An Insider’s Account of Race and Politics in the Delta.
Reviewed by Michael Cooper
Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 17-19
Even Mississippi by Melany Neilson (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989. xiv, pp. 199).
Part memoir and part campaign history, Even Mississippi is worthwhile reading for its insider’s account of race and politics in the Mississippi Delta of the early 1980s.
Melany Neilson grew up in the turbulent wake of the civil rights movement, but her earliest childhood memories are surprisingly similar to those of previous generations of white, well-to-do Southerners. She recalls the droves of black field hands working the family cotton plantation and lovingly remembers the family’s warm-bosomed black maids. Her father, Ed Tye, was a planter turned lawyer. The men of the family had been lawyers and planters in the same county for several generations.
The Neilsons were one of the prominent families of Lexington, the county seat of Holmes County, which is on
the eastern edge of the flat alluvial plain known as the Delta. Welfare, cotton, and pulpwood are the country’s economic mainstays. Three-fourths of its 23,000 residents are black.
The civil rights movement redrew the lines of segregation in Holmes Country. Neilson remembers her third grade teacher, with trembling voice, telling the class that the following year, 1968, colored children would be coming to the school. That was the year that Neilson, along with nearly every other white child in town, enrolled in newly-formed Central Holmes Academy. The year 1968 was also significant because Mississippi seated its first black legislator since Reconstruction. He was Robert Clark from Holmes County. His election and public school desegregation added to the tension that was as palpable as the Delta’s August heat. “Every man in town, white and nigra,” Neilson recalls her father saying, “is hating someone for something.”
While growing up, Neilson recognized the schism between blacks and whites, but she accepted the status quo and anticipated living her life as a traditional belle. But her life changed dramatically while she was a graduate student in journalism at Ole Miss when, pretty much on impulse, she applied for a job in Robert Clark’s 1982 campaign for Congress. In Ed Tye’s opinion Clark was a “good nigra,” but that didn’t keep Neilson’s mother from asking, “Will you have to ride in the same car with him?”
Despite her mother’s and her own apprehensions, Neilson joined Clark’s campaign just days before the Democratic primary, a contest against two white candidates which Clark won with an encouraging 57 percent of the vote. In the general election Clark faced Republican Webb Franklin, and race was the dominant unspoken issue. Responding off the record to a reporter’s criticism that he was too timid with whites, Clark replied, “A black man reaching for a white woman’s hand’ll scare a lot of ’em. So will talking about race.”
While Clark couldn’t make race an issue, his opponent could and did, in ways subtle and not so subtle. Franklin began a stump speech before a mixed audience with the comment, “I didn’t just fall off a watermelon truck.” One of his campaign posters featured his photograph next to one of Clark with the caption, “The choice is yours for Congress.” Part of the inspiration for this poster came from a poll which found that a quarter of the voters didn’t know Clark was black.
But, hearteningly, the book shows that modern-day Mississippi politics isn’t divided completely by race. At a fundraiser in a posh home in Biloxi, Clark pressed the flesh with a crowd of successful men and women, white and black, who contributed some $5,000 to his campaign. In the Delta, at an all-black fund raiser where the fare was fried catfish and hush puppies, the hat was passed and filled with sweat-darkened dollar bills. The contributions were enthusiastic but meager until two white farmers drove upend handed over two checks for $500 each.
These and other insider accounts of race relations and politics in the Delta make Even Mississippi interesting reading. But readers interested in Deep South politics may be disappointed that there is so little about Robert Clark’s fourteen-plus years in the state legislature. Neilson’s summary of his legislative career reads like a press release. Clark is a pioneer black politician who has been a state legislator now for more than twenty years. A book that is in part about his political aspirations should have said more about his record.
Another bothersome aspect of the book is that Neilson’s prose doesn’t always make the reader feel the gravity of her experiences. Much of Even Mississippi is about the emotional trials of a young white woman from an old Delta family who violates deeply-rooted race, caste, class and gender taboos by going to work for a black politician. Not long ago, such behavior would have meant, at best, life-long ostracism. The Delta is an insular world that few outsiders understand.
Even Mississippi is strong, though, on recognizing human decency and courage. Neilson’s work for Clark took a heavy toll on her family. In the dead of night they received threatening telephone calls. Ed Tye’s law practice lost clients. Mrs. Neilson, tired of the condescension, quit the Garden Club. Her parents had misgivings, but they didn’t try to rein in their daughter. Ed Tye even endorsed
Clark in a television commercial.
Despite solid victories in the primaries, Clark lost two bids for Congress, in 1982 and 1984. Webb Franklin won both elections because of a low turnout of black voters and his appeals to racism and conservatism. But in Clark’s defeat there were hopeful signs for the future.
In 1982, Neilson was the only white staffer working for Clark. His campaign also attracted a few white volunteers from northern colleges. In 1984, she was one of two white staffers, and they were aided by many volunteers, including several local whites. Having Mississippians work for a black candidate was a significant change and contributed to the overall pioneering effect of Clark’s two campaigns. His trail blazing probably helped Mike Espy defeat Franklin in 1986 to become Mississippi’s first black congressman in the twentieth century.
In its description of race relations and politics in the Delta, Even Mississippi provides a good sense of how slowly racial attitudes are changing. That point is painfully clear in the book’s evocative epilogue, which describes Neilson’s wedding, at which Clark was a reluctant guest.
On her wedding day, Neilson recalls, everything in the church, its trappings and the guests, was glaringly white–except for Clark standing uncomfortably in the back row, neither speaking nor being spoken to. At the reception in the Neilson’s white-columned home, he entered the back door. The only other black people there were the maids. Clark chatted briefly with the police chief, met Mrs. Neilson for the first time, and then slipped quietly out the back.
MICHAEL COOPER is researching the life of Hazel Brannon Smith, former editor and publisher of the Holmes County Lexington Advertiser.