Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Civil Rights triumphs ring a hollow victory in the Mississippi Delta

June 19, 1994

By JONATHAN TILOVE

Newhouse News Service

CRUGER, MISS. – Thirty sweltering summers later, it is still remarkable that there ever was such a thing as Freedom Summer.

It is remarkable that amid the smothering heat and suffocating racism, people could find the will and oxygen to risk their lives so black Mississippians would someday be able to register and vote.

And it is remarkable that for black residents of this tiny Delta cotton town – about 400 black people and 100 white people – its impact is right now so ice-water fresh and glorious.

And yet, it can be said that in Cruger, the Delta once again offers up a heart-rending example of how much the civil rights movement accomplished, and how little. 

Last June, for the first time, Blacks ran for mayor and the board of alderman here. They registered voters, threw a fish fry, and were elected. Before then, they just figured that whites ran the town by some timeless inheritance.

“There had been whole, entire elections we weren’t aware of. We just thought they were being appointed from generation to generation,” says Mattie Young, one of the Blacks elected to the board. “Then we just woke up. We had been sleeping and we woke up like newborn babies and went to work.”

Now, for the first time, the grass gets cut on the Black side of the tracks. They talk openly of building public housing, and even of moving Cruger’s colossus of a cotton gin, with its dirt and flies and crummy karma, out of the middle of their side of town. 

Of course, whites own the gin and Blacks depend on it for jobs And whites also own all the land on which any new housing could be built. In other words, nothing big is likely to change without whites saying OK. 

That’s the way it is here and throughout the Delta, where the saga of Black political empowerment has done little to touch white economic dominion over the work, the ways and the wealth of what historian James Cobb, in his book on the Delta, calls “the most Southern place on earth.”

Slavery is over. Sharecropping, which the Delta devised to salvage a slavery-like economy, is history. Jim Crow and the sadistic terror that enforced it, are gone. But, in its own quiet way, the free market still hums a whole lot sweeter for the rich than for the poor. Them that gots, get. And they are white.

The civil rights movement transformed Mississippi in a single generation from a place were Blacks couldn’t vote— and where they took their lives in their hands if they asserted the merest trace of dignity — to the state with more Black elected officials than any in the land.

And yet, those Black elected officials represent a constituency that is as poor and without prospects as any in America. Holmes County, where Cruger is located, is three-quarters Black, and the per capita income in 1990 was not quite $6,000.

“They have  lot of power over nothing,” says University of Maryland sociologist William Falk, who is writing a book., Those Who Stayed, about the benighted majority-Black counties that stretch across the South.

Between 1970 and 1993, the number of Black elected officials multiplied by nearly six across the nation, and the South accounted for more than two-thirds of that number. The 750 Black elected officials in Mississippi include more than a quarter of the state House of Representatives. 

“The symbolism is powerful,” says Jackson State University political scientist Leslie McLemore. “But beyond the symbolism, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Black elected officials have not been able to translate the symbolism into a concrete program.”

McLemore, who organized a Freedom Summer homecoming for those like himself who were in the movement, says development in these Black counties will parallel that in former African colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe.

“The economies of those countries will be controlled for centuries by Europeans,” says McLemore.

It is much like what Blacks faced in seizing control of cities such as Gary or Newark or even Detroit, with so many more problems than possibilities. But at least those cities were thick with jobs in policing and teaching, garbage-collecting, paper-shuffling and contract-letting that are the backbone of the Black middle class.

In Mississippi, the public sector is anemic and the Black middle class consequently stunted. (Even the white middle class is none too robust in th Delta.)

The Delta is a stretch of some of the richest dirt on the planet laid out between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers from just south of Memphis to just north of Vicksburg, that really wasn’t much settled until after the Civil War when it emerged as the cotton kingdom of the post-bellum South. 

It is best known for the blues and for the skillful exploitation of Black labor by a small group of white planters. 

“Here we are in 1994 and we’re still in their stranglehold,” says Bennie Gooden of Clarksdale, who develops and manages subsidized housing in the Delta. “We probably own less than 5 percent of anything.”

Beginning in the 1940s, with the unveiling of the mechanical cotton-picker, the Delta also became the source and staging ground for the great migration North of Blacks who no longer found themselves wanted or needed in the Delta, and increasingly had to turn to welfare if they stayed behind. 

University of Mississippi sociologist Bruce Williams, who has studied the Delta, says that white fear of the Black majority still manifests itself in hostility toward meaningful economic development. 

“The whole orientation is to maintain the master-slave relationship, to maintain people at a subsistence level, to maintain total control over them,” he says.

And Williams says he has found that businesses avoid heavily Black counties. Cobb agrees, noting that apart from any racism, there may be the reasonable expectation that newly elected Black governments are going to raise historically low tax rates to try to do something for their long-neglected communities.

There are exceptions. In Clarksdale, Delta Wire has proven that it can succeed in a highly competitive market while paying its fully integrated workforce twice the going rate.

Delta Wire invests a lot in worker training. To its president, George Walker, speaking in the clipped cadence of his native Worcester, Mass., it is common business sense. But his company remains the showplace of the Delta because so few other businesses have followed his lead.

More typical is Indianola’s Delta Pride, the leading catfish processor in the Delta, which also offers a good example about how all progress is relative.

By all accounts, killing and cutting up catfish is not great work, but for the Black women who now populate the processing line, such blue-collar jobs were once off-limits.

Still, in the early 1980s, Delta Pride, which is owned by a group of white catfish farmers, had a reputation for being a plantation with a roof on it.

Since then, though, Delta Pride has been unionized, struck and boycotted, and a new, more professional management team now wins praise from the union.

“I have an advantage,” said Paul McIntyre, the vice president for operations, who grew up in rural Alabama but worked many years in California. “I moved away from it and have a much broader perspective.”

Indeed, McIntyre is among a group of Black and white political and business leaders trying to form an interracial civic group in Indianola, which was birthplace of the first Citizens’ Council, the sort of white-collar Klan that spread across the Deep South in the 1950s.

“It’s been progress,” said Sarah White, one of the workers who brought the union to Delta Pride. “But we’ve got many more miles to go.”

White’s story is as depressing as it is inspirational. She is a college graduate with a degree in teaching who, after 11 years on the kill line at Delta Pride, is still earning only $5.75 an hour.

“There is a way out of nowhere,” Jackson State political scientist Mary Coleman said. She is writing a book examining who escapes from poverty in Indianola and who does not. She was dismayed by the number of people who “don’t feel they can change their condition.”

The dismal opportunities for change, and the huge cost of the existing racial division, are nowhere more plain than in education.

In the Delta, Black people go to public schools and most white people to private academies.

“For the poorest section of the country to support a dual school system is absurd,” said Billy Percy, a Greenville planter and the scion of a leading Delta family.

The public schools suffer from white indifference and the white academies often can’t even afford to pay teachers as much as the public schools.

No one contemplates that this could ever possibly change, and yet everyone seems to understand theoretically that the region’s hopes for progress rest on racial reconciliation.

The only way to lure a business or win government money, says Aaron Henry, a legislator from Clarksdale who is probably the most famous veteran of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, is “to show up with a Black and white group, acting like you all get along.”

They may, from time to time, but Black political power clearly worries many white people.

As Black people have gained influence in the Democratic Party, most white people have become Republicans.

And so Hiram Eastland, second cousin to the U.S. senator who embodied white supremacist resistance, now finds himself centering his campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination on the Black vote.

“It’s not too late for Mississippi to become what Martin Luther King dreamed of so many years ago – ‘an oasis of justice and freedom,’ ” Eastland told a meeting of the Black Greenwood Voters’ League at the Elks Club in a ramshackle section of town.

“We’ve come a long way,” replied David Jordan, a state senator and City Council president, who was there three decades earlier when Greenwood police were setting dogs on Black protestors seeking the right to vote, and whose life was threatened even in recent years.

Back in Cruger, Henry Forrest Flemming, a leading cotton planter, whose son, Steve, was defeated for re-election for mayor last year by Black candidate William Jackson, declaimed any bitterness about the outcome.

“I’ve loved the black people,” said Flemming, who once served as an alderman. He doesn’t think Black people thought his son was a bad mayor. “They were just ready to fly with their new wings.

“From all appearances the Black people are running it at least as well as we did,” Flemming said. “We’ve reached the point where we don’t care if Black people hold all the offices and run all the government, as long as they try to do what is right.”

But Mayor Jackson — a soft-spoken man with a couple of gold teeth who works at the Baldwin Piano factory in Greenwood—i s not so sure that Flemming is revealing his true feelings.

After all, it was Flemming who founded the white academy in Cruger that, Flemming notes with some pride, was the first such academy formed to resist integration in the South. The school’s headmaster, in fact, became a sort of Johnny Appleseed of white resistance, helping other communities in Mississippi form white schools.

White children in Cruger still go to the academy, which Flemming says provides a far better education than that available in the public schools.

Whatever they may say, Jackson thinks Flemming and other white townspeople are once again withdrawing unto themselves. They still usually greet him when they see him, but, says Jackson, not always and not with the old warmth.

Jackson figures the more he tries to do as mayor, the colder those greetings will become.

“The way it works is like this,” Jackson said. “You get along well with them as long as you don’t exceed their expectations.”

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Written by jonathantilove

July 24, 2022 at 5:06 am

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