COLUMN: Former legislator leads movement for the Delta

At least a few civic-minded Mississippians are determined to stop the state’s 18-county Delta region from being perpetually branded as the “poor who will always be with us.”
Where other attempts have failed over the past five decades, a new ambitious, broad and long-range plan to lift the Delta out of its persistent poverty – without government carrying the load – has emerged after three years from a commission headed by respected black leader Robert Clark.
Best known as the first black elected to the Legislature after Reconstruction, the retired lawmaker from Holmes County is devoting his life to improving the quality of life in his down-trodden region.
His legislatively created commission has produced what it has called “The Delta Strategic Compact,” which essentially deals with economic and cultural problems inherent in the Delta. But importantly, it provides a four-tier framework behind which resources of all the public and private entities working in the region can be harnessed.
“This is not going to get done in my lifetime, but I don’t want it said that we didn’t get it started,” the 80-year-old Clark declared. “It won’t happen unless the people of the Delta and the factions, especially the old organizations there, get behind it.”
To show how serious Clark and his cohorts are about the compact, they are distributing with help of the Mississippi Press Association some 75,000 copies of the commission’s report as inserts in newspapers around the Delta.
Until the economy of Delta – with its 425,000 people – begins to move faster, “we’ll never get the state moving at a good rate,” says Pete Walley, director of the state’s Bureau for Long Range Economic Development planning.
Walley gave major assistance to the task force in its three-year study.
“The Delta is now like a sea anchor on a sail boat, holding back the state’s entire economy,” Walley declared. The success of the Delta Strategic Compact, he added, “will depend on getting all the government and private systems, starting with the white planters, working on the fundamental problems.”
For many years, the Delta Council, dominated by the cotton plantation elite of the region, long was regarded as the “voice” of the Delta as state political leaders dutifully paid homage at the council’s annual meeting in Cleveland.
For 20 years I covered the session as the planters indulged themselves in self-congratulatory reports of the region’s “progress,” while not dealing with its root social problems.
In the past several decades, however, the council has broadened its outlook and brought in black members.
Still, the alluvial region, containing the richest black soil this side of the Nile Valley, remains a conundrum – much as many writers characterize the entire state of Mississippi.
However, what has changed in the Delta in the past four decades, is that whites no longer control both the political and economic power with blacks mere appendages. While whites still largely hold the economic power, the governmental and political power of the Delta have shifted to the black citizenry.
Symbolically, under state legislative apportionment fixed in the 1890 Constitution, the Delta was given the balance of power and for decades all of the Delta’s seats were occupied by white lawmakers, mostly plantation gentry.
Now virtually every Delta legislative seat is held by an African-American lawmaker. Boards of supervisors in many Delta counties now have a black majority.
The four goals set forth by Clark’s task force call for doubling post-secondary education among adults; connecting the unemployed and under-employed to career pathways; promoting wellness practices; and making the Delta into a center for creative arts.
Clark hopes the task force can be kept alive by financial help from the Legislature, philanthropic organizations and federal grants.
Is this finally the spark the Delta has long needed?
Walley and Clark certainly hope so.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor