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A Beacon Shines from Mississippi’s Delta

New America Media, News Report, Video, By Khalil Abdullah // Photos: Al White // Video: Michael Siv Posted: May 18, 2008

Editor's Note: At a town hall meeting in the Mississippi Delta, more than 400 African Americans listed inequities in education among their greatest concerns. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Khalil Abdullah is a NAM editor based in Washington.

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GREENVILLE, Miss. – Leroy Johnson took a moment to share his view of the guiding philosophy of Mississippi’s educational system toward African Americans: “Anything above a third grade education spoils a good field hand.”

Johnson, the executive director of Southern Echo, a 19-year-old organization committed to organizing African-American communities to deconstruct systemic inequalities in the state, had been preparing his remarks as moderator for the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign town hall meeting on May 3.

The event continued a nationwide campaign, sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. The goal is to elevate America’s awareness about the concerns and needs of low-income families and communities. America’s priorities demonstrate that “poor folks have been inconsequential all their lives,” Johnson said later to the assembly.

Greenville, a port city and seat of Washington County in the state’s northwest, was once vital to ensuring that the cotton industry maintained its supremacy as America’s economic engine. It sits low in the Delta with a levee protecting it and more than 40,000 citizens from the Mississippi, the "Great River" in the Chippewa Indian tongue.

The earthen wall was breached by the river with dire consequences in 1927, when some of the city’s African-American residents “were forced at gunpoint to sandbag the levee,” said Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson, the first woman and first African American to serve in that position. Even after it was rebuilt, the levee could not contain the negative economic impact of changing times.

Joyce and mayorJoyce Parker (left) greets Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson.

Now, Greenville’s largest employers are the hospitals and the school system, according to Joyce Parker, executive director of Citizens for a Better Greenville, the host organization for the town hall. Parker agreed with Leroy Johnson that collective community strength is necessary to address longstanding inequities, particularly in education. She said Mississippi’s history shows that “whites have been letting our schools fail” through tactics such as under-funding or diverting money from public education “while their children attend private schools.”

The event drew more than 400 African Americans, mostly from the Mississippi Delta. Vowel-rich shout-outs announced the presence of home counties during opening roll call: “Tallahatchie! Issaquena! Coahoma!”

Town hallThe McLemore Headstart Center Gymnasium was near capacity.

At one point, participants joined in song with Hollis Watkins, a co-founder of Southern Echo. Well-known in the state as the first young student from Mississippi to join the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to register voters in the 1960s, Watkins led the assembly in a rousing version of "This Little Light of Mine" and other anthems to the legacy of struggle.

After greeting the attendees, Mayor Hudson noted that the Delta was "one of the most hospitable parts” of Mississippi—quite an accomplishment when the entire South takes great pride in its hospitality. In that spirit, a “scrumptious” lunch, as described by moderator Johnson’s grandson, was served after the roll call.

Over lunch, Rachel Hawkins, a single mother of four from Indianola in adjacent Sunflower County--home of civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer--said she struggles with the costs of making it day to day. She has been working in the fish industry for 15 years, since she was 18 years old. Now a sorter at America’s Catch, a company that specializes in Mississippi pond-raised catfish, she handles 90 fish a minute, separating them by size and quality. “I don’t put anything in the [sorting] bin I wouldn’t eat myself. I know my business,” Hawkins said proudly.

Rachel and RandyRachel Hawkins hosted a table for Randy and other youngsters.

Her income is $1,000 a month, and though the cost of living is low compared to other areas of the country, rent consumes almost half her check. With what's left she has to cover food, utilities and clothes for growing children. Food stamps help, but the rising price of gas to travel work days roundtrip from Indianola to Leland is discouraging, even though it’s a short run.

Hawkins said her ambition is to one day open a center for children. “I’m going to call it ‘A Heart That Cares.’” She said she is doing the best she can, but is angered by the negative light in which low-income families are often described. “That’s what makes me mad at society, when they look down on the less fortunate ones.”

Hawkins dropped out of high school but has no doubt about the importance of education. She warned her 16-year-old son Brandon, “I will halfway kill you,” should he think about leaving school.

After lunch, each delegation developed its list of priorities and subsequently reported to the entire assembly. Patsy Jackson spoke for her table, comprising three community organizations active in five counties, including her native Panola, an American Indian word for cotton. She pointed to the need to improve education and housing, and to find mechanisms to reduce both drug use and incarceration.

LeroyHollis Watkins (left) led Southern Echo's Leroy Johnson and attendees in song.

“Education, education, education,” is the solution to the issues plaguing the African-American community in Mississippi, Jackson said. Virtually every group agreed, listing education among their group's top three concerns.

Though Mississippi has improved in its education rankings since a 2005 National Assesment of Education Progress survey, a snapshot of African Americans in the fourth grade showed how far the distance to parity. Only one percent qualified as 'advanced' readers; six percent reached 'proficiency.' However, while 24 perecent attained 'basic,' 70 percent of African American fourth graders were 'below basic,' more than double the percentage of their European American peers in that category.

Cynthia Renfro, representing the Marguerite Casey Foundation, described the foundation's plan to gather 10,000 people (more than 3,000 each in three cities) on Sept. 6 to unveil a national platform of family issues. Birmingham, Ala., will host families from Mississippi and five other southern states. “So many communities have the same issues,” Renfro observed, drawing on testimony gathered from the more than 40 previous town halls held across the country.

“We’re going to take our communities back one family at a time,” Leroy Johnson told the receptive gathering. With “all our little lights together,” he said, “we’ll create a beacon.”

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