In Search of the New South

Into the Past

On March 2, 1988, six days before the "Super Tuesday" presidential primary, I went to a Jesse Jackson rally at St. Matthew's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greenville, Mississippi. I started out in Jackson. From there I drove west on Interstate 20 almost to the Vicksburg city limits, then I headed north on Highway 61. At the Highway 61 exit ramp, you quickly leave behind the New South of suburban sprawl and shopping malls and head into a land where, as native son William Faulkner once noted, "the past is not history, it's not even past."

Highway 61 follows the east bank of the Big River through the Mississippi Delta, or, as it is more properly called, the Yazoo Delta in Mississippi. The Delta is a flat and fertile triangle of northwest Mississippi bounded by the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. It has some of the richest agricultural land on earth and historically has been the home of great cotton plantations.

The Yazoo Delta is also something of an African-American cultural heartland. Until the great migration north during and after World War II, blacks comprised a large majority of the Delta's residents. African slaves cleared this land, drained its swamps, and worked the cotton fields that created fortunes for white plantation owners and Northern and English textile barons.

In this Delta were born Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and dozens of other great artists who gave the blues to the world. It was also in this Delta that some of the most dramatic scenes of the Freedom Movement were played out. It was here in 1955 that Emmett Till, like so many before him, was murdered by white men. Due to the courage of Till's family, and a national black leadership emboldened by the 1954 Supreme Court integration decision, a trial was held that focused the attention of the world on the violent racism in this Delta.

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