Delta Dividends

In a community where race still divides, leaders look for ways to unite and cultivate

How important is Greenwood’s racial history? Depends who’s writing and displaying the history. Greenwood’s Museum of the Mississippi Delta last year displayed seven pretty but romanticized paintings of blacks working in the fields or driving cotton-filled wagons. It also had on a wall a small photo from 1963 of African-Americans walking in front of the courthouse. The caption noted that civil rights demonstrators were “beaten with clubs and attacked by dogs”—but no photo showed the beatings or dog attacks.

 

GREENWOOD, Miss.—The Mississippi Delta is the poorest part of the poorest state of our 50, and one four-letter word dominates the thoughts of economic planners contemplating improvement: jobs. But mention the Delta city of Greenwood (population 16,000) to someone from NBC News, and the response is likely to be another four-letter word: race.

NBC in 1966 broadcast a documentary set in Greenwood that showed the chasm between white and black attitudes. The network came back in 2012 with a Dateline NBC show that concentrated on Booker Wright, a brave African-American waiter who told the truth in that first documentary, suffered a beating for it, and was later killed.

Greenwood, though, is not all about race. The big issues of Detroit and Houston—infrastructure, schools, taxes—roil Greenwood as well. Interviews with the white mayor, the black state senator, the white newspaper editor, the black school board head, the leading white philanthropist, and others showed me that Greenwood leaders cannot just play checkers as do their peers in other cities. They must play a far more complicated game of chess and watch every piece, black and white.

Leaders need to remember the past yet not be bound by it. The Help, a hit movie about 1960s race relations shot in Greenwood, brought money to the city, and Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams has in her office a director’s chair from the film—but it also makes it harder to look away from Dixieland’s past. Greenwood’s section of the Mississippi Blues Trail boasts one of the three purported grave sites of Robert Johnson, who “sold his soul to the devil” to become the best guitar player around, but racism was one reason blacks had the blues.

Tim Kalich, editor of the 6,000-circulation Greenwood Commonwealth, which three times in a row has won an award as Mississippi’s best small city newspaper, calls himself Greenwood’s biggest cheerleader and biggest critic. He sees progress—“We’re more honest about race than lots of places”—but much of the black community is still poor. The city council, once all white, now has an African-American majority that reflects Greenwood’s one-third white, two-thirds black population.

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