Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and DiscriminationVolume VII: The Mississippi Delta Report


Despite the symbolic gestures of fairness, decency and respect [that we are only beginning] to practice in the American South, the quality of life [in the Mississippi Delta] . . . is still compromised by our racial preoccupation. . . . [I]t is not sufficient merely to listen and report, but we must think of doing something that will . . . finally . . . resolve what seems to be a historical and endless problem in this country.[1]

These words highlighted the enduring challenge before the Commission as it began its public hearing in the Mississippi Delta. This report is based on sworn testimony from that hearing and subpoenaed documents received by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a three-day hearing in Greenville, Mississippi, on March 6–8, 1997, as well as legal research and analysis. The Mississippi Delta hearing was the sixth in a series of hearings convened by the Commission as part of its nationwide project, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination, examining the factors underlying increased racial and ethnic tensions in the United States and developing policies to alleviate such tensions. Earlier hearings were held in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (January 1992); Washington, D.C. (May 1992); Los Angeles, California (June 1993); New York, New York (September 1994);[2] and Miami, Florida (September 1995). The Mississippi Delta project was intended to evaluate racial and ethnic tensions in a rural setting.

The Mississippi Delta is one of the more culturally and geographically distinct regions in the country. Broadly defined, the Delta region begins at the southern portion of Illinois and ends in Louisiana, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and consists of 219 counties and 8.3 million people.[3] However, the Delta is more commonly thought of as “begin[ning] in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and end[ing] on Catfish Row in Vicksburg [Mississippi].”[4] Under this definition, the Delta region is about 200 miles long and 70 miles wide at its widest point.[5]

The Mississippi Delta region also is one of the poorest areas in the country and has been described as a “Third World country in the heart of America.”[6] The region’s current economic problems have been linked to its history of enslavement of a large portion of its population and the legacies of that period, which include Jim Crow laws, racial segregation of public educational institutions, and disenfranchisement of blacks. Slavery as practiced in the American South was probably as severe as any form of it in recorded history.[7] Charles Sackett Sydnor, the Southern historian, once wrote, “Mississippi differed from the upper tier of slave States in that it was a buyer of slaves, that it had more of a frontier civilization, and that it was given over almost entirely to cotton planting. A priori, these facts should have made the life of slaves harder and more laborious in this State than in the upper slave States.”[8] For slavery to work in a sparsely settled land, white repression had to strain the limits of black endurance. The entire legal apparatus was used by those with power to promote white supremacy and black degradation. It was used to cause one group of human beings to receive special, harsh, and disparate treatment so that slave owners could escape work and increase wealth. The late, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. pointed out in Race and the American Legal Process that “the [legal apparatus] sought the total submission of blacks [and] . . . incorporated into its law-made morality the psychological conceptions Frederick Douglass subsequently described:

Beat and cuff the slave, keep him hungry and spiritless, and he will follow the chain of his master like a dog, but feed and clothe him well, work him moderately and surround him with physical comfort, and dreams of freedom will intrude . . . You may hurl a man so low beneath the level of his kind, that he loses all just ideas of his natural position, but elevate him a little, and the clear conception of rights rises to life and power, and leads him onward.”[9]

The struggle to overcome the vestiges of slavery has persisted. In the area of the Delta designated as an empowerment zone in 1994, per capita income is one-third the national average, nearly 40 percent of the residents live in public housing, and the high school dropout rate is almost 50 percent.[10] Poverty in the Delta affects the region’s black residents more severely than its white inhabitants, with 54.9 percent of the black population living in poverty, according to 1990 statistics.[11]

The Commission’s Mississippi Delta project examined three topics with respect to racial and ethnic tensions. First, the project addressed economic opportunity in the Delta in an attempt to determine the impact of the region’s unique history on its current economic conditions and on its prospects for future economic development. The second topic was an assessment of educational opportunity in Mississippi’s public schools. In higher education, the project addressed the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Fordice[12] on students, teachers, public institutions of higher learning, and, ultimately, race relations in Mississippi. The Commission also examined primary and secondary education in Mississippi, including such issues as funding practices and policies, student achievement, and ability tracking of minority students. Finally, the project addressed voting rights in the Delta. Specifically, the Commission examined the effect of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on political representation in the region and the ability to translate political power into economic opportunity.

Based on the testimony of witnesses, analysis of subpoenaed documents, and legal research, the Commission makes a number of preliminary findings and recommendations which it directs to the attention of the President, Congress, and the American people.

[1] Jerry Ward, chairperson, Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, statement before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, hearing, Greenville, MS, Mar. 6–8, 1997, transcript, p. 19.

[2] In July 1995, the Commission held a Documents Hearing in New York, NY, in order to obtain relevant documentary evidence to supplement the record of the September 1994 hearing.

[3] Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, The Delta Initiatives, May 14, 1990, p. 165.

[4] This description was coined by writer David Cohn in 1935. Christina Schwarz and Benjamin Schwarz, “Mississippi Monte Carlo,” The Atlantic Monthly, January 1996, p. 67.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Parfit, “And What Words Shall Describe the Mississippi, Great Father of Rivers,” Smithsonian, February 1993, p. 36.

[7] Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 1977) p. 27.

[8] Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi  (Louisiana State University Press, 1966) p. viii.

[9] A Leon Higginbotham Jr., Race and the American Legal Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 9; Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 150.

[10] “USDA Report Success in Projects in Poor Areas of the South,” The New York Beacon, June 26, 1996, p. 32.

[11] Larry Doolittle and Jerry Davis, Social and Economic Change in the Mississippi Delta: An Update of Portrait Data (Mississippi State University, May 1996), p. 8.

[12] 505 U.S. 717 (1992).