In October, a newly formed alliance agreed to move forward on developing a multi-state alliance to serve the Southern Black Belt, a region from Virginia to Texas with counties where the African-American population is higher than average. Mississippi would be the most affected of the 14 states in the region.
Similar to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a 37-year-old organization that has helped drastically reduce poverty in its target area, and the Delta Regional Authority, a newly formed organization that includes the Mississippi Delta, the proposed Southern Black Belt Initiative seeks to improve economic conditions and address social issues in the mostly rural region, considered among the poorest in the nation. Of the 623 counties in the Black Belt, 171 counties have black populations of 40% or more.
Art Dunning, Ph.D., vice president for public service and outreach at the University of Georgia, was one of the organizers of the Southern Black Belt Forums.
“We started out looking at the Black Belt region of South Georgia and the more we reviewed issues surrounding education, economic progress, employment and health care, it became clear that this was a cross-cutting issue for the entire Southern Black Belt,” he said. “Two faculty members on campus did a publication called ‘The Southern Black Belt: A National Perspective’ and made the case that we could work with groups external to Georgia and put something in place that could be sustained over time to develop the region, similar to the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority.”
The first forum was held May 30 at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, where organizers looked at social, economic and political issues. At the second forum, held Oct. 11-12 in Tuskegee, Ala., a 15-member Black Belt steering committee was selected to draft a proposal by the time the group is scheduled to meet again in Atlanta by the end of the year. Most participants at the second forum were from Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
Agreeing on the priorities of issues was a daunting task at the Tuskegee meeting, which included representatives from the newly organized Southeastern Crescent Regional Commission (SCRC), which includes areas in seven states, including Mississippi, not covered by the ARC or DRA. The SCRC is further along in its development and is similar in scope to the ARC with a heavy emphasis on economic development.
“Diversity was a serious issue for people in the room,” said Dunning. “The issues are complex politically, economically and socially, and there were many different groups with all kinds of views trying to collaborate.”
Some participants reported that the “spirited forum” included clashes between rural and urban groups, the rich versus the poor, and grass roots folks and institutional leaders.
“The views and perspectives were a little bit different than what I was led to believe,” said Al Delia, associate vice chancellor for economic and community development at East Carolina University, and a representative for the proposed SCRC.
“They talked a great deal about racial relations, health and education issues, and some about economic development and how to get their arms around all those issues simultaneously,” Delia said. “The Southeastern Crescent Regional Commission isn’t interested in targeting individuals by race or gender or any other such criteria, but to look at communities most in need and target services to move the entire community forward, no matter who lives there.”
By the end of the forum, Southern Black Belt Initiative backers voted to work independently of the SCRC.
Jason Brookins, executive director of the Hinds County Economic Development District, said if all needs weren’t addressed, the best-laid plans wouldn’t be successful.
“If someone is helping to build affordable housing, they may be doing a great thing, but if no one is working on bringing jobs to a community, then it doesn’t do much good,” he said. “Coordinating all facets of economic development is always going to be more productive.”
Several years ago, the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University funded projects on the Black Belt region, which included producing a map and resource materials, said Bonnie Teater, assistant director for the center.
“The document we published was the basis for the beginning of discussions on the Black Belt,” she said. “I was a bit surprised that it took so long after the publication was released for organizers to move forward.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.