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One size doesn't fit all in the Delta

By Wally Northway

In the spring of 1968, my family and I spent a tense night huddled at my grandmother’s house in Greenville. All the lights were doused, the only sound a radio turned down so low it was barely audible. Every now and then somebody would pull a curtain back and peak out a window. The atmosphere was thick, frightening.

Thus, we passed the first night following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of Greenville’s residents, including my family, worried that the African American community would riot in response to Dr. King’s slaying.

But nothing happened.

It would be years later before I marveled at this. Dr. King preached non-violence, and his influence, even in death, certainly played a factor in the peace that reigned that night. But if any people in the nation had a right to be angry at the death of Dr. King, it was the black community in the Mississippi Delta, which is home to one of the largest and poorest African American populations in America.

I had the same thought during the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 following the Rodney King trial. I remember watching one rioter on television talking of repression while wearing a jacket that would cost the average black family in the Delta a month’s worth of income.

For the record, there was no riot in Greenville in 1992, either.

A good debate could be had as to why the folks in Greenville didn’t take to the street in 1968 or 1992. But one thing is clear — our Delta and its people are unique. Other places may have similar problems and demographics, but our Delta is like no other.

That is why politicians and “leaders” can throw program after program and tons of money at the Mississippi Delta and get no results. One size does not fit all in our Delta.

My pet example of government trying to treat our Delta as any other impoverished region is the Delta Regional Authority. Then President Bill Clinton and other DRA backers lost me from day one when they tried to lump our Delta in with some 200 counties and parishes in eight states.

With all due respect, southern Illinois or western Kentucky may share problems with and need help just as much as the Mississippi Delta, but those areas are not our Delta.

Sometimes it is more than obvious that many elected officials pushing for assistance to the Mississippi Delta have never actually been there and spent time in the region. It is easy to orate grandly from inside the Beltway about the Mississippi Delta and its needs.

I say go to Greenville, or Clarksdale, or Silver City. Go into a home. Meet the folks. I am confident that any politician who does this would learn two things — the Mississippi Delta is totally unique, and its people are some of the finest the human race has to offer.

The last thing we need is a bunch of politicians using our Delta and its people as pawns to make themselves sound good and garner votes.

After all, the people in our Delta already have Congressman Bennie Thompson for that.

About Wally Northway

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