David W. Beckworth’s memoir, “A New Day in the Delta,” could be the handle for a 2009 blog.
Imagine graduating from college with a business degree just as a new U. S. President and Congress deal with a controversial foreign war and a plummeting domestic economy. You’ve spent the summer with your folks, sending out resumes that bring no job offers. Desperate by August, you apply for an open teaching position at a local school. The year is 1969.
Greenville native Beckwith vividly recollects his term at a Leland public school in “A New Day in the Delta.” Assigned to teach junior high history, Beckwith was unprepared to become one of three white teachers – the first ever – assigned to Leland’s all-black school. The trio’s presence was supposed to forestall total desegregation.
As indicated by the subtitle, “Inventing School Desegregation as You Go,” the scheme did not work. Throughout the state, “separate but equal” and “freedom of choice” forcefully and finally ended in January 1970. Like many Mississippi school districts, Leland had directed its energies toward preventing rather than preparing for full racial integration. When the order came, no one was happy and simmering chaos exploded.
Despite the lapse of almost 40 years, Beckwith conveys immediacy and a rare perspective related to place more than time. He was reared in an racially insular but non-elitist white Southern ethic of the 60s. Later, the rookie teacher functioned in a foreign world of middle class Delta blacks. As he struggled to understand the parallel universe of multi-generational, bi-racial poverty, Beckwith’s ensuing frustration and empathy were color blind. By year’s end, he was both insider and outsider, student and teacher, straddling generations, roles and cultures.
An entertaining, even-handed narrative told with compassion, humor and honesty, this personal story has profound potential for educators and those attempting to understand American social history. Most importantly, David W. Beckwith’s “A New Day in the Delta” is a new voice in the racial reconciliation dialog.
David Beckwith’s Mississippi homecoming begins with a March 27 signing at McCormick Book Inn, Greenville. “A New Day in the Delta” is available at independent booksellers throughout the state.
— Mary Dale McCormick
McCormick Book Inn, Greenville
A New Day in the Delta: Inventing School Desegregation as You Go
by David W. Beckwith
(University of Alabama Press)