A Bit of History
A Bit of History on Blacks in the Mississippi Delta
The Delta Research & Cultural Institute is located in one of the pivotal regions of the United States reflecting both the Old South, where white supremacy was and remains to a lesser extent a coveted value, and the New South where forces of racial tolerance and greater economic equality are gaining increased respect and support. The Delta remains, however, a conspicuously underdeveloped region. It is the poorest region of one of the poorest states. Employment and business opportunities lag behind national norms and the African American population remains severely disadvantaged in local commerce. This has sustained an environment of limited resources and cultural suppression that leaves the African American population vulnerable to economic, political, and even physical intimidation.
The nadir in the historical evolution of the Delta region, and one that can be used to illustrate the point, was the lynching of Emmett Till in August 1955, fifteen months after the 1954 watershed Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. The incident involved a boy who was caught between the two defining options exercised by African American in the Delta. One option was exercised by his parents who migrated north to Chicago. The other was chosen by blood relatives who decided to remain in the Delta. The incident and the subsequent lynching were taken to symbolize a difference between local ways and the ways of the North. Focusing on the putative differences between Northern ways and local ways, the NAACP focus used the incident to galvanize the nation pointing out that the Till murder was not an isolated happening but part of a systemic process coming, as it did, within months of the killing of Reverend George Lee in nearby Belzoni. A local incident in an agricultural region of declining population came to symbolize a defining moment in the struggle for racial equality in the United States.
The Delta is also characterized by an alternative and more promising reality less related to the dire socioeconomic conditions and lawlessness alluded to above and more to affirmative efforts to build meaningful lives and oppose oppressive regimes, and that too informs our work. It is from this strand of the Delta reality that Delta Research & Cultural Institute emerges. For all the crude violations in the Till incident, there was at the western end of the Delta, a tradition of articulate racial moderation represented by the Percys, the Carters, and the Delta Democrat-Times newspaper speaking to and for white people aware of the centrality of Delta culture in the evolution of the state and country. Delta culture that was essentially forged in the survival struggle of African Americans could become the base upon which a more just society could be built.
A centerpiece of the evolving Delta culture was a Blues musical tradition that would come to be enjoyed with admiration on a global scale and represented by performers such as Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howling' Wolf, B.B. King, and by lesser known blues men, including the writer and bassist Willie Dixon, and the early lyricist Robert Johnson. All from the state, King, Reed, and Johnson were born in the Delta. The operated in the context of a movement of the population characterized by an allure of freedom in the North, especially south-side Chicago, and the appeal of an art form they liked except for its location inside segregation. This aspect of the Delta is better documented in works noting the rediscovery of the Blues in commercial circles.
Finally, there is the more compelling, but less well-documented or understood, history of the struggle for democratization in the region. It involves a tradition of affirmative community struggle to transform the existing social reality. These efforts included lobbying the national government and other institutions prior to WWII, demanding regional economic development, and following the war, the rise of the great civil rights movement. The movement precipitated reform of the racial caste system and promoted political and socio-economic opportunities for African Americans. This story involves a group of individuals who would remain in the Delta and come to represent a genuine insurgency focused on transforming social relations. Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Hartman Turnbow, Walter Bruce and L C. Dorsey among others, are examples of those who assumed and exercised public leadership in response to a new spirit of activism. During the 1960s the struggle for democratization expanded dramatically. In 1962 as the Freedom Rides terminated in Jackson, the Student Non-Violet Coordinating Committee (SNCC), initiated the movement in Greenwood, a town represented as the capital of the Delta and located just six miles from the campus of Mississippi Valley State University. The Greenwood Movement became a national symbol for racial organizing a year before Martin Luther King, Jr., and SCLC opened the campaign in Birmingham. In some ways the Greenwood Movement embodied the critical features that would later define the Civil Rights Movement including external mobilization of volunteers, cagey resistance by local authorities, the visible use of police dogs, and vigilante violence.
In time, the struggles in Greenwood, MS and elsewhere in the Delta, as mentioned earlier in this narrative, brought about significant changes in relations between the people of the Delta. In 2006, political structures are more open and diverse. There is greater toleration among and between the races and there are significant political and economic actors who understand the need for inter-group consultation and cooperation to address the continuing problems that beset the region. This is the historical context that motivated President Lester Newman of Mississippi Valley State University to establish the Delta Research & Cultural Institute, and it is the modest successes of the Institute in its formative years that precipitated current efforts for its expansion.