure to write an article about the Mule Train. She recalls how during the civil rights years, there was a fight over “calling black people Mr. and Mrs. I thought it so ridiculous. Why not?” She clings to hope that Marks can heal any divisions left over from the past. “There are people of good will on both sides. There are racists on both sides. We have got to work together if there is any future for our community.” Now, at 67, she’d like to travel and spend more time with the grandchildren. She’d like to sell the newspaper but only if she can find a buyer willing to keep covering local news, maybe even do it a little better. She could simply close it up and walk away. “But I can’t,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of this town not having a newspaper.”

joseph w ill iam s



sister mercy of

Sister Anne Brooks became a doctor to minister to the poor. When she found Tutwiler, she knew she was in the right place. by C aroline L ee | report in g from tutw i ler


Dr. Ann Brooks checks out a patient’s foot. “You share their suffering.You worry about them. And then they witness to me,” she said. N i c k toce

hen Sister Anne Brooks came to town in 1982, Tutwiler had been without a full-time doctor for many years. Dr. Brooks, as she is also known, set up shop in the old, abandoned clinic, a building so behind the times that it still had separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites. Separate drinking fountains, too. She got rid of the signs and turned one of the waiting areas into an office area. She hired some black employees. And the Ku Klux Klan distributed leaflets in her parking lot. She birthed babies on her front lawn and on a car seat in the middle of the night. She helped poor people find better, safer housing, get indoor toilets, get hot and cold running water, sign up for Medicare and Medicaid. She got people who had historically distrusted doctors and hospitals to trust her. It took a while, but she and the other Catholic nuns who joined her began to pump new life into tiny Tutwiler. Along the way, people came to love her. Ask Patricia Young, all 408 pounds of her. Young, 44, has battled obesity for years, bouncing from doctor to doctor, misery to misery. She suffered from narcolepsy, endured two major car accidents. She has asthma, depression, anxiety, rods and pins in her legs, no ankle bones. She labors to breathe and

her speech is forever interrupted by loud wheezing. When she sits, she threatens to topple over, teetering under the imbalance of her weight. She has smoked on and off since she was 10 and still smokes a pack a day on a good day. If anyone needed a doctor, it was Patricia Young. But many of her problems are fairly typical of the ailments doctors on the front lines of Delta health care encounter every day. It is a place where poor people often have no transportation to a clinic, where doctors often encounter people with a chronic condition getting worse, either because people didn’t understand what was happening to them, couldn’t afford a doctor or simply avoided seeking medical help for as long as possible. Young says she didn’t like going to doctors because they never remembered her name. She avoided the Tutwiler clinic at first because people told her it was only for black people. When she finally went, she found that Brooks and the other nuns not only remembered her name, but “make you feel like they care about you.” Brooks immediately put Young on a different diet. She told her she needed to change her lifestyle and lose weight. It’s been working. “I weigh 408. I lost 22 because in January I

weighed 430,”Young said. “I want to lose 100 pounds. I would like to at least get down to where I can go to Walmart and buy my pants instead of having to order them.” Sit in Brooks’ waiting room and you will see all the ailments of the Delta. There are people with skinned knees, hypertension, AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, even a smattering of people trying to get on disability — whether they are actually disabled or not. Many carry their medicine in bags from the Diabetic Shoppe. A glance here helps explain why the Delta leads the nation in obesity and comes close in heart disease and diabetes. In many cases, Brooks said, it simply comes down to diet and lifestyle. “The whole family dynamic depends on what you can afford, which is usually the cheaper stuff like a box of mac and cheese,” she said. “You know, if you haven’t got your teeth, you can’t deal with it so the whole family enjoys it. People get fatter. And of course school meals enter into that big time. I understand they’re changing the school meals, but we’ll see who really eats them.” It is startling to see the sheer numbers of sick and injured people streaming into the clinic — people painfully limping, people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, crying children, mothers with a raspy cigarette



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Dr. Brooks gets a medical history. “We don’t just take care of the disease; we take care of the patient.” T utw i ler S n a p s hot s

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Incorporated: 1905 2000 population: 1,364 2008 estimate: 1,247 White: 11.8 Percent Black: 87 percent Per capita income: $9,557 Median household income: $23,441 In Poverty: 38.5 percent History: Some say W.C. Handy “discovered” the Blues at the train station when he heard a man playing a guitar and wailing a song about “where the Southern cross the Dog,” a railroad crossing near Moorhead.

Charlie Miller gets ready to serve heaping helpings of soul food at the Double Dy Amoco gas station.

Source : U. S. Ce nsu s

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The Tutwiler Clinic is a beacon to the poor for miles around.Two-thirds of its patients can’t afford to pay.

The food, all southern staples, is delicious, but it’s far from a healthy diet for a region that leads the nation in obesity.

cough. When Brooks first consolidated the waiting rooms, she was left with 12 chairs for the 700 patients on file in August 1983. “In the beginning, they often stood in the hallways,” she said. After searching for a while, she coaxed a foundation into a grant that paid for a new wing. Brooks, who regularly turns back half of her salary to the clinic, said 68 percent of the patients she treats can’t afford to pay. Even the ones who can pay often can’t afford to buy the medicine they are prescribed. The clinic, its 33 employees, six nurses and $2 million budget have to get by mostly on donations. In 1990, the TV show “60 Minutes” reported on the trailblazing work of the little clinic that does so much in a place so poor. Viewers were so moved by the sisters’ work that they flooded them with donations. Ever since, the nuns have depended on prayers and donations, many of them from people they have never met. “We send out a newsletter three times a year,” Brooks said. Lately, with the economy pinched, some traditionally large donors have been reduced to sending a dollar bill. “Most had given $25 a month before then,” Brooks said. Even with many previous donors unable to continue at the same level, Brooks says it has always worked out. Not so long ago, they got a windfall in the mail. From 2003 to 2006, she said, Medicaid had unintentionally been paying the wrong rate, and as a result it mailed the clinic a check for $147,000. “Occasionally, when it gets really bad, we get bequests of several thousand dollars,” Brooks said. It’s not just money. Doctors throughout the area, aware that the clinic shoulders more than its share of unpaying patients, donate boxes of medicine that the clinic would otherwise have to purchase. Of the clinic’s patients, 22 percent come in without appointments, often after having put off going to the doctor for years. As a result, the problems the women see are often chronic. They require drastic changes. Young, for example, said one of the ladies in the clinic advised her to cut back on her softdrink intake. “They tell me not to drink my Dr Peppers so much,’cause I could drink a 12-pack of Dr Peppers every day. They tell me to drink Diet Dr Peppers, but I just can’t drink’em. I can stand the taste of Diet Coke more. They told me to get more juices in my system, so I’m drinking this.” She gestured at her drink of the moment, a grapefruit juice-based drink in a plastic bottle. Young said she feels a lot better when she moves to juices. Despite the amount of sugar in juice, there is a certain advantage to the vitamins that come with it. Young also feels better when she smokes less frequently. A child of two smokers, she said all of her brothers and sisters smoked growing up. Most of them still do, though her brother is trying to quit.



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Once, the shelves at this Tutwiler grocery were full. Now, with few customers, the stock is thin.

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John Gee runs the last grocery in Tutwiler. He told his son at Ole Miss to leave when he graduates. “There’s nothing for him here.”

“I feel like the smoking is really tearing my body down, because if I go two or three hours without smoking, I feel like I can breathe better,”Young said. “Like right now, I haven’t smoked since we left the house. My sister-inlaw don’t allow smoking in the truck because my brother’s quitting.” Young’s asthma only worsens what has happened to her body since she started smoking. “It’s a killer. I’ve got my inhaler in the truck,” she said. Young said she takes Advair and uses an inhaler daily, and that the clinic helps provide the $62 needed to cover that cost. Young lives off of Social Security, so it is important that the clinic provides the medicine she needs. Young’s main struggle, though, is with her weight. “I was 10 pounds when I was born. I’ve always been big. My daddy fed me pinto beans and cornbread when I was 3 days old,” Young said. Young said other doctors had told her she needed to cut back on specific foods, but she didn’t listen. Brooks persuaded her to finally try to change her ways. This doctor took time to listen to her, seemed to understand her. More than that, Young could tell that what

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Sister Margaret Delaney, center, runs a quilting program at the community center.The quilters’ work has been featured in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. happened to her really mattered to Brooks. “We try to empower our patients with knowledge,” Brooks said. “We practice holistic medicine. We don’t just take care of the disease, we take care of the patient.” Brooks said she tries to teach “some foods to avoid, how much they can eat, what’s a good amount, half a cup of a serving. Lots of salad, things like that, and forget the greasy stuff. And we talk about bread and rice and potatoes and pasta.” It is a hard fight, this attempt to change people who have lived this way, eaten this way for generations. But Brooks is hooked. “You share their suffering. You worry about them. And then they witness to me,” she said. Brooks came to Tutwiler because she felt called to work with the poor. When she arrived, she knew she had come to the right place. The remnants of a plantation economy and a century of segregation were still all too visible. People lived in houses with no

running water, holes in the floor, no air conditioning. Housing and plumbing may be better now, but poverty still causes problems. She has encountered patients who don’t have the refrigerator they need to keep insulin cool. One patient died at a red light on his way to the clinic because he ran out of his asthma medicine. She has been at it for 28 years now. She is 71. In fact, none of the nuns is getting any younger. The average age of the small order, Sisters of the Holy Names, is 72. What happens when they are gone? “You have to look at it with faith,” she said. “But you don’t sit there and do nothing. You train people. You make sure that people know how to do things. They don’t have to do something exactly the way I would, just so it gets done.” And perhaps, just perhaps, God will provide.

Lillian ASKINS



Jo s eph W ill i a ms

a brave new marks Can racial reconciliation save the town that spawned MLK’s Mule Train? B y Joseph William s Report ing from M ar k s

The fake-plant-decorated warehouseturned-restaurant called The Dining Room is the social epicenter of Marks. Everybody from Chancery Clerk Butch Scipper to longtime civil rights activist James Figgs sidles up to the buffet to fill plates with fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas. Shiny loafers and beat tennis shoes squeak against linoleum floors. Things are pleasant here, out of sight of the empty factories and crumbling streets that recall a strange history marked as much by kindness and optimism as by violence and fear. In some ways, the mood in The Dining Room is like a political rally. Everyone with a stake in Marks’ future can be found there with a plate of grub. Men and women, black and white, smile, shake and kiss the baby. Big campaign-style posters behind the buffet

read: “Forecast 2010. In Spite of…” Begging, what forecast In spite of what? The answer: a pleasant community, its hope, survival and success In spite of the status quo of poverty, poor education, racial division and few prospects. It’s an against-the-grain thesis backed by influential optimists, of which there are many, and challenged by a just-as-influential history. After all, this is the place where the Mule Train to Washington began, an iconic moment in the annals of the civil rights movement. To this town once labeled “the poorest place on Earth” came Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and Stokely Carmichael and thousands of marchers and journalists geared up for the Poor People’s Campaign, a nationwide march on Washington that began in Marks. In town, there were protests, arrests and enough tension to last a lifetime. But today’s Marks is nothing like the

Marks of 1968. Black and white officials and community leaders are eagerly hatching plans for a brighter future. They’re negotiating with Amtrak for a passenger train stop, talking of a Mule Train museum or souvenir shops to lure tourists, and talking about a role as low-crime bedroom community for the likes of Clarksdale and Batesville. These are not naive people. They have lived in the Delta all their lives. They know it will not be easy. “I tell my grandchildren only their best is acceptable,” said Scipper, the chancery clerk. “I think that we as a community have to expect that out of ourselves, and when people don’t give you excellence there has to be – I don’t what the answer is – there’s got to be some way of pushing that excellence.” He and others know that, without excellence, the town, and the county, could blow away like so much chaff.

Joseph Wi ll iam s



I n s p i te of poverty … Since manufacturing went south, Quitman County has remained near the bottom of a state that sits at the bottom of the country for employment rates. Since the 2008 recession, the unemployment rate has hovered around 15 percent. The per-capita income in Quitman County is $10,817, No. 78 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. It lost 15 percent of its population in the past decade and about 30 percent since 1980. If you consider teen pregnancy and problems with education, things look worse and worse. It’s a 12-car pileup of some of the worst statistics that can belabor a community of 1,300. The confluence of hard times has squeezed out everyone, from low-income students looking for a better life to some of the town’s biggest boosters. “It’s what I was about for so long, just trying to think of a way to bring work in there so we could maintain our little paradise ... It was a great place to grow up, but now there’s no reason for any child to come back there and work,” Peyton Self said. A successful family of farmers and bankers, the Selfs grew with the town. From a treelined cul-de-sac of mansions called Self Circle, they were at the social and financial center of Marks at the best of times and did what they could to hold the place together at the worst. But things have gotten too bad. Peyton Self left the Delta for greener Oxford pastures. After decades of fighting, he gave up at 50. He said the town, the whole region probably, may not be there in 50 years. The problem with such entrenched poverty, says Self and his cousin Miki Cassidy, is welfare. President Johnson had good intentions with his Great Society poverty programs, but for places like Marks that were losing jobs faster than gaining them, welfare became entrenched. With the poor making up almost 35 percent of the population, welfare now rivals any other industry as the greatest source of income in town. “Most any industry requires skilled labor, and when you’ve got people that have been on welfare for three generations, the skill is just about gone,” Self said. Self graciously retired from a group of locals who remain optimistic. These people, whose ranks include everyone from the highest local officials to housing project residents, are the lifeblood of Marks. If there’s any hope for the town, it is in these folks collaborating to resuscitate their beloved hamlet. But the obstacles are many, and they start with something as peculiar and blind as the human spirit. “Starting back after the Civil War, we started then with the African-American race, breaking their spirits early and just pounding them away, and we’ve done that year after year, generation after generation. We’ve closed them off and kept them living in poverty, and poverty breeds poverty, and poverty breeds problems,” said Scipper, who has spent his 19

Jo s eph W ill i a ms

“Industry’s not interested in coming to an uneducated work force,” says former alderman Jim Cassidy. M a r k s S n a p s hot Incorporated: 1907 2000 population: 1551 2008 estimate: 1,364 White: 35.3 percent Black: 64.7 percent Per capita income: $11,104 Median household income: $20,521 In poverty: 30 percent History: Named for Jewish immigrant Leopold Marks, who fled Germany to avoid serving in the German army and arrived here with 27 cents. Peddled wares from a small boat along the Coldwater River. Gave the railroad some of his land to come to Marks. Quitman County’s first state representative. Source : U.S. Ce n su s

years in public office trying to improve race relations in Marks. Black leaders point to welfare as a necessity. They point to the fact that journalists flocking into Marks for the Poor People’s Campaign labeled the town the poorest place on Earth, a label many consider an embellishment. But no one denies that sharecroppers and their families lived in squalid conditions. Figgs and others claim

that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wept when he saw conditions here. The poorest of Marks now have shelter — functional, small homes subsidized by government funding. They have public education. It’s not great, but kids go to school nine months of the year instead of being pulled out for three months at a time during harvest season. “To have comfort, see running water, flush a commode, get up in the middle of the night and not have to put no wood on the fire, it’s just a joy when I go into these old folks’ house now, and I see how they’re living,” Figgs said. “Tears come to my eyes because I know my grandfather and my great-grandfather and them lived in some horrible conditions.” Figgs is the deputy mayor. A Marks native, he is a 55-year member of the NAACP and a former bodyguard to the late Mississippi NAACP chief Aaron Henry. A little at a time, he said. He’s won over some white leaders to seeing his side of things, especially concerning aid to the elderly. But there is so much left to do.

I n s p i te of poor s chool s … It is not a stretch to say white parents in the Delta panicked when integration loomed. The private school in Marks, Delta Academy, scrambled to accommodate double and triple enrollment numbers. It added seventh

and eighth grades in the early 1960s when integration drew nearer. When the federal courts forced complete integration, Delta Academy added ninth through 12th grades in 1970,“simply because we didn’t want to be integrated here,” said Nancy Hughes, a recently retired schoolteacher who taught in Marks since 1965. She and Jim and Miki Cassidy sat recently in the Cassidys’ marble-trimmed living room on Self Circle. Jim served iced tea in crystal glasses as a cat stretched luxuriously on a wide, plush Oriental rug. “It was a racial issue, period.’I didn’t want my children going to school with black children,’ ” Jim said, explaining the mentality of the day. “The thing is, you got along because you had to get along, and if you didn’t want to get along, you went to private school or you moved,” Miki added. Now, the public schools are 98 percent black. Exacerbating the problem, the exodus of whites from the county has cost the private school badly needed tuition. “Industry’s not interested in coming to an uneducated workforce,” said Jim. He was an alderman for 32 years, and estimates that only about 30 percent of old Marks residents consider the place able to be saved. The money, the millions of government and nonprofit education aid pumped into the Delta on an annual basis, doesn’t seem to help. They say it’s un-targeted and under-regulated. Casino-rich Tunica, for example, has some of the worst schools and highest unemployment rates. But, in a spirit of helpfulness common in Marks, the Cassidys host a rolling catalog of Teach for America students who many believe provide tangible, effective aid to struggling schools. Like the Cassidys, many local leaders criticize the money-can-fix-everything mentality that they say suffered the schools for decades. It’s a family problem. An individual problem. And it’s everybody’s fault. With the town’s sharecropping past, many low-income families never came to value education. When they do, they hardly have the basic resources – clothes, notebooks and time – to encourage a spirit of learning. “It goes back to the community expecting excellence out of its people, and we have not had that,” Scipper said.“What happens in poverty is the hopelessness. That tends to break their spirit, and that’s the one thing I tell parents:’If you ever break his spirit, if they ever become where they cower down, it’s hard to bring them back up.’ ”

I n s p i te of r ac i a l d i ffere n ce s … Perhaps one of the most divisive topics in Marks, race could be its savior. There’s no denying whites and blacks typically get along. The lunchtime buffet at The Dining Room fills up shoulder-toshoulder with a spectrum of racially and economically diverse residents chattering away with each other in a breeze of small-

Joseph Wi ll iam s

Longtime NAACP firebrand James Figgs, now deputy mayor, says white folks nowadays “will sit down at that table and talk to me.”

town familiarity. Elected officials are both white and black, and they paint a picture of unified ideals, if occasional differences, at the municipal level. Even NAACP firebrand Figgs spoke in conciliatory tones when he said, “Today white folks recognize and understand. They don’t like James Figgs because he was a hell-raiser, civil rights activist his whole life —’what we were for, he was against.’ But today they’ll sit down at that table and talk to me.” Everyone talks about how much the town needs black and white working together. It’s often presented as the key to revitalization, even though the races seem to get along nicely. But memories can be bitter things. There are two sets of memories of old Marks, the black and the white. Without much local commentary on the subject (the local newspaper at the time didn’t cover the Mule Train, the largest event in Marks history, and the public library carries no books on the subject), memories are left to impressions divided sharply down economic and racial lines. “We shot back. Yessir, we shot back. They know I shoot back,” said Figgs, recounting a story of a pre-civil rights meeting at a Masonic temple where guards were stationed in the bushes. When shots were fired one

night, the group knew to hit the ground, and those with guns returned fire. It’s hard to imagine now as short, tankbuilt Figgs fills a plate of home cooking at The Dining Room, talking casually to tall, white Scipper, but the town’s racial legacy is as basic as this: It was in the same town that Figgs and other elderly blacks remember beatings and starvation that the well-to-do remember a paradise passed. But in what may be a watershed for the Delta, these memories are only that in Marks. The leaders here are trying hard to focus on a new future, and they’re doing it with uncommon frankness and pragmatism. “It is a problem,” Scipper acknowledged, echoing several of his peers and colleagues, “but it’s not a problem that can’t be resolved. I’m not sure that my generation is not going to be the one that may have to pass before we get completely past the race problem here.” Scipper says true cooperation has taken hold only in the past five years, but the positive examples are starting to eclipse the memories that led King this way in the first place. There’s the recently integrated Christmas parade. What was once a modest black-only affair organized by a sorority of women led by Mary Towner, owner of The Dining Room, now includes floats from almost every institution in town, a musical program of the town’s diverse churches and schools, and a daylong event that, no matter the weather, draws the largest local crowd annually. “The governing group was a cross section. It was black and white women working together. Some of them had never sat down at the table together on equal footing,” Scipper said. Three years ago, the town celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The festival was not unlike the Christmas parade. They’ve held the party annually since then, calling it the Unity in the Community Festival. About the same time, a black girl was elected homecoming queen at the once all-white private school, Delta Academy. Just this year, another barrier fell. Veteran Quitman County Supervisor Manuel Killebrew’s funeral home here held services for two white families for the first time. There’s the integrated church services. The Methodists come together on the fifth Sunday of every month. Tuesday mornings, Towner leads a praise group attended by several denominations and at least two races. Former Mayor Aubrey Collums helped Towner and others lead that charge. For four years ending in 2009, he was a powerhouse proponent of reconciliation. Besides overseeing the Christmas parade and the anniversary celebration, he also helped several black-owned small businesses get their start, changing the face of downtown. “Anytime our people will plan something together,” Collums said, “it gives us hope that, if we get something else to do, we’ll do



By Sheena B aker | Reporting from Marks

it together.”

F orec a s t 2 0 1 0 … By “something else” he’s referring to something that will give the economy a boost. But the do-gooders, invigorated with a sense of success, have a plan. As the seat of county government, Marks, unlike smaller Quitman County towns such as Lambert and Sledge, can buy time on a babbling stream of tax dollars. But the money is dwindling rapidly. Everyone now agrees: Marks must reinvent itself. The farming-turned-manufacturing hamlet must turn again to survive. That prospect has officials of every stripe bustling to identify what makes Marks unique. On top of the list is the Mule Train. City and county officials are soliciting Amtrak, which breezes through daily carrying dozens of passengers to Memphis or Jackson, to stop in Marks and make the Home of the Mule Train a destination, even if it’s just a stretchyour-legs-and-buy-a-T-shirt destination. Throughout the South, marketing civil rights history often comes up against bitter memories. Critics say it’s too painful and embarrassing to put on a sign, a postcard and a building. But most leaders in Marks disagree. As Collums put it, “Some things you can’t change. You have to learn to live with them, adapt to them and make the best of them. As the old saying is, you have to take a pig’s ear and make silk out of it. It’s tough going at times.” There’s also a present optimism that Marks can be a bedroom community. With factory-laden Batesville and Clarksdale just a half-hour away and the casinos in Tunica not much farther, workers who prefer small towns with low crime can live in Marks. And there are signs it is emerging as a fishing and hunting community. Scipper said second-home buyers and retirees are modestly gaining numbers. According to census estimates, home values have risen by 60 percent since 2000. Small businesses are cropping up. Three stores opened downtown in the past three years — not many, but enough to strike a balance with the crumbling gas station at the end of Main Street. Many of these efforts are tempered by the fact of failing schools and the facts of poverty and history, but the people are rallying, piling up in numbers, ready to pull themselves and their town up whatever mountains appear on the road to recovery. Towner explained the strategy: “As you come in contact with problems, you try to solve them individually.” They seem to have solved one, and it may have been their greatest. In the Delta town where the conflagration of civil rights once burned bright, the flames are being quenched, and there are signs that just two short generations have come close to solving a problem that persisted for more than a century.

Jo s eph W illi a ms

The Quitman County Courthouse.Today, a black majority runs the board of supervisors.

Jo s eph W ill i a ms

Emmanuel Killebrew has been a supervisor for 32 years. Recently, his funeral home handled two white funerals, a sign of changing times.

Butch Scipper says racial reconciliation is one of his top priorities. As chancery clerk for almost 20 years, Scipper has worked to mend the damage from segregation by helping blacks and whites reach a common goal of improving the Delta. But for it to be successful, he says, they have to continue to do it together. “We have great race relations here in Quitman County and have for years,” Scipper said.“I think it’s because people as a whole here have always, to some degree, accepted that everybody lives here together.” As a member of the Delta Academy school board, he helped lead the drive to bring in black students. “I was one of the voters who voted to open it up to all students and even created a scholarship to bring in African-American students,” said Scipper, a man whose strong religious faith is evident on his business cards, which feature a Bible verse on the back. He has contributed to several projects and missions, such as the blending of white and black Methodist church services every fifth Sunday as a way to bring the races closer together. Services are rotated between predominantly black churches and predominantly white churches in the community. Delta Missions is a project that reaches out to everyone in the community, young or old. Scipper is the treasurer. It’s the project of United Methodist churches from Tupelo, Tunica, Marks and Lambert that offers GED classes, health screenings and after-school recreation for students. The group also is trying to partner with Habitat for Humanity. Scipper wants the new center in Lambert to be a resource guide for what people need to do when they have a problem. “We’re trying to be a clearinghouse where if someone comes in, we might not solve his problems for him, but we can send him to some place that might have a solution for him,” Scipper said. The nonprofit center currently offers GED classes and plans to help people with low reading levels improve. Sometimes, racial reconciliation is not easy. Sometimes, it takes a tough skin. Scipper recalls the reaction when he voted to offer African-American scholarships to Delta Academy. A man stopped him on the street and said,“I’m going to whip your butt for letting blacks into Delta Academy.” Scipper said he responded, “First, I don’t really think you’re going to whip my butt, and second, at the next board meeting I’ll be voting like I always do and you still won’t be there.” The man calmed down a lot, looked at Scipper and asked,“Aw, Butch, why do you have to be so hard on this stuff?” “Because it’s the right thing,” he replied. But such encounters are rare. Scipper says he likes helping the Delta and he likes living there. He likes walking into stores and speaking to people he knows. He can’t get that working in a larger area, he said. Offering people a hand up and not a handout is what Scipper tries to do. “I hope we have broad enough minds and open enough hearts that we can mold ourselves into what the community needs,” Scipper said.“I think that’s our goal.”

Reconciler for the races Butch Scipper thinks Marks can make it, but only if blacks and whites work together.

Joseph Wi ll iam s

Chancery Clerk Butch Scipper says people here “have always, to some degree, accepted that everybody lives here together.”



Wielding batons, officers break up a demonstration.

the mule train Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is reputed to have wept at the poverty he saw in Marks.

Marks in much earlier, busier days.

Retired Marks dentist Dr. James O. Goldman’s many Mule Train and civil rights photos have preserved a priceless record of perhaps the biggest news ever to occur in Marks.

Part of the mule train getting ready to leave on the Poor People’s March to Washington.

A man works on the feet of the mules.


B y Sheena Jackso n | report i ng from m ar k s

In the old days, Robert Jackson knew how to stir up a good fight when a good fight was called for. He led a “selective buying campaign” against white merchants. He led a group of marchers who locked hands and blocked a road to get white officials to provide quick protection of the black community from an approaching flood. That was years ago. Now he’s a state senator. When he’s not in Jackson working on legislation, he preaches economic development. Through his Quitman County Development Organization, Jackson says he tries to send a message: There can never be a dollar amount placed on a good quality of life. It takes you places you dreamed of when you were a child and yields unlimited opportunities for success. Jackson co-founded the organization in 1977 when he and others saw a need for more blacks in leadership positions in Quitman County. They wanted less fortunate families to have a say in decisions made for their towns. “In the Delta, where you have a majority as the African-American population, there weren’t many who were part of the civic scene or in areas where you could seek improvements and quality of life for people,” Jackson said. “So the organization created an opportunity for low-income families to be a part of the community. The progress that we’ve made today is we do have people in the African-American community who are a part of the fabric of society — local elected officials, board of education, board of supervisors.” Jackson also founded the Tri-County Federal Credit Union, which gives financial aid to families that don’t qualify for a bank loan but desperately need money. “The credit union probably has the most impact in the community,” he said. At the beginning of its first year, 1991, the credit union had $13,000 in assets. By the 20th year, it was up to $20 million, Jackson said. Almost $40 million has been loaned to families in the Delta, helping them finance vehicles, pay doctor bills and cover other needs. Jackson also reaches out to youth, helping them learn to save and manage money, do better in school and realize the importance of helping the community. Through a project called Smart Talk Sweet Shop, young people in the Delta are doing just that, Jackson said. “One of the things that we always heard from our community is that we don’t have anything for the kids to do,” Jackson said. “So we had this project where we had kids come in to use the computers when they got out of school, and aside from that we had a sweet shop where kids come buy candy, so we combined the two.” The shop is run by kids who sell candy and make flower arrangements and gift baskets for the community. Jackson also helps people find affordable housing; created Y-CUP, a credit union for young people; offers child-care services for families; and provides social services, all through the Quitman County Development Organization. He is hopeful for Marks. “I see it as hopefully a robust community where people have what they need in order to enjoy life,” he said.


From the streets to the Capitol,

a fight for fairness State Sen. Robert Jackson, who once marched for causes, still has a passion for helping.

The woman who wouldn’t keep quiet Stung by prejudice, Mary Towner spoke out — and reached out

Joseph Wi ll iam s

By Sheena B aker Reporting from Marks

MARKS — She went into labor and was rushed to the hospital in a nearby town. When she arrived, the doctors and nurses looked at her and put her in a room. They said she wasn’t ready to have the baby. But Mary Towner knew she was ready. While she was in the room, she said, she heard the umbilical cord snap. “His breathing stopped,”Towner said. “And because his breathing stopped, they rushed me to surgery.” When they got her to surgery, she said, the baby’s chances of being born healthy were gone. “If they had proceeded like they should have when I got (to the hospital),”Towner said, “they would have saved him.” Her son was born with brain damage. Towner believes she was treated differently because she is black, told to wait so white patients could be attended first. And she told the world what happened. “I made an outcry,” she said. “I let it be known.” She became one of the community leaders who worked hard to establish health centers for disabled children in the Delta, Jackson and Magee after her son was born. Because she spoke out about what happened to her son, what could have been prevented, many people across the nation contacted her and her dream of helping other children with disabilities came true. Now Towner lives in Marks with her husband, the Rev. Ezra Towner, and together they run the Dining Room. It’s a place where everyone in town — black, white, rich or poor — can gather over a hot meal while bonding as one community. In the Dining Room, Mary Towner also runs the Arts Council, giving adults more education in literature and offering social activities to older adults. Towner was the first black member of the Quitman County School Board and also tries to bring together students at Delta Academy, which is heavily white, and Madison S. Palmer High School, which is almost all black. “Whatever I have, I invite them,”Towner said. “I don’t plan for race. Folks that used to hate me love me now because I work both groups.” Towner also organizes the September Song Festival, an annual blues and gospel fest with arts, crafts and food, which attracts more than 1,000 visitors each year. She has worked hard, not only in Quitman County but across the Delta to help provide resources for people and keep the region going. “I think if it had not been for people like me and people who were already involved, it would already be gone,” she said.



Gambling on dirt Forget the cost, the dirt, the bugs, the weather and the everpresent risk of failure. For the Adron boys, farming isn’t work. It’s a way of life. B y Reid Kelly | R eport in g from Mon ey

R ei d Kelly

Roosevelt Thomas and his young sidekick Christian Belk spend a day on a huge tractor.

Roosevelt Thomas and his sidekick sit in the comfortable cab of a tractor, John Deere, airconditioned, radio, more buttons than either of them knows how to operate. He makes countless passes over the flat ground, steady at 6 miles per hour. The machine his tractor pulls behind him opens the earth into 16 perfectly spaced rows. It then drops a single seed exactly six inches from the last, adds a sprinkling of fertilizer and closes the earth atop it. Every row he plants colors a blue path on one of two computer monitors next to the driver’s right hand. As the operator of this new $250,000 machine, Thomas doesn’t even bother holding the steering wheel. The Global Positioning System takes care of such mundane tasks as keeping the tractor on a straight line, within three inches of perfection. His partner sits next to him wearing a vibrant blue Columbia PFG button-down shirt, jeans and boots. This is the only way of farming he has ever known. Christian Belk is the 7-year-old son of Ricky Belk, the owner of the farm where Thomas works. Christian, like his brother Adron before him, will ride like this every weekend until school finishes, at which time he will be here every day. “When you live 30 miles out in the country, you can either sit at home with your mom or go with your dad, be outside in the dirt and ride tractors all day,” Adron said. For these two boys growing up in the fertile flood plain of the Mississippi Delta, the choice was easy. They have been up since before the sun rose, and will not retire until it sets. The comforts of their tractor make it much more tolerable to work the 90-hour weeks. Farming has come a long way from the


mule-drawn plows Thomas’ family used to break up the land during his childhood. But if you think modern-day farming has become a simple thing, think again. Farmers still play a hellish guessing game with the weather, which can be checked by the push of a button on a new King Ranch F-150. The government regulations on chemical usage have never been stricter. Logs are kept electronically on each tractor. They report when chemicals are used and the wind direction at the time of application, in case there are disputes between farmers over the cross contamination of a crop. The market for the crops they produce fluctuates regularly, just like stocks on Wall Street. They sold the last of the previous year’s crop at the end of March. Because they own elevators to store their crops in, the Belks can afford to play the market, holding back some of the crop until the price is right. Adron will graduate in May and follow in his father’s footsteps, farming the land. But the family lineage of farming stops there. Ricky’s father was a businessman in nearby Greenwood. During Ricky’s first year farming, he had to borrow a neighbor’s tractor to work his 20 acres of soybeans. He now farms roughly 7,000 acres of corn, beans, rice and wheat with a small fleet of workers looking to him to coordinate their every move. “Most people think there’s nothing to farming but riding on a tractor, but it’s the planning and following all the government specs that takes the most time,” Adron said. Now, Ricky rarely sees the inside of a tractor, unless something is wrong. He rides from farm to farm, making sure everything is done correctly, the machinery works properly and all the workers know where they are supposed to be next. “Our biggest thing is communication,” Ricky said.“Between cellphones and radios, we’ve got to keep in touch because we’re so scattered out. In the good old days, if you got 30 acres done a day you were doing good. Now we can get 200 to 250 acres a day per planter; so if we have all three planters going we can get up to 750 acres done a day. We get everything done so fast, we’re never anywhere long.” But there is only so much you can control. Adron said last fall was their best bean crop to date. He then pointed to a few piles of mush, somewhat resembling muddy sawdust, sitting next to a ditch between fields. This is all that is left of that record crop. Late-season rains in September and October wiped out everything. An entire year’s work, hundreds of thousands of dollars and food for countless people and animals, all gone. And nothing could have been done to save it. The Belks’ operation is large enough and diverse enough to absorb such a loss. But a smaller farmer might not have been so fortunate. As technology has advanced, the enormous expense of farm equipment and chemicals used to kill weeds and insects has


N ic k Toce

In spring, when fields are prepared for planting, the Delta is abuzz with the sleepy drone of crop dusters.


KIN G C O T T O N ’ S D O M INAN C E In 1914-15, at the beginning of World War One, America held a monopoly on a world-wide necessity. Author David Cohn noted that it dominated America’s economy – “a dominance never since attained by any single American produce of factory and field.” Bales America 16.5 million India 5.0 million Egypt 1.3 million Russia 1.3 million

F a rm i n g ’ s Imp a ct O n T hree C ou n t i e s


Farm-related Percent of Farm-related jobs all jobs income Percent Coahoma 2,779 23.15 $79 million 19.95 Quitman 1,093 30.73 $22 million 26.10 Tallahatchie 1,839 26.80 $29 million 19.62

Delta cotton acreage 2006 1,220,000 2007 655,000 2008 365,000 2009 300,000 -75 percent


. . . W H I L E O T H E R C R O P S T AK E U P T H E S L AC K



Farm acreage 220,363 Average size


631 647 Quitman

488 302,740 315,697 1,160 acres


u.s. departme nt of agr iculture

Cotton ready for harvest. made it harder and harder for small farmers to survive a bad year. One lost crop can mean a lost farm. Every farmer in the Delta has stories of friends who have gone bust. The number of small operators has never been smaller. Their land is being gobbled up by the big boys, including foreign-owned corporations. But farmers like the Belks are able to keep at this inherently risky business – and to have some fun along the way. Around noon, Ricky drives along a dirt road delivering a kid’s meal to Christian when a group of motorcycle riders appears, driving toward him down the paved road to his right. He chuckles and a smirk lights up his face. Ricky accelerates, causing the dust trail following his truck to grow. The wind’s speed and direction are just right, pushing the cloud onto the road right in front of the bikers. They accept their fate, slowing a little as they cross paths with the farmer. Ricky’s head snaps back to watch his little prank come to fruition. The dirt he kicks up fills the bikers’ lungs and stings their eyes. Ricky’s gaze quickly turns in front of him, his smile stays a bit longer. Ricky said he encouraged Adron, his oldest son, to study business and real estate instead of agriculture because of the rapid advancements being made in agricultural technology. Once he graduates with a degree, what he knows may nearly be obsolete. This is why the Belks get new tractors every year, avoiding the substantial depreciation that could occur when trading in an obsolete system. “They can’t make the equipment any bigger; it’s as big as it’s going to get,” Adron said.

“They aren’t going to make the roads any bigger that we have to travel on, so they have to improve production and efficiency some other way.” Prototype tractors are being tested that would require no driver to operate, and run exclusively on a GPS. Currently, farmers have to manually turn the tractors around at the end of every row and control the implements that they pull behind the tractors, such as planters. The GPS then takes care of everything once the tractor is pointed in the right direction. If these new tractors hit the market, which Adron estimates wouldn’t be for at least 15 to 20 years, farming their 7,000 acres would require only two people, simply for the task of programming the onboard computers and setting the tractors loose. “Some of our rows are two miles long,” Adron said.“It takes about 20 minutes to get from one end to the other on a tractor. I’m glad I don’t have to do all the driving, but I do like to do a little to keep from getting too bored.” Being bored was the last thing on Ricky’s mind when he began farming. At the end of the day there would not be a part of him that didn’t have dirt on it. Wearing long sleeves and long pants with your collar buttoned up tight around your neck wasn’t enough to keep off the dirt that constantly blew all around you. Comes with the territory, farmers will tell you. And territory is something the Belks have plenty of. So how did the son of a businessman manage to break into the world of big farming? “Hard work and luck,” Adron said.“That’s what he (Ricky) would say.”

Soybean acreage 2006 1,677,000 2007 1,460,000 2008 2,000,000 2009 2,160,000 Corn Acreage 2006 340,000 2007 980,000 2008 720,000 2009 730,000 +173 percent

The fallen king Cotton no longer reigns supreme in the Mississippi Delta by reid kelly

Cotton has always been king in the Delta. Every fall harvest, its snowy white fiber stretched as far as the eye could see, unbroken for miles in every direction. No more. The crop that helped create the Delta has fallen on hard times. In increasing numbers, farmers have been turning to corn and soybeans and anything that will cost them less to produce and make them more money. Where cotton gins are laying off workers or shutting down completely, gleaming silver silos are popping up, giants big enough to hold overflowing harvests of grain. It is a hard fall for the miracle fiber that once ruled the world. Cotton played a role in kicking off the Industrial Revolution, it dominated world markets for decades, and it helped make the United States an

agricultural and industrial giant. But it also sent slave ships speeding across the ocean to kidnap Africans so they could pick the South’s cotton. And when slavery was done in the Delta, it left segregation and a sharecropping system that featured back-breaking work and poor wages. Until the 1950s, when newfangled mechanical cotton pickers and powerful chemicals made all those black field hands unnecessary. Suddenly, a machine could do the work of 100 men. Desperate for work, black farm hands by the thousands fled to the north. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t stayed at home, where many became part of a seemingly permanent, welfare-dependent underclass. Slavery’s hangover lingers to this day in the Delta – rampant poverty,

high unemployment, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, de facto school segregation, white flight and what many say feels like a permanent recession. But through the years, the big cotton farms continued off and on to make big money, helped by federal subsidies. Then, in 2006, change began to rock King Cotton. The complexity of growing cotton, competition from foreign markets and the cost of the machinery needed to grow and harvest cotton began to chase farmers to soybeans and corn, whose price shot up because of the popularity of ethanol and other factors. Beans and corn cost less to grow and the markets were favorable. In just four years, Mississippi cotton acreage plummeted from 1.2 million acres to near 340,000. Many of the state’s cotton gins shut down tight. Farmers say it is not the death of cotton, that it can spring back as markets and competition and prices fluctuate. Cotton’s immense fallout remains, but the crop may never again be quite the force that created the Delta and an entire culture in its own image.

Source: NASS, Delta Council, Mississippi State University Reid Kelly

T he D i s a ppe a r i n g D elt a C otto n G i n

The ubiquitous grain silos are increasing as cotton gins fall into disuse, the result of farmers moving away from cotton. B I G A G R I C U L T U R E ’ S F INAN C IA L C L O U T

Year Number of gins Yearly decline 1991 181 2000 109 -40 percent 2009 72 -34 percent Total decline 109 -60 percent

G i n s P roce s s L e s s C otto n In 2000, 47 percent of gins ginned less than 10,000 bales a year. In 2008, 65 percent of gins ginned less than 1 0,000 bales a year. Source : M i s s i s s ipp i State U n iver s i ty

F ewer Y ou n g F a rmer s , F ewer Sm a ll F a rmer s The fastest growing group of farmers is 65 and older. 2007 2002 Change All farm operators 3.3 million 3 million +7.0% Under age 45 732,322 851,091 -14% 45 to 64 1.7 million 1.5 million +13% 65 and older 823,435 674,968 +22% Source s : Cl a r io n - L edger , U. S . Depa rtme n t of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service

Cotton may not be king but agriculture remains the primary financial engine of the Delta. Here is a look at cash receipts of agricultural production along The Roads of Broken Dreams and the Delta in millions of dollars in 2008. County Catfish Corn Cotton Rice Beans Wheat Other Total Coahoma 2,140 28,857 45,865 12,466 47,397 25,582 13,274 173,682 Quitman 2,495 6,661 14,245 16,688 20,178 10,980 6,815 78,062 Tallahatchie 0 16,400 11,857 13,427 44,303 12,420 18,522 104,829 Delta Totals 158,126 361,369 220,220 214,705 540,709 174,243 152,651 1,801,043 Source : D elta C ounc il



Can these kids be saved? In little Lambert, a swarm of charities tries to rescue the children of poverty. B y Joseph Williams Report in g from La mbert

J o seph Will iams

At Blues After School, Johnnie Billington teaches kids how to whittle their own drumsticks.

The largest feature on Lambert’s small chunk of Delta landscape is little more than a 10-acre industrial waste yard. Scraps of metal and rusting hulks of machinery decay prominently by the highway. This was Garan Inc., a Disney-endorsed plant that made children’s T-shirts before leaving for Mexico with its 500 jobs. Farther east, the tallest structure is an abandoned brick coal chute hunching over the rarely used railroad tracks. It looms over the town like some mysterious monolith. Between the two, a hand-painted brick sign reads “Club Good Times” in large script letters high above downtown. All of it is dissolving in the persistent Delta heat, paint and brick crumbling around the roaming, bored Lambert kids. By typical measures, Lambert children don’t have anything going their way. Behind the scenes, people step over each other to lend a hand, but out around town, there isn’t much beyond two convenience stores, a liquor store and a square mile of unused concrete. Their schools are troubled, and many of their impoverished parents never learned to value the very education that might offer them a way out. Yet Lambert is full of bustling nonprofits, do-gooders determined to carve out a better future by focusing on the kids. In this town of 1,500, they often bump into each other — counselors, mentors, teachers, tutors. They offer a flurry of opportunities: music, computers, basketball, medical care, school supplies, clothing. On a typical dry, sleepy Thursday, a group of mostly young men drapes over the stoop of a ceiling-less downtown building. For certain cars driving by, one will break from



Jo s eph W ill i a ms

Billington says too many kids are having kids. Right, gnarled hands smooth down a green stick and prepare it to make music. the group and put his thumb and forefinger to his lips and puff the air. It’s a job. “It’s like with all these stray dogs. Like these torn-down buildings,” said Johnny Davis, waving a hand toward the downtown strip. “You know, the kids, they’re just bored around here. They don’t have nothing.” Davis said he left when he could and, after eight years, he’s come back to collect his ailing mother and siblings and take them to Illinois. But for now, he’s on a street corner under Club Good Times watching drug dealers. “You know, I have kids, too, and I don’t want to see my kids in this type of environment,” he said. He’s not the first to look around and want something better for his kids. With 20 percent of the local workforce employed in social, health and education services, it seems the only thriving industry in town is not for profit and mostly geared toward children. “If you don’t do nothing, it’s for sure nothing’s going to happen. If you do something, you’ve got hopes of something happening,” said 75-year-old Criss Simpson, board member of Delta Ministries, explaining why he’s helping with the problem. When Simpson needed a $150,000 liver transplant for his granddaughter 20 years ago, Lambert rallied around him. Now he feels obliged to help in any small way. “I can’t put $150,000 back in, but I can put in my time and what little bit I do know,” he said. Behind Simpson in the sparse library of Delta Ministries, a new white board lists questions about the U.S. government: “3. What is a central government? 4. Describe the purpose of the system of checks and balances.” In the lobby is an uneven pool

L a mbert S n a p s hot Incorporated: 1905 2000 population: 1,967 2008 Estimate: 1,654 White: 15.4 percent Black: 82.8 percent Per capita income: $10,410 Median household income: $21,305 In poverty: 39.9 percent History: Once home to a factory that made Disneyapproved clothing. It closed after NAFTA passed and moved to Mexico. Source : U.S. Ce n su s

table and down the hall are sterile doctor’s offices equipped with reclining chairs and medical tables for the volunteer-based dental and health services to be offered. In another room, computers for the kids. Next door, backhoes eat away at old Garan. The Delta Ministries building used to be a Sunflower grocery store. It was one of the first businesses to leave after Garan. The owner “did a little economical thinking, which a businessman has to,” Simpson said. “If he could close this store and take half of his business to Marks with the same expense of operating, he’d be much farther ahead, which is a good business decision, but I thought it was terrible for the town of Lambert.” Now, he said, with the adults dying, leaving or unemployed, many Lambert kids are raised in single-parent homes where finding the resources to move is as likely as finding a job. Many more have kids themselves. Teen

pregnancy in the Delta is more than 20 percent of all pregnancies, more than twice the national average. “Their father and mother are kids, and they don’t know nothing. They know how to get the babies but they don’t know nothing about how to maintain life,” Johnnie Billington said of some of his former music students. On a cool spring Thursday, Billington opened his downtown door. Blues After School was open for business. Children came out from the small wood homes that pack into the crevices of cinderblock downtown buildings or from street corners where they orbit groups of men three times their age. They gathered under the bald, cracked face of the old bluesman. He hacked away at two crape myrtle sticks with a steak knife. “If you want to get this hump out, what do you got to do?” Billington said, examining the fresh, knotted wood. “Smush it down?” said Kereion Jordan, one of the three kids who found his stoop. “Yeah,” Billington said, “it’s green, and if you step on that and it’s green, what the stick do?” The kids offered different, wrong answers at the same time. “Naw, it’ll bend, son. It’ll bend, right?” Billington said. “And if you keep it bent like that all day, what’s gone happen then?” “It’s gone get straight,” Jordan said. “There you go. It’s gone be straight.” With the occasional Mississippi Arts Commission grant, Blues After School teaches neighborhood children how to play music, dress and be polite. Billington is as likely to bark disapproval at sagging pants as he is a wrong note. He likewise operates Blues in the School, and typically they don’t

Joseph Wi ll iam s

In better times, you could hardly walk down the sidewalk on a Saturday night. make their own drumsticks. “The last kid, he kind of broke the sticks, so I told them the place to get sticks is 20, 30 miles away, and we don’t have that, so we’re gone make some sticks for a minute,” he said, explaining why he’s teaching kids how to straighten myrtle on a dusty stoop under Club Good Times. Three blocks down, 28-year-old Cornelius Connell opened his detail shop, a seemingly vacant gas station. A local police officer and the mayor, he dropped his civic duties for the day to tend to his fair-weather, private business, but at least he’s around. The last mayor worked full time as a school principal in Clarksdale. “It has declined tremendously over 15 or 20 years,” Connell said. “We had several businesses. We had a doctor’s office. We had a library. You know, we had a parts store. After about 1987, I think things started going down for the town of Lambert.” If you go back further, before Connell was a kid, before his mother was laid off when Garan moved to Mexico, even before his absent father’s generation, Lambert starts to seem like a young, sick tree, withering before its time.

Simpson, who moved to Lambert in 1945, recalled teenage nights when the locals, mostly black sharecroppers and their families, packed downtown. “On Saturday night, you couldn’t walk up and down the sidewalk there was so many people,” he said. Boredom wasn’t a problem. Education was still difficult for black children pulled out of school for weeks at a time around harvest, but even they had a little money in their pocket, a father, mother and something to look forward to. “Lambert down here, there’ll be little kids dropping out of school. Thirteen, 14, they’re dropping out, and you don’t want to be in an environment like that where your children can’t succeed,” Kimberly Wade said. She just graduated from high school. She stood around her family’s clean little brick unit in a trim low-income residential development. It’s the only new construction the town’s seen in years. Most of her friends live out of town, she said. Many in town have kids, and few are still in school. Wade intends to enroll in a criminal justice program and go into law enforcement, but not in Lambert, where her mother is one of the four officers.

Joseph Wi ll iam s

Once trains loaded coal from the monolithic, abandoned shute straddling the tracks. No more.


So why are so many nonprofits investing in a youth population that’s being driven out by forces as non-negotiable as the weather? The most basic answer is simple: to make the kids better, send them into the world draped in some kind of goodness. But there’s also the long shot. Maybe, just maybe, the children will stay or return after college and give back to the next generation, give back to Lambert. “A lot of young people we’ve worked with actually have come back and worked for me, and they’ve worked in the community. So we are seeing some. It took a lot of years. We’ve been here almost 18 years, and we’re just now beginning to see the fruit of our labor,” said Evelyn Jossell, director of Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which offers recreation, mentoring, after-school care and services designed to give kids a chance. YOU operates in a massive, clean warehouse with a basketball gym and two stories of offices and hallways. The property abuts the train tracks. Across the street is a sedan on cinderblocks. Past that, the coal chute. On the other side of the tracks stretches the “wrong” side of town, but, by historical measures, there’s no longer a right side of town. Lambert’s population is more than 80 percent black, up from little more than 50 percent in 1990. Only a few whites, like Simpson, remain. “People leave Lambert by dying or moving off. No white people come to take their place,” he said over the rumble of another piece of Garan dropping into a dump truck. After Garan closed in 1997, Lambert’s businesses followed, one after another, the owners relocating or drawing their share of the half-million dollars a year paid out in Quitman County unemployment benefits. With the town’s economic prospects as dilapidated as its downtown, a sharp eye has turned to the next generations, hoping they will invest in Lambert what it can’t afford to invest in them. But, with about 55 percent of families with children under 5 below the poverty line, the children don’t have much to invest themselves. The Quitman County school system has its hands full just getting off the state’s list of schools at risk of failing. It started drawing nonprofit help itself when the Barksdale Reading Institute included it in a $3 million program to install high-performance principals in failing Mississippi schools this fall. Education problems date back to well before Lambert’s heyday. “I feel it goes back as far as slavery and sharecropping, because many years ago, even in my generation, the main thing was survival,” Jossell said. “My sisters were taken out of school, like, September, October, to work in the fields, and they could go back to school after they had brought the crops in.” Now you have generations upon generations that never considered school


Jo s eph wi lli a ms

“A lot of young people we’ve worked with actually have come back and worked for me, and they’ve worked in the community. So we are seeing some. It took a lot of years. We’ve been here almost 18 years, and we’re just now beginning to see the fruit of our labor.”

Joseph Wi ll iam s

Mayor Cornelius Connell, 28, saw his mother lose her job when Garan moved to Mexico.

E v e ly n J o s s e l l , d irector of Youth Opportu n it i e s U nl imited

Jo s eph W ill i a ms

Next to a bare industry directory, machines chop up the remains of Garan, a plant that employed 500.

Jo s eph W ill i a ms

Mayor Connell doubles as a local police officer.

practical. After sharecropping came welfare, another institution that can discourage proactivity. But the climate is changing. Everyone, from Jossell to the drug dealers, says education is the way. Though many families still aren’t involved in their children’s education, many others are taking notice, and where the parents may be lacking, Jossell said, many children are stepping up for themselves. But is it too little, too late? Jossell said she’s still disturbed by the lack of parental involvement, exacerbated by the fact that many parents dropped out of school when they had kids. And when Johnny Davis, a Lambert kid hardened into adulthood, breaks from his bored downtown group and starts talking about hope, saying the kids are the future, and you’ve got to make a difference in their lives, he sounds like a tiny voice in a concrete wildness mockingly labeled Club Good Times. Either way, the old residents who still have memories of loving Lambert commit what they can to the next and perhaps last generations. Simpson wants to see the coal chute get recognition as a historic landmark. The Garan plant with its sad NAFTA legacy is coming down. Mayor Connell is pinning his hopes on getting a smallbusiness grant to open a 20-job grocery store. What else can be done? “If you can answer that question, you’re a whole lot smarter than anybody I’ve run upon yet,” Simpson said. “You know, we’ve thrown a zillion dollars into programs trying to correct the situation, and then what do you do? Nobody that I know has come up with the right answer.”



Howard Lenhoff fought for Ethiopian Jews. Now he wants to rescue Delta children. BY LILLIAN ASKINS | Reporting from oxford

L i lli a n A s k i n s

“You don’t have to be rich to make a difference,” says Howard Lenhoff..


All his life, Howard Lenhoff has loved helping people, even if it’s meant putting up a fight. In his 81 years, Lenhoff, a biochemist, has fought successfully to help more than 100,000 persecuted black Jews escape wartorn Ethiopia and make it to Israel. He has written scientific books on water plants and on his daughter’s Williams Syndrome. He even helped start a camp and a music academy so that those with mental disabilities could learn music. He even helped start a camp and a music academy so that those with mental disabilities could learn music. When he left California for Oxford eight years ago, Lenhoff could have lived out his years in quiet retirement. Then he saw “Lalee’s Kin,” a documentary of one poor Mississippi Delta woman’s fight to survive and get her grandchildren through school. Often, Lalee didn’t have enough money to buy the children the most basic supplies, clothing and shoes so they could attend school. When Lenhoff saw firsthand the effects of poverty on children in the Delta, he could not resist jumping into the fray. “I’m usually involved in some kind of fight,” he said. He met Evelyn Jossell, a driven woman who heads Youth Opportunities Unlimited in Quitman County. The program tackles such deeply ingrained problems as high teen poverty rates, high teen pregnancy rates, high dropout rates and high school students reading at a third- or fourth-grade level. After meeting with Jossell, Lenhoff knew this was the perfect starting point, a place where he could make a difference. He began a program to help Y.O.U. raise money to provide the materials poor children need to go to school — books, pencils, even school uniforms. After Jossell heard about Lenhoff’s idea, she thought,“Gosh, God has sent us another guardian angel.” The name stuck. Lenhoff’s program became known as The Guardian Angel Initiative. Lenhoff has recruited Don Alexander of Oxford as a volunteer to start Y.O.U.’s latest initiative: teaching carpentry to high school students. Alexander, with money Lenhoff raised for tools and supplies, is training students to construct hoop houses – minigreenhouses made of thin plastic sheathing spread over metal hoops driven into the ground. The hoop houses protect plants from the weather and promote faster growth. After the students master their skills and participate in repairing run-down homes

of destitute Deltans, they are given a set of the basic tools they will need to get jobs in construction. The program teaches gardening, so the kids can grow the food they need for a healthy diet. They also are taught how to prepare healthier meals. Eventually, this Y.O.U. initiative hopes to make a dent in the Delta’s highest-in-thenation rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Lenhoff is typical of a growing core of charitable folks who feel moved by the plight of so many poor in the Delta, and want to make a difference. Like movie star Morgan Freeman, who has spent huge chunks of cash to improve schools in Tallahatchie County. Like B.B. King, a Y.O.U. board member who praises the group’s and Lenhoff’s efforts. Like Desaix Anderson of New York and Paris, a former ambassador to Vietnam, who is using his own money to help pump life into Sumner’s town square. In Lenhoff’s case, it comes from deep-seated Jewish tradition. He said he tries very hard to live by three commandments. The first is that all people are responsible for working with God to repair the world. The second is that you should do anything to save a human life. And the third is to free the captives. “I figure if you want to do something usual, though important, you’ll be one more doing the usual. I prefer working on important things that nobody else wants to do.” That same driven spirit can be seen in the way he has attended to the needs of his daughter, Gloria, who was born with Williams syndrome, a rare disorder caused by the deletion of about 26 genes. With Lenhoff’s research, activism and loving care, his daughter developed her innate talent and became a nationally acclaimed accordionist and lyric soprano featured six times on “60 Minutes.” “You don’t have to be rich to make a difference,” he says. Lenhoff’s philanthropy is all the more notable because he is battling pancreatic cancer. He says it slows him down physically but motivates him mentally. “I have had some unique and exciting experiences, and if I don’t write about them, no one is ever going to profit from them. So I am motivated to get a lot done.” But there’s another reason Lenhoff spends his time and money trying to help reverse a century of poverty — a reason his wife, Sylvia, knows well. Her husband, she says, has “the lowest threshold for injustice that I have ever encountered.”



Gone with the wind ‘It just makes you want to cry,’ says former Falcon mayor Fannie Smith. ‘There’s nothing left.’ B y Sheena B aker

N ick Toce

Trains still rumble down the tracks, but they no longer stop in little Falcon.

No restaurants. No hospital. No schools. One store. And Eugene Joseph is the owner. For 33 years, Joseph has been ringing up customers at his Snappy Sacks grocery store, the only store left after most everything else in Falcon either shut down or burned down over the last 20 years. It’s as if he believes that as long as he keeps the doors open, the town will still be here. Once, he could keep himself going with memories of what Falcon was. Mississippi’s newest all-black town, young and proud. Old friends walking into the store every few minutes. Goods flying off the shelves. Streets full of children. Rocking nightclubs. A church packed to the rafters. But the streets are deserted. Customers are rare. Most of the children are gone. Now, even the once indefatigable Joseph has trouble summoning the will and money to keep his store open to Falcon’s swiftly dwindling population of 200. Joseph is the epitome of a breed found in dying towns across the Delta – people who cling stubbornly, sadly to their little plot of land, using the fading embers of King Cotton’s glorious past to keep them marching onward, even as their towns crumble and start to blow away. The 68-year-old retired reading teacher walks from behind the counter to the first row of shelves and reaches over to straighten 99cent bags of Brim’s barbecue pork skins. He’s got a lot on his mind. He’s thinking about giving it one more year, but with little income from the store, chances of that are pretty slim, he says. “It’s barely, barely taking care of itself,” Joseph said. “Utilities are high, gas is high,



“They have demolished that school. They went in and gutted it. It was a gorgeous sight. Rows of trees, greenery. To see what it is now is really heartbreaking.” fannie smith , former falco n mayor

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Fannie Smith, the former mayor, says Falcon started to collapse when the school shut down. Sledge S n a p s hot s Incorporated: 1913 2000 population: 529 2008 estimate: 453 White: 23.25 percent Black: 75.99 percent Per capita income: $15,406 Median household income: $34,003 In poverty: 24.7 percent History: Home of country singer and Grammy winner Charley Pride. Reputed to be home of the Leroy Brown mentioned in Jim Croce song about “bad, bad Leroy Brown.” Source : U. S. Ce nsu s

F a lco n S n a p s hot s Incorporated: 1971 2000 population: 317 2008 estimate: 284 White: 0 Black: 100 percent Per capita income: $10,724 Median household income: $19,405 In poverty: 39 percent History: Third all-black town in Mississippi, behind Mound Bayou and Winstonville. Source : U.S . Cens us

taxes are outrageous.” But without Joseph’s store, Falcon, incorporated in 1972 as only the third allblack town in Mississippi, would soon fall off the map. With more people leaving every year, who would want to move here? Who would dare open a store here? No one is investing new money here, and the local taxes plus water and sewer payments barely keep the town afloat. Without money, without jobs and without people trying to put the town back together, dreams of Falcon flourishing anew will never come true. It is doomed, and its people know it. Two miles away in Sledge, the 76 percent black hometown of famed country singer Charley Pride, conditions are not much different. But hope survives. There are even dreams, however unlikely, of a resurrection. Mayor Sheridan Boyd, who owns the only store in town, is trying his best to rid Sledge of all the rotting, abandoned buildings and ragged roads left behind when farming and factory jobs disappeared, taking half of the 1,200 residents with them and leaving those who remain in a lonely, needy place. Making the town pretty again is one of his biggest goals. First things first, he says. “You have to look presentable for anybody to even look at you,” he said, glancing at the all-too-quiet remnants of what used to be a booming Main Street. “The number one goal

is to get the financial stability back, clean it up, make it look presentable and hopefully we’ll get some kind of industries.” People are walking in and out of Boyd’s Convenience Store, some just to grab a pack of Nabs before heading off to work 30 miles away at the casinos in Tunica or just because Boyd’s store is the only happening place in town. Boyd greets them as they come in and checks them out one by one as they approach the counter. Then Zoe Hodo takes over so Boyd can retreat to the little office in the back of the store to take care of town business. Hodo, who has lived in Quitman County for 52 years, is not about to give up on Sledge. She believes that one day, Sledge’s luck will turn. “I would like to see more plants coming in and manufacturing — just general jobs that people can make an earnest living with,” Hodo said. “It could be a better place to live if all the people come together as one. I’m still praying and hoping that they do.” It is a remarkable brand of optimism that flies in the face of reality in Sledge and countless other small Delta towns that owed their existence to a bygone era when cotton farms employed large numbers of choppers, pickers and other unskilled workers. Every time they try to recruit industry – even the sort of small sewing plants that used to be scattered across the flat farmland from Memphis to Vicksburg – they are told no one wants to bring a plant to a place with

so many problems. The nearest schools are in Marks, 15 miles away. The public schools are almost all black and the private school is almost all white, relics of the Delta’s segregated past. No entertainment. No restaurants. You have to go to Clarksdale or Tunica for that. The towns get poorer with each passing year as the more productive residents and the young move to places with more opportunities. The average Sledge resident makes $15,406 a year. The poverty rate is 26.2 percent, up from 24.7 percent in 2000. And yet, because they love the place, because it is home, because of the memories, a core of Sledge residents has dug in to try to ride it out. They dare to talk of the future. At the same time, they marvel at the past. How did it fall apart so quickly? Not so long ago, about 300 people in Sledge were hard at work sewing blue jeans together and making rubber tires for Ford and GM at Plumley Rubber. It kept the town on its feet. Now Plumley is gone. Trimming and shaping world-famous custom pool cues at Bob Meucci’s plant in Sledge helped another hundred people keep roofs over their heads. It’s gone, too. Twenty-five years ago, Sledge boasted two manufacturers, dry goods stores, a local school, a hardware store, another grocery store and a clinic. Pretty much everybody who wanted to work worked. But a town with shrinking employment wasn’t enough for the stores to stay open, especially with a Walmart 25 miles away in Clarksdale. Saving big bucks in Mexico led Plumley Rubber away, and the more prosperous, middle-class suburbs of Byhalia, just 10 minutes from Memphis, lured Meucci Pool Cues. Now many folks in Sledge work at casinos in Tunica, making sure slot machines are ready to gobble up silver dollars and serving up crab legs and cocktails for guests looking to strike it rich. “Only thing we have left are the casinos,” Boyd said.

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Eugene Joseph says his store, the last in Falcon, might last “one more year.” Without them, he admits, without a miracle, Sledge cannot even hope to rise again. Back in Falcon, two miles away, Joseph has lost hope of miracles. He looks at the clock. 7:43 p.m. Time to close. One more year, he says, shoulders slumped in resignation. Joseph, originally from Water Valley, moved to Chicago and stayed for years because the city offered him good work. His father-inlaw talked him into moving south to teach at Falcon Junior High. He went from teaching sixth- and seventh-graders reading to teaching special education. But in 1996, the school board shut down Falcon Junior High because there were not enough students to justify its existence. Now, the town operates from a humble mobile home next to the railroad tracks. It’s hard to reach the mayor most days because his job driving a van keeps him busy and on the road. When the school shut down, said former Mayor Fannie Smith, it seemed to suck the last of the lifeblood out of the town. “After the school closed, people didn’t have a reason to go to Falcon,” Smith said. “If you can’t get a quality education for your child, you want to go where you can get the best.” What was once the main activity center of the town and the place where Falcon’s children could try to better themselves is now hidden by tall weeds. Its roof is falling in and

the columns that once held it up erode in the heat and humidity. “It makes you want to cry,” Smith said. “They have demolished that school. They went in and gutted it. It was a gorgeous sight. Rows of trees, greenery. To see what it is now is really heartbreaking.” But the school wasn’t the only attraction in Falcon. Rows of dance clubs and lounges lined the streets and brought crowds from all around the Delta, giving Falcon a little weekend flavor. “It was so many clubs up through here that on Saturday and Sunday our parents didn’t allow us to come to any stores up here,” Smith said with a smile. Joseph remembers the good times, too. “On weekends cars lined up all the way out to the highway,” he said. “That’s what attracted me to come down here — the number of people that were here on weekends. There weren’t a lot of fights because everybody came out to have a good time.” But the good times are gone, Joseph said. One club burned. Then over the years, so did another. Then the next. Then the next. Some were electrical fires. Some started when owners moved away, leaving the club with no one to watch over it and maintain it. Once, when a fire broke out, the small volunteer fire department was helpless because its gas tank was empty. Vandals had broken in, stolen some of the equipment right off the truck and siphoned out the gas.


Soon, the spots where people sang and danced into the wee hours of the morning were all gone. The music stopped. The triple whammy of no jobs, no school and no entertainment led to an exodus. “Older people owned businesses and when they died out, no one took the business over,” Joseph said. “No one has rebuilt in 20 years. It was no reason for anyone to move here when the casinos came.” Now Falcon depends on Joseph’s store to serve the remaining 200 residents. But with a shrinking customer base and vacant lots all around him, Joseph will soon pack his bags and move to a place that can provide a better living. Holding on to a hopeless place, he says, is too much to ask of a man. Two miles away in Sledge, Mayor Boyd and the townsfolk are gearing up for “Sledge Day” and hoping that their favorite son, country music superstar Pride, a Grammy winner who lit up the charts with “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” will make a guest appearance. The reason they’re not sure he’ll show? It’s hard reaching him, Boyd said. People in Sledge still dream of fixing up Pride’s old barber shop or creating a small museum. Boyd said a Pride attraction could be a significant savior for Sledge. “I do have people stop by the store asking about a Charley Pride souvenir,” Boyd said. “The town and the county should have hopped on that a long, long time ago. That would really, really help out.” But that’s not likely. Even with several of Pride’s brothers living in the area, the town hasn’t been able to reach the star to even discuss the idea. But when all you have is hope, you cling to it. And in Sledge, the mayor is clinging as hard as he can. After all, he’s making progress on the first part of his plan. He has residents cleaning up the town, removing rubble, filling potholes. With or without Charley Pride, he says, Sledge will rise again. “We have the right leadership in office,” he said. “We have a whole new board who really wants to help and do something. I really see Sledge moving in a positive way.” Joseph would love to be positive. But he’s tired. And he’s realistic. One more year. As in Sledge, no one wants to see Falcon crumble completely. But what can he do? Snappy Sack’s fate, Joseph said, is just like Falcon’s. Both once showed signs of prosperity and growth. But now, well, the signs are no longer there. “It’s just about like the town now,” Joseph said. “It’s decreased a whole lot.” After his “one more year” has passed and Joseph turns off the lights, locks the door, and drives away never to return, he may very well be turning off the lights to Falcon forever.

Mayor Sheridan Boyd believes Sledge will remake itself into a place where kids will want to stay. J o s eph will iams




Fried chicken, sweet tea and…hot tamales? How a food from south of the border elbowed its way onto Delta tables next to turnip greens and pot likker. Is nothing sacred? By N ata l i e D i c k s on | report in g from cl ar ks dale

N ata l ie D ic k so n

Mayor Sheridan Boyd believes Sledge will remake itself into a place where kids will want to stay.

Untie the cotton string and unwrap the corn shuck. Drip on a bit of Tabasco sauce, then take a bite. Follow up with a swig of cold beer and revel in the tradition of the Delta hot tamale. Although most commonly regarded as a south-of-the-border or Tex-Mex cuisine, the hot tamale made its way up the Mississippi River onto the plates and into the hearts of Deltans. Now it sits side by side with Southern classics such as fried chicken and sweet tea. It seems a food oddity in a land where Mexicans and Central Americans are relatively few and far between. Yet it has become a cultural fixture in just about every Delta town. “You can hardly throw a stone without hitting a tamale vendor,” said Amy Evans Streeter, oral historian of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Vendors of the meat-stuffed cylinders of cornmeal are scattered from New Orleans to Arkansas, but the Delta is home to the largest concentration, she said. “It’s an iconic food,” she said. “It’s a regional foodway that has entrenched itself in the culture of the place.” The hot tamale has become such a mainstay of Delta culture that the food alliance launched a project in 2005 to catalog its various tamale vendors. But what began as a simple collection of interviews morphed into something bigger. “It kind of grew legs of its own,” Streeter said. Along with Viking Range Corp., the alliance funds a website called The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. It lists all of the tamale vendors Streeter has talked with and provides oral histories as well as an interactive map to help visitors plan their tamale trail excursions. Streeter frequently gets inquiries from people wanting to write articles on hot tamales. And she has had people from as far away as Seattle travel to the Delta specifically for the Tamale Trail. Some of the vendors on the trail, though, have customers from even farther away. Eugene Hicks of Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales in Clarksdale ships his tamales to Hawaii, Canada, Denmark and other places. Hicks’ tamales, like many others in the Delta, come from a recipe he learned from an old friend, he said. A black man in his mid70s named Acy Ware took Hicks under his wing when he was 12 and taught him how to make them. Back then, Hicks said, Ware, one other man and one woman in Clarksdale were making and selling tamales. Hicks would soon join them. He was 14 when he began selling tamales. After a stint in the military, Hicks returned to Clarksdale in his mid-20s and opened a supermarket, making and selling hot tamales there. In 2000, he moved into Clarksdale’s old jail and opened his hot tamale restaurant.

N atalie Di c ks on

Eugene Hicks made his hot tamales so famous that Bill Clinton once stopped in to try them, As inconspicuous as it is, tucked in by the Gospel Lounge, Hicks attracts customers from all over. Don’t expect to get Hicks’ precise recipe. He guards it as closely as The Coca-Cola Co. guards the original formula for Coke. He will say only that it’s a labor-intensive process that requires hours of cooking and stirring the beef filling. Then after chilling the meat for at least 12 hours, there are more hours required to roll the tamales. Hicks used to lay out the cornmeal in the corn husk, spoon the meat on top and wrap the husks by hand, but it just took too long, he said. Now, he uses a special machine that pushes out the meat in a line ready to be rolled in cornmeal, then wrapped with a husk. But the tamales still have their signature extra spice, red color and gritty texture. Even with the machine, though, it’s a threeday process to prepare the weekly 150 dozen. Other places, like the venerable Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, use a machine that can pipe out cornmeal and meat simultaneously. Still others cling to the old-fashioned, handsonly approach. Barbara Pope at The White Front Café, a.k.a. Joe’s Hot Tamale Place in Rosedale, took over her brother Joe’s tamale business around 2005. She and another woman make 200 dozen a week, all by hand. Pope reckons that’s why her customers keep coming back. Elizabeth Pearson of Greenwood says one of her earliest memories is eating White Front tamales. Whenever she visits her grandparents in Rosedale, they order four dozen tamales and make a meal out of it. Her grandmother brings out her nice china and silverware, then serves the hot tamales with saltine crackers and buttermilk. They aren’t the healthiest food choice,

Pearson admits. “If I hadn’t been raised eating them, I probably wouldn’t touch them,” she said. But they are such a beloved fixture in her family’s recipe book, and they’re just so plain delicious, that she can’t give them up. Each Thanksgiving, her entire family travels to Doe’s for steak and hot tamales. Her mother has recipes for hot tamale dip for tortilla chips and hot tamale casserole, she said. She doesn’t really ask where it comes from; she just eats it. The hot tamale has a much richer history than many would probably guess. The Food Network aired an episode of its “Good Eats” program called “Tamale Never Dies” several years ago. Host Alton Brown explained that the tamale was originally a pre-Colombian food as common and important in the Meso-Americans’ diet as rice was to the Chinese. Makers of the original tamales used ground maize to make a dough-like substance called masa. Cows and pigs were not around in Central America, so turkey was the meat of choice. But anything, from vegetables to fruit, could be used as filling. The show featured nutritional anthropologist Deb Duchon, who explained that the word “tamale” comes from the Aztec language of Nahuatl and means “wrapped food.” Although nowadays tamales are wrapped in corn husks or, in some parts of the Delta, parchment paper, people in Central America used almost any nonpoisonous leaf as a wrapping. The Colombians use banana leaves to wrap some of their tamales, Duchon said. The tamale of the Delta is completely different from the giant banana leaf tamale of Colombia. It’s even different from the tamales found in Mexico or Texas. Don Bernhard of Georgetown, Texas, said he grew up eating tamales. But on a recent visit to Clarksdale, he popped into Hicks’ to give the Delta version a try. “We’re believers now,” said his wife, Becky. Texas tamales are bigger and often have different fillings such as venison, he said, whereas Delta tamales are usually just around 4 inches long. Rather than being steamed, they are simmered directly in water while standing up. Cornmeal is also a unique characteristic of the Delta tamale. Traditional Latin American tamales use masa harina for the outside layer of the tamale. Then, of course, there is the “hot” of Delta hot tamales. Other regions’ tamales just don’t have the same kick. Nobody is completely sure how the tamale made its way from Central America to the Mississippi Delta. Some guess that Mexican laborers, working in the fields alongside black and white field hands, shared their hot tamale recipes. However the tamale came to the area, it stuck. And with loyal tamale vendors all across the Delta and loyal customers all across the world, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

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The Sturdivants’ seeds of hope The farming moguls see a fertile future for the Delta. GLENDORA — Seated at a shiny conference table at their spacious headquarters, the Sturdivant boys, operators of one of the Delta’s biggest farming operations, spoke of hope for their troubled region. As farmers, they know a little about hope and faith. Their crops span 12,000 acres. They provide work to more than 20 people. They’ve been at this their whole lives. In an area once notorious for shortchanging sharecroppers, they have an extraordinary reputation for treating their workers fairly. Little wonder: They make brick houses and medical insurance available to all their employees. Mike Sturdivant, the head of the family, set the pattern early. For him, if any business starts to go wrong, you make adjustments. He considers all problems to be solvable.

His credentials are impressive. He inherited the family farm and made it even more successful. He is co-owner of MMI Hotel Group, which owns and manages several hotels including The King and Prince resort on Georgia’s St. Simons Island. He was chairman of the board of Methodist Health Systems in Memphis. He served on the state College Board and chaired its finance committee. He ran for governor twice, establishing himself as a strong advocate for education and a more efficient, effective government. He campaigned for black votes and was endorsed by the Greenwood Voters League. In 1979, he lost in the Democratic primary and Bill Allain was elected. In 1987, he pushed past former Gov. William Waller and Attorney General Ed Pittman to get into a runoff with State Auditor Ray Mabus, who eventually won. Nonetheless, Sturdivant impressed people

with his honesty and good business sense. He is a man people listen to, as are his sons, who openly adore him and credit him for being a strong moral compass and instilling a commitment to citizenship. His positive outlook isn’t just bluster. It’s contagious. He and his sons have long worked behind the scenes to solve problems and set an example and a tone for the Delta. Their successful farm operation has won them respect. But it also has given them a secure platform to speak out independently on matters of public policy, even when their opinions differed from the establishment’s. On a warm summer morning, Mike Sturdivant and his sons, Mike Jr., Walker and Sykes, talked for two hours of their hope for the Delta. The following points summarize that conversation.

The Delta is a fertile agricultural area, a community, and that both holds it together and provides the opportunity for prosperity. The Delta is a great place to hunt, primarily duck but also deer, turkey and dove. That provides an opportunity for lodges and hunting equipment sales and guides. Hunters from across the country may be willing to pay to come here. The major resource is water and the Delta has taken steps to protect it. A water management district makes sure water is conserved and used appropriately.

The mission of the institute is to identify talented young people and prepare them to assume positions of leadership in our state and nation. Selection of Institute Programs • Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Policy Leadership • Summer Leadership Institute for rising high school seniors • Lott Leadership Institute for rising ninth-graders • Lott Leadership Exchange which prepares young leaders to be citizens of the world

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A great culture exists; the Delta has produced great people. That culture holds the area together and creates a charm and spirit of hospitality that endears its people to those who come in contact with them. Tourism has the potential to be an economic boon. Clarksdale has prospered from blues tourism, Sumner is promoting civil rights tourism and other towns are starting to get on board.

CLARKSDALE, MARKS, SUMNER, TUTWILER, LAMBERT a n d t h e other communities in Nor thwest M ississippi


The constantly evolving technology on the farms will keep planters in business. A look back at agriculture shows just how dramatically the field has changed. Teach for America is a major hope. Its teachers are talented and they boost the quality of schools. However, until education is greatly improved, the Delta has a challenge. The key to the future, the thing that will help solve all the other problems, is education.

Connecting People Who Care With Causes That Matter in

The Emmett Till Commission, Teach For America, Delta Blues Museum, Quitman County Development Organization, the Catholic nuns,Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Delta Missions, and others who are




= $1











With a 5-to-1 match for your contribution thanks to generous challenge grants from the W.K.Kellogg and Maddox foundations

African-Americans in the Delta are different from the stereotype. African-Americans are as much of a positive influence in the community as white Americans. Planting seeds is important. An integrated Rotary Club that unites the community is a seed. Habitat for Humanity puts poor people in decent houses and is a seed. Health screenings for the likes of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are a seed. Sumner’s biracial committee is a seed. Having Morgan Freeman and other black people join the Bayou Bend Country Club is a seed. In time, the seeds bear fruit and make the Delta better. 315 Losher Street | Hernando, Mississippi 38632 | | (o) 662.449.5002 (m) 662.404.5002 (f ) 662.449.5006

a depth report by the university of mississippi’s meek school of journalism and new media

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