Mississippi Delta: the land economic recovery never visits

McClatchy NewspapersApril 11, 2010 

MIDNIGHT, Miss. — The young men were camped out on the street corner by 10:30 a.m., talking loudly, looking bored. They cracked open tall beer cans and passed them around. Before long someone pulled out a joint and lit it up.

On a weekday morning in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest part of the poorest state in the country, these men in their 20s and 30s had nothing to do. No work. A few had broken their backs picking cotton, when it was cotton season, or bloodied their hands farming for catfish, until those jobs started to disappear too.

Now, Leonard Dorsey said, they improvise. A 29-year-old with a mouthful of gold-encrusted teeth, Dorsey had a friend who snagged a truck-driving job, so he rode with him up to New York, taking turns behind the wheel and splitting the pay. Back in Midnight, the guys on the corner laughed when Dorsey described how cold it was in Syracuse.

"Ain't nothing like home," Dorsey said, puffing absently on a cigarette. "But home is so slow."

The Delta, which stretches like a sun-ripened skin across the flatlands of northwest Mississippi, has been slowing down for decades. The birthplace of the blues, and home to some of the richest agricultural land in the United States, the predominantly African-American region is bleeding dry as farm jobs disappear, the tax base shrivels and people leave in search of work.

Decades ago, when race-based Jim Crow laws ruled the South, Dorsey's grandmother and many of her generation left for northern cities such as Chicago and St. Louis. Jim Crow may be long gone, but since 1970 four of the largest Delta counties have lost 20 percent of their people, according to the Delta Regional Authority, a federal redevelopment agency.

To drive through the Delta now is to traverse a forgotten land in America, a place of big open fields and tumbledown cottages, stitched together by sparsely traveled roads that reach toward a dandelion sun. In town upon town, derelict mills and boarded-up storefronts are emblematic of what some here call a "permanent recession," one that began long before the current national crisis and figures to be immune from any national recovery.

"The folks here been living in a recession all their lives," said Charles Carter, 66, a community activist in the Delta. "If you're poor, you're poor. You don't know nothing about a recession. It's like water rolling off a duck's back."

HERITAGE AND HARD TIMES

The first thing to know about the Mississippi Delta is that it isn't really a delta; it's an alluvial plain created over thousands of years of flooding by the Mississippi River, which flattened the land into a featureless but fertile prairie.

Cotton was king here, but the advent of mechanized farming in recent decades has robbed the Delta of its main source of jobs. Price shocks and foreign competition decimated the cotton industry further. Factories that manufactured everything from lawn mower parts to underwear were shuttered, and few large employers have replaced them.

So the land that gave rise to some of the most influential music of the 20th century, as well as to the literature of William Faulkner and Willie Morris, has become notable mainly for the worst poverty in the United States.

One in five Mississippians lives below the poverty line, the highest rate of any state, according to U.S. census data. The state ranks last in household income and first in infant mortality. In Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District, which comprises nearly the entire Delta region and some 655,000 people, nearly 20 percent of the population is on food stamps.

Unemployment was epidemic here long before the national economy tanked. From 2006 to 2008, 12 percent of the district's work force was on the jobless rolls, compared with 6.4 percent nationwide, based on census estimates.

"For a large segment of our population, times have always been tough," said Luther Brown, the founder of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. "We've got a lot of people who didn't really have very far to fall."

Midnight, a village of fewer than 200 in the heart of the Delta, feels like a place whose time has expired.

There's no sewage system and only spotty electricity. Clapboard houses built nearly a century ago rot on their cinder-block legs, tilting at crazy angles. The road through town is dotted with abandoned or half-burned cabins that, older residents complain, young men disappear into to shoot dice or smoke pot as the days fade into dusk.

A TOWN FADING AWAY

"Most of those guys you see standing around there at Midnight, they (have) nothing to do," said Calvin Beasley, 59, a short, wiry farmer with a pencil-thin moustache. "Some of them used to work."

When Beasley was in high school he worked at an electronics plant that's long since closed. Out of college he got a job at a car dealership in Belzoni, the nearest town to Midnight; that's gone too. Belzoni now is little more than a strip of fast-food joints and dollar stores that pass like a blur along a short, sad bit of Highway 49.

In the past year, after two straight rain-ravaged harvests, three farms around Midnight went under. The unusually harsh winter reduced Beasley's soybeans — the crop that many Delta farmers turned to when cotton prices plummeted — to a field of dried-out, ash-colored stalks.

"We need some jobs down here," Beasley said. "This is a farm area. If you got two or three farms going out of business, there's not much else."

The tiny post office, which survived the epic Mississippi River flood of 1927, was torn down recently as part of Postal Service budget cuts. The hulking gray cotton gin on the town's outskirts is virtually idle. The lone sound of activity on most mornings is the drone of a crop duster spraying the few remaining farms.

Until last year, the homes in Midnight didn't even have street addresses. Years ago, when a pregnant neighbor went into labor, Dorsey's mother, Gwen McKenzie, called the paramedics from a town several miles away. The dispatcher didn't know where Midnight was, though, and wouldn't send an ambulance without an address.

McKenzie had to drive out to the highway, turn on her hazard lights and lead the paramedics to the house.

She and some other residents of the town lobbied to get a highway sign pointing the way to Midnight. Last year the streets were named and numbered. For McKenzie these were rare indications that the outside world had any interest in their lives.

"When I was a child coming up in this town ... people was plentiful," said McKenzie, who's 53. "When people started leaving the town just died out."

'PEOPLE WHO ARE EMPLOYABLE ... ARE LEAVING'

Census figures show that Mississippi receives the fourth-largest amount of federal aid per capita, although much of it recently has gone to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

In the Delta, 300 miles to the north, many think the federal dollars are being squandered.

"There has actually been an overwhelming amount of money poured into the Delta," said Susan Glisson, the director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford. "My sense is it goes to experts and consultants, and never actually translates to the community."

Rescuing the Delta requires finding an alternative to farm jobs, Glisson said. The handful of manufacturing plants in the region — including Viking Range, a maker of high-end kitchen appliances, in Greenwood — employ only a few thousand people, and they, too, have slashed jobs in the recession.

The root of the problem, many say, is the Delta's derelict school system, which remains effectively segregated nearly a half-century after the Civil Rights Act. Four out of five Mississippians don't complete college.

"Those people who are employable, have skills and can move to areas that have jobs are leaving," said Pete Johnson, a co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. "You could reasonably expect that the unemployment numbers we're looking at today will get much worse in the next decade."

The guys on the corner in Midnight said that education guaranteed them nothing.

"A whole lot of them guys went to college, and still you see where they standing at?" said Dorsey, who dropped out of school in the 12th grade.

Now he has two children and has gone around the country looking for jobs. After farming catfish in the Delta for $160 a week, he worked construction in Missouri and flipped burgers in Georgia. He never lasted more than a few months, though. The job disappeared or he missed his kids, and he always returned home to the drab double-wide trailer where he lives with his mother and sister.

He can't help but think that his fate was sealed the day he was born in Midnight.

Dorsey said, "If I was born in Jackson, an hour and a half drive from here, I'd probably been living a little bit better."

He flicked his cigarette toward a patch of concrete where a grungy basketball hoop stood. Later, two boys, scarcely the age of his 12-year-old, played there with a lumpy orange ball that sailed through the net but fell back to earth with a disappointing thwack. The air had gone out.

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