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A Year After Mississippi Delta Report, New Attention and a Few Changes

July 6, 1991

SHARKEY COUNTY, Miss. (AP) _ The Mississippi Delta changes the same way it was formed by the muddy river: particle by particle.

A year after a federal commission’s ″plan of action″ envisaged a rebirth of this poverty-crippled region, no transformation has taken place, but particles of change can be isolated - things as seemingly inconsequential as Cora Stamps’ prized red blouse.

″I wear it to church,″ said Mrs. Stamps, who lives in a five-room house with rotting floors and holes in the walls on a Sharkey County cotton plantation with her husband, children and grandchildren - 22 people in all.

The blouse was part of a truckload of secondhand clothing, including sneakers and other items her grandchildren now wear, sent by a Washington state group moved by news reports a year ago about the Delta’s Third World living conditions.

The donation illustrates the most often cited effect of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission’s May 1990 report on the seven-state region: It finally drew the nation’s attention to blight and backwardness that people in the Delta have lived with for generations.

Carylon Teeter, who organized the clothing donation, said the report opened eyes as far away as her home of Ferndale, Wash. ″People I contacted said it couldn’t be. ... My landlady, she said she could never imagine anybody right here in the United States being that poor,″ Teeter said.

The congressionally mandated Delta Commission report, which took 18 months and $3 million to produce, detailed the lives of 8.3 million people in 219 counties flanking the river in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It documented high rates of illiteracy, school dropouts, unsafe housing, teen-age pregnancy and infant mortality in a region where per capita income is 25 percent below the national average and four in 10 blacks live in poverty. The blame lies in part in a ″legacy of slavery and racism,″ the commission said.

It spelled out a 10-year redevelopment plan for the Delta, recommending 400 specific initiatives by government, the private sector, non-profit groups and individuals to make Delta residents ″full partners in America’s future.″

It concluded, ″This report is not for anyone seeking easy answers or quick fixes″ - and indeed, on the surface, the region seems little changed a year later.

″We’ve got a lot more to do,″ said U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, D-Miss., chairman of the newly formed House Delta caucus. But the report, he said, has not merely sat on a shelf. ″Its usefulness is apparent in the programs that we’re moving forward on,″ Espy said.

Among them:

- Formation of the bipartisan, 24-member House Delta caucus, which Espy termed essential ″infrastructure″ for pursuing other commission initiatives. A Senate Delta caucus also is being formed.

- The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ plans, announced in March, to build correctional institutions in Yazoo City, Miss., Forrest City, Ark., and Pollock, La. - a $50 million shot in the arm for each community, Espy said. The commission report had called for federal spending to be directed to the Delta; the prison bureau said that was a factor in its decision.

- Several other programs that will steer federal funds to the region, including $2.5 million for special training for Delta teachers, $500,000 to fund a tourism clearinghouse called the Mississippi River Heritage Corridor Commission, technical assistance to Delta farmers, and a hike in a tax break for the working poor.

- Creation of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Center in Memphis, Tenn., ″a think tank to support the recommendations of the commission,″ Espy said.

″The idea of regionalism is new,″ said Delta center President Wilbur Hawkins, who was executive director of the commission that wrote the report. A more cooperative spirit among states and localities in the Delta is another legacy of last year’s study, he said.

Hawkins and center staff member Ray Bryant said hard economic times, especially in some states, have slowed progress. ″It’s taken a little more time than we hoped,″ Bryant said.

Still, they cited efforts of individual states, ranging from Arkansas’ program to improve rural fire protection to an international business education center that is a joint project of Southern Illinois and Memphis State universities.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who chaired the commission, attached a copy of the ″Delta Initiatives″ report to his legislative package this year, said Bob Nash, head of Arkansas’ Development and Finance Authority. One commission recommendation that received funding was the Delta Cultural Center in the river port of Helena, Ark.

″If you were driving through the Delta, you probably physically wouldn’t see anything different - unless you drove by the cultural center or by the prison site in Forrest City,″ said Nash, who was an alternate delegate to the commission.

What’s changed is less tangible, he said. ″A lot of people in the Delta now feel that there’s hope. They think the needs of the Delta are higher on the priority list of the federal government, the state governments and the private sector,″ he said.

And indeed, in a region where poverty breeds apathy, the Delta commission’s work energized many people.

Residents of a small, poor Arkansas Delta community called Walnut Lake banded together to seek a $122,000 grant to extend water lines from a neighboring town so that they won’t have to haul jugs daily from a church’s tap three miles away or drink from contaminated wells.

They received attention after one resident, Clara Palmer, attended a meeting where Gov. Clinton spoke. She brought a bottle of the brownish water along and offered him a drink. He declined. State officials now completing review of the grant application expect to approve it soon.

Nevertheless, Walnut Lake residents like Claudell Whitman, 47 - who with his wife Ruthie and eight children catches rainwater in three barrels - remain skeptical.

″When I believe it,″ Whitman said, ″water’ll be running out of my faucet.″

This is, after all, a region where the poor historically have been overlooked, and many don’t expect much change. In random questioning by a reporter visiting Delta counties in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi recently, most residents said they sensed no new up-tempo in the land where the blues were born.

Sitting with a group of men in front of a mechanic’s shop in Mound Bayou, Miss., 83-year-old Wesley Liddell only chuckled when a reporter told of the report’s call for ″a colossal change ... along the shores of the mighty river.″

The men spoke of businesses that have closed and the difficulty of drawing new ones. ″All the little towns are hurtin’. Big ones, too. You can’t get anything to come in,″ Liddell said.

At one business remaining open, a funeral home called Delta Burial Corp., L.G. Brooks, 39, said studying the Delta was a waste.

″They could have been feeding people with those millions. You don’t have to study no problem. Just drive down Highway 61 and see,″ he said.

″If there’s no jobs and nobody working, if the factory’s closed, if the big boys ain’t sending nothing to us - what can we do?″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Christopher Sullivan is the AP’s Southeast regional reporter, based in Atlanta.

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