Journey of Change.
Reviewed by Alex Poinsett
Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, pp. 14-15
Delta Time: A Journey Through Mississippi, by Tony Dunbar. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. 245 pages.).
An elderly Mississippi Delta plantation owner is found hanging in his bedroom. Had he committed suicide or had he been murdered? The dead man’s grandson is certain a murderer hides among his black sharecroppers. Unable to find him, he arbitrarily picks a family of three and ties them to stakes. Then, while he and other white men force the remaining blacks on his plantation to watch, he burns the helpless family alive.
That tragedy occurred more than 50 years ago. By 1968, when author Tony Dunbar secretly interviewed black tenant farmers and sharecroppers, Mississippi Delta blacks were no longer burned at stakes. Instead, they were only beaten with ax handles and clubs, teargassed, shotgunned, and blasted with dynamite. Or they were anchored in rivers and planted in shallow graves, often for trying to exercise their civil rights.
Prudently, Dunbar, at that time a 19-year-old Atlantan, hid during the day and ventured forth only at night to avoid reprisals from irate plantation owners. His first book, Our Land Too, related the troubled lives of Delta tenant farmers. His newest book chronicles the author’s findings 20 years later, as he with keen-eyed sensitivity retraces his earlier journey–less wary, less concerned about harm coming to himself or his interviewees. For Dunbar found that the Delta had changed markedly during the past two decades.
Racial atrocities no longer scar its collective consciousness. Catfish has replaced cotton as the region’s major cash
crop. Black voters, once brutally suppressed, have elected more black candidates in Mississippi than in any other state be cause of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and federal lawsuits outlawing racial gerrymandering. The University of Mississippi, once a battleground for violent segregationist resistance to black student enrollment, now presents Distinguished Black Mississippian Awards.
In 1988, the honorees were the Delta’s Robert Clark, the state’s first black state legislator of modern times; the Most Reverend Joseph Howze of Mobile, the first black bishop to head a Catholic diocese in the United States; the Delta’s country music great Charlie Pride; and state Attorney General Robert Gibbs.
A posthumous award went to Fannie Lou Hamer, the former Delta sharecropper and gallant freedom fighter who once had lamented that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Far from suggesting that the Mississippi Delta is now a racial Utopia, Dunbar notes that poverty still abounds. Farm economics has shifted blacks from the plantations to low-paying jobs at fast food franchises or onto public welfare. Massive health problems plague the Delta’s 60percent-black residents. The public schools are almost totally black because white students still flock to private segregation academies.
Black elected officials have taken over many town halls and school systems, but have little to govern in the Delta’s dying small towns. While the 122-memberstate legislature includes 20 blacks, they are less than half the representatives that would be proportionate to the state’s 35 percent black population.
In 1987, Gov. Ray Mabus, a political moderate, was supported by 90 percent of black voters, Dunbar reports. The governor promptly disappointed them by backing a white Tupelo woman, Billie Thompson, to replace Ed Cole, the black chairman of the state Democratic Party. In spite of Mabus, Cole was elected by a Party vote of 56 to 41.
The governor thinks the civil rights struggle is essentially won, Dunbar writes angrily, and that the way is now cleared to address “real problems.” However, if such thinking is the best that Mississippi has to offer, then it–like the rest of America–has yet to trod a long journey before finally reconciling its races and achieving what Dun bar aptly calls “the final armistice of the Civil War”– 125 years after the last shots were fired.
Alex Poinsett, widely published free-lance writer, with long acquaintance of Mississippi, is a Contributing Editor of Ebony Magazine.