The Business of Blacks In the Mississippi Delta

The Business of Blacks In the Mississippi Delta

By Robert Anderson, Jr.

Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 15-19

On a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1967, two White physicians who were conducting a survey for the Field Foundation came to Belzoni, Mississippi, and spent three hours talking to Black families. Their findings on this visit and on visits to similar places in rural Mississippi would later help awaken the nation to the fact of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and would trigger legislation leading to an expanded food stamp program and maternal and infant feeding program.

The doctors wrote, “In sum, we saw children who are hungry and who are sick – children for whom hunger is a daily fact of life and sickness, in many forms, an inevitability. We do not want to quibble over words, but ‘malnutrition’ is not quite what we found; the boys and girls we saw were hungry – weak, in pain, sick, their lives are being shortened; they are, in fact, visibly and predictably losing their health, their spirits, their energy. They are suffering from hunger and disease and… they are dying from them – which is exactly what ‘starvation’ means.”

At the time of the doctors’ visit, much of rural Mississippi was still a harsh, unyielding racist society, little changed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In its racial attitudes Belzoni itself was known as one of the state’s most rigid towns. A local Black leader had been shot to death by White vigilantes only a few years before. As the doctors proceeded on that Sunday from one Black home to another, the chief of police followed behind them in his car, and a small crowd of unfriendly Whites gathered across the street. The afternoon ended without incident, yet the presence of the police was plainly intended to intimidate, and a sense of fear was pervasive.

The pace of life has not changed much in Beizoni in the twelve years since that episode, and some local practices also remain unchanged. Because the town boundaries have been drawn so as to exclude Black neighborhoods, Blacks cannot vote in local elections and have no claim on city services. But there has nevertheless been a decided change in atmosphere. The town’s schools are integrated and Blacks and moderate Whites do not live with a day-to-day consciousness of racial tension. The Black population of Belzoni enjoys an additional sense of security (and pride) in the support it receives from (and gives to) the local Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE).

MACE, a strong, versatile organization headquartered in Greenville, originated in the civil rights movement. A MACE representative, in fact, helped guide the visiting doctors on their 1967 trip to Belzoni and other Mississippi localities. The founders of the organization described their purpose as being “an institutional means to realize the social and economic rights that civil rights protest activities and legislation could not.”

Paramount among the founders’ goals was community organization in an eleven county area of the Mississippi Delta. The area is predominantly rural and agricultural, and its population is widely dispersed. The major crop is cotton, but soybeans and rice are also grown. The production of beef cattle has also emerged in recent years as a mor undertaking. Technological advances in agriculture, however – particularly mechanization of cotton farming over the past 20 years – have brought about a loss of almost 300,000 farm jobs in Mississippi, 40 percent of the total number of jobs

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available in 1950. The majority of those thrown out of work have been Black, and most of them had worked as sharecroppers on cotton plantations. One result of the loss of jobs has been a great exodus of Blacks from the Delta.

Unemployment rates today in the 11 Delta counties exceed national and state averages. For males in the state the rate is around 9 percent; for females it is 13 percent. In the MACE Delta counties the rate is 12 percent for males and 20 percent for females. Some 75 percent of the area’s unemployed males and 80 percent of the unemployed females are Black.

Census figures further reveal the extent of poverty in the Delta. In Madison County, 61.1 percent of the families live below the poverty level; in Humphreys County, the figure is 77.4 percent. The measure of poverty in other counties ranges between these two figures. Mean family income in Madison County is $2,252; in Humphreys County it is $1,686. In Madison County, 34.7 percent of the families receive public assistance; in Humphreys County, 50 percent.

For organizational purposes, MACE divides the Delta counties into two categories – the six core counties, in which MACE works full time, and the five technical assistance counties. In the latter, MACE provides only limited technical assistance. Its reasons for the limitation of its efforts include rivalries with local organizations in some counties and lack of receptivity to community organizing in others. Each of the 11 counties elects two representatives to the MACE board of directors. MACE has approximately 23,000 members, who pay annual dues of $5 each.

New MACE field workers take part in a 30 day training program at the organization’s headquarters, followed by a two-month trial period in the field. They are instructed in the rules and regulations for filing for public assistance, food stamps, Social Security benefits, and Medicare and Medicaid. They are also taught how to file complaints with public agencies and how to conduct public meetings.

Field workers serve MACE members in several ways. In 1976, for example, MACE workers in Holmes County and the staff at Greenville won a major victory by achieving equal public services for Blacks. The precedent for such equalization had been set in a landmark decision in 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled that a pattern of discrimination against Blacks existed in the town of Shaw, Mississippi, because Blacks did not enjoy equality with Whites in the provision of street paving, street lighting, and other public facilities and services.

Little had been achieved in Shaw itself sincethe decision because no organized follow-up effort at the local level was made. But in Lexington, a town of some 3,000 in Holmes County, the local MACE chapter, led by Howard Bailey, chairman of MACE’s board, undertook a detailed civic survey. MACE members determined where Whites and Blacks lived, and they acquired a map showing how city services, including water and sewage facilities, were distributed. Their comparison of the distribution with housing patterns showed discrimination against Blacks. Assisted by MACE attorneys, the local group filed suit, asking for equalization.

Since the suit was filed, more than $1.3 million in services have been provided to Lexington’s Black neighborhoods. Indeed, the attitude of local officials has changed from a resistance to cooperation in the equalization effort, in large part because MACE attorneys have helped the officials prepare applications for federal aid to help the city pay for additional services. In Belzoni, similar citizen action generated by MACE field workers is currently directed toward trying to bring about redrawing of the town boundary lines that exclude Black residents. Altogether, MACE has generated $11 million in equalization services.

One highly visible MACE program has been the construction of a 76 unit housing project, including a social center complete with recreational facilities, in the small town of Flora. Begun in 1974 and completed in 1976, the project is small by the standards of more prosperous localities. In the Delta, however, any decent new housing for the poor is more than welcome. (In all of MACE’s Delta counties, the percentage of housing that lacks plumbing far exceeds the state rate of 22

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percent. In one county it is 60 percent.)

To qualify for admission to the Flora project, a family cannot have an income above that which would make them eligible for public housing. In addition, the family must either live in substandard housing or be headed by a person 62 years of age or older or by a handicapped person. Rents range from $172 to $239 a month, but tenants are eligible for federal rent supplements. Under provisions governing such supplements, each family must pay 25 percent of its income to live in the project, but if that amount is not enough to pay the rent, the federal government will pay directly to the developer up to 70 percent of the rent owed by the family.

MACE’s most extensive work consists of economic development and the creation of jobs for Black Delta residents. This work is carried forward by the Delta Foundation, which MACE established in June 1969 as a non-profit, tax-exempt community development corporation. It has many of the same board members as MACE, and its chairman, Charles Bannerman, is also chief executive officer of MACE.

Bannerman is the dominant personality in both organizations. A native New Yorker, he came to MACE in 1968 after two years in Washington as director of technical assistance for the Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty. After working four years as associate director, he succeeded to the directorship held by Edward Brown, a community organizer who had been the driving force behind the creation of MACE. In furthering MACE’s economic development activities, Bannerman has displayed the energy and managerial adroitness of a highly successful business executive in a growing corporation.

Although the Delta Foundation is a nonprofitorganization, it has two wholly owned subsidiaries, Delta Enterprises and the Delta Development and Management Corporation, which are profit-making enterprises. Delta Enterprises is the holding company for three businesses: Fine Vines, in Greenville, which manufactures denim jeans; Electro Controls, in Canton, a manufacturer of switches used in aircraft instruments; and Mid-South Stamping Company, in Sardis, which produces metal parts for a variety of industrial purposes.

Delta’s Fine Vines denim manufacturing plant in downtown Greenville is a bustling enterprise today, but at the beginning it was plagued by production problems. Most of the workers came from farm backgrounds, with no experience at all in industry, and they had to be trained from scratch. Production in the first year or two of operations fell far short of expectations. The plant had been scheduled to produce 200 pairs of jeans daily, but by the end of the first year of operations, it was producing only 320 pairs a week and quality control was difficult to maintain. One reason, according to the plan manager, was that the inspectors, unused to management responsibilities, were reluctant to report the poor work done by their friends and neighbors.

During this period, too, organizers from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union persuaded workers in the plant to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. Delta officials had to make a hard decision. Union representation would mean higher wages and greater fringe benefits at a time when the struggling business was losing $25,000 a month. Yet because of the organization’s avowed social orientation, its self-image and its reputation among its consituency would be tarnished by opposition to the union. Delta nonetheless decided to oppose unionization, on the ground that the plant had been created to provide training and jobs for disadvantaged people, and not primarily to maximize profits. Negotiations lasted six months. Many Delta officials, like management officials in more profit-oriented companies, resented having union organizers coming into their shop and, in their view, telling them how to run their business. This resentment was fed further by the fact that the organizers were White and, according to these officials, had not previously demonstrated much interest in the general welfare of Blacks.

Opposition to the union created a split in Delta’s managerial ranks, which, of course, consist in large measure of people who are especially sympathetic to the needs of the poor. Indeed, one highranking policy maker resigned, denouncing

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Fine Vines as a “business for business” venture. In July 1972, a majority of the workers voted for union representation. Employees are still represented by the union, and today there is little evidence of open friction between management and union.

Improvements at Fine Vines are evident. Production is up to 850 dozen pairs of jeans per week. The company’s gross receipts for 1977 were $3 million. Quality control now is such that the plant is able to fulfill contracts with major retailers such as J.C. Penney.

Sam Moncure, who became director of the plant in 1976, is optimistic about the future, even though finding adequate plant supervisors still seems to be a problem At the same time, he notes the presence of several employees who, he feels, have considerable supervisory potential and, with proper training, could prove to be an important element in the plant’s future success. Moncure is a White Virginian with a wide background in apparel manufacturing management. He is dedicated to making the plant a profitable venture that can continue to provide employment for Fine Vines’ 105 workers.

Robert Tewes, general manager of Delta Enterprises, is also manager of Delta’s most recently acquired business, Electro Controls, in Canton, which manufactures reed switches for aircraft instruments. Delta decided to acquire the company because electronics is considered a growth industry and because, unlike many electronic products, the Electro Controls switches are fairly simple to produce and employees can be easily trained in the process. In-plant training lasts from eight to ten weeks, with an investment of approximately $1,200 per employee.

The company employs 60 people. It was acquired from Hathaway Instruments in the fall of 1974 and was originally capitalized at $850,000. Its main problems, according to Tewes, are developing greater sales volume, establishing cost controls, and keeping up with technology. The company has sales representatives in many cities in the United States and in Europe. It has contracts with major aircraft instrument companies and with RCA, Westinghouse, and Chevrolet.

Tewes, in his mid-forties, is an industrial engineer who was hired by Delta in 1971 through a management employment firm. His previous job had been production superintendent for the Cummins Engine Corporation in Indiana. He was attracted to the job with Delta in large measure by the organization’s social concerns. “I represent a marriage of two worlds,” he says, “social responsibility, doing something that isn’t totally for profit, combined with the textbook way of doing business.” Tewes played a major role in negotiations for acquisition of Electro Controls, Fine Vines, and Mid-South Stamping Company.

Mid-South Stamping, located at Sardis, 120 miles north of Greenville, was acquired by Delta in October 1971 for $150,000. The company manufactures small metal parts for industrial purposes. In 1974, it acquired Delta Fan Company of Jackson, Mississippi, a manufacturer of residential and commercial attic exhaust fans. Later that year it purchased Century of Memphis, Inc., a manufacturer of folding attic staircases. The acquisitions were a natural extension of MidSouth’s operations since the company was already producing metal hardware for folding staircases.

In its early days, Mid-South faltered. Many of the markets it had hoped to develop did not materialize. Its equipment was out of date and in poor operating condition. But Delta nursed it along because it felt that the initial problems could be overcome and because Mid-South was Delta’s first industrial enterprise outside the Greenville area.

The first step in reversing the decline was the hiring of a new manager, John Patterson, a middle-aged executive with an extensive background in metal parts manufacturing. Immediately before joining Mid-South he had been vice president of a metal stamping company that had annual sales of $12 million. Under Patterson, Mid-South losses began to go down, and the company was able to purchase new equipment. Through sound management and a great deal of hard work and patience, the company survived. Today it employs some 30 workers.

The Delta Foundation’s agricultural enterprise, the Leflore County Area Cooperative, has grown dramatically since it was chartered in 1971 and began operations on 160 acres. MACE provided capital of $20,000 and helped obtain loans for the venture from the Southern Cooperative Development Fund and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Today the

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co-op has 3,000 acres of rice and soybeans under cultivation. MACE describes the co-op as the largest black agricultural production venture in the country.

The co-op’s growth, however, has come about with less than $40,000 in equity capital, and it has had to borrow money to continue operations. Such borrowing is common practice in agricultural finance, but Leflore’s debt-to-equity ratio at the end of 1976 stood at 24-to-1. This high ratio means there is limited capital for expansion. To attract more capital, therefore, the co-op is planning to change to a corporation. “There is a rapidly growing awareness among sophisticated investors such as insurance companies and pension funds of the long-run return on investments in Southern agricultural land, particularly rich Delta land,” says Scott Daugherty, assistant director of the Delta Foundation.

Delta has provided loans to many businesses that could not otherwise have found credit. For the most part these have been small businesses, such as gasoline stations and grocery stores. One major beneficiary, however, is a Black-owned FM radio station, WBAD, in Greenville, which received $30,000 from Delta. WBAD has the highest listener rating of the area’s six stations. Its programming features rock, blues, and classical music.

WBAD is owned and directed by William Jackson, a native of Greenville who has worked in the broadcast industry for more than two decades. In 1972 Jackson was an announcer for the station, which was then White-owned but was nevertheless the only station that featured programming geared to a Black audience. Jackson had developed a following among Black listeners in the area, and when the station’s owners decided to sell, he and a partner came to the Delta Foundation for investment backing. Delta agreed because the station would be Black-owned, because it had shown its money-making potential (in 1972 it had a net income of $42,000), and because it could serve as a forum for publicizing Black community activities.

By big-city standards the station is not physically imposing. It is housed in a small cementblock structure far off the highway in what was once a cotton field. But to the Black residents of the Greenville area, it is a voice with which they deeply identify. The station currently has on file an application for AM broadcasting, which will enable it to reach more listeners and attract more advertising revenue.

As the Delta Foundation expanded it increasingly sensed a need for better-trained managers. It therefore established a management-training center in 1977. The center prepares selected current employees and other candidates for management positions within the foundation’s companies and elsewhere. The center was planned with the help of academic experts and active businessmen who designed a work-study program to develop middle-management skills for employees with limited experience. The program serves two ends. It increases the efficiency of Delta’s management and it provides advancement opportunities for individual employees. A certain hope for the future is evident in the spirit of these farming workers and community organizers.

But organizations such as MACE and Delta Foundation realize that they cannot alone do the job of reversing historic migration patterns by making small farms and business enterprises more viable. Specific policy changes are needed. The Commission on the Future of the South, which was made up for the most part of leading Southern businessmen put it this way: “The South can continue to depopulate the countryside or, through civic enterprise, private decisions, and public encouragement, we can locate jobs where people are instead of moving people to the city. Making it possible for young people to stay home, we could distribute prosperity and reinforce the vitality of dying places.”

Such words could have just as well been spoken by Charles Bannerman or Robert Tewes whose organizations and businesses have demonstrated that cooperative movements among poor people can function well in a climate in which basic civil rights are protected – and in a manner no more revolutionary than, say, a meeting of the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank.