The road to Selma: Mississippi Delta locked in poverty of the past

The black/white economic divide is stark in rural Mississippi

Mississippi has been called “the South of the South” -- a place even more poor, more racially segregated and more violent than the rest of the region -- and the Mississippi Delta has been called “the Mississippi of Mississippi.” 

On this winter Wednesday, the Delta looks especially bleak. Rain streaks the windows of the bus as 51 civil rights pilgrims and I continue our meandering journey toward Selma. The sky is as gray as a tin roof. Creeks and rivers are swollen. Fallow fields are puddled and ringed by leafless, black trees.

In Greenwood, we make a stop at the spot where Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, gave his pivotal “Black Power” speech on July 28, 1966, and prodded the civil rights struggle away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s inclusive, nonviolent path. There is not much black power in Greenwood today. The roadside sign marking the site of Carmichael's speech is in the black section of town. The surrounding houses are just a small step above shacks, needy of paint and repairs. Old storefronts stand empty.

At a railroad crossing, we wait for the train they call the City of New Orleans to pass by, then cross to Greenwood’s modest business district. Over a bridge beyond, we enter the town’s white neighborhood and find large, well-kept houses with antebellum columns and vast lawns. The economic contrast and the racial divide is stark.

Greenwood is where the movie “The Help” was shot. For that story about affluent Southern white women and their black maids in the early 1960s, the production company found the perfect location. They did not need to change much in Greenwood to achieve an authentic look.

Crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge, I give a mental nod to country music’s most prominent fictional suicide, Billie Joe McAllister. From there, the bus moves along Money Road, a bumpy two-lane highway down which a 14-year-old Chicago kid named Emmett Till was traveling with his cousins back on August 24, 1955. Within a few miles, our bus pulls up at the shell of the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market where Till stopped on that fateful day to buy candy.

The store’s roof is now caved in. Dry, twisted vines snake across crumbling brick walls. Back in ’55, the grocery was intact and in business when Till went inside. The white woman at the counter claimed the black boy from Chicago aggressively flirted with her. That was when she later testified in court. Other witnesses refuted that. Whether he did or not, the alleged offense was enough to get him killed in the Mississippi Delta back then.

In the middle of the night a few days after the store encounter, Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home. Three days after that, his dead body was found by two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River. Two white men were put on trial for the murder. An all-male, all-white jury found them not guilty. After the trial, the two confessed their guilt in Look magazine. The murder shocked the country and gave a kick start to the civil rights movement that finally curbed centuries of unpunished violence against blacks.

Along the Money Road we pass sharecroppers’ shacks that have been transformed into pleasant guest cabins with soft beds, Wi-Fi and cable. In the days of Jim Crow, those shacks were far from luxurious. The black families who lived inside those thin wooden walls were kept on a subsistence income by the white plantation owners as a means of keeping them in economic bondage -- slavery by another name.

Perhaps it is a sign of progress that sharecroppers’ shacks have become cozy vacation housing for tourists, but the poverty that continues to plague the black citizens of the Mississippi Delta testifies there is still a long way to go in this neglected corner of America.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times