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Saying grace Congregants of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., attend a town hall on Sept. 29 Daymon Gardner for TIME

The Delta Blues

Oct 02, 2014

Politics in Mississippi is still passionate, as you might expect. And it is still tragic, which shouldn't be a surprise, either. The passion seems to be running with right-wing Tea Party sorts, who are in full rebellion against the statewide Republican Party. The tragedy is in the black community, which is permeated by a deep sense of failure; the most basic political facts of life--like the value of integration--are being questioned. During the last week of September, I attended symmetrical town meetings in Mississippi: of former Senate challenger Chris McDaniel's extreme conservatives near Jackson and of black elected officials and educators from the counties surrounding the Delta town of Greenville.

"Men don't follow titles," said republican McDaniel. "They follow courage." He was quoting from the movie Braveheart, he said, citing William Wallace--an ancestor of the largely Scots-Irish crowd of 50 or so--as played in blueface by Mel Gibson. Wallace was McDaniel's model. He fought against the English elites, just as McDaniel was fighting against the old, pork-loving Bourbon Republican establishment, people like former governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, who would compromise their principles in order to get public-works projects for the state. They had stolen the primary election from him. They had allowed an alleged 40,000 Democrats (a synonym in Mississippi for African Americans) to vote in what was supposed to be a Republican primary. Cochran had won. McDaniel was challenging the result. A lawyer explained the relevant codicils to the group before McDaniel got up to speak. It was reminiscent--to me, at least--of the civil rights attorneys 50 years ago, who educated Southern blacks about their rights under the law. There was a righteous "We shall overcome" attitude in the room.

The effort is probably quixotic. Most people in the room believed that the Bourbons "controlled" the legal system. In fact, many people in the room seemed to believe they were beset by conspiracies at the federal level as well. Their solution was a strict, if slightly muddy, libertarianism--McDaniel describes himself as libertarian--on all but social issues. Laura Van Olderschelde, the president of the Mississippi Tea Party, said she didn't feel safe to "talk about my Christian faith away from Mississippi. That's how this country was founded, and I cannot subscribe to people who want to deny that." This unleashed a torrent of commentary from the audience. A woman named Tricia McNulty linked liberals to "Lucifer, who has wanted the fall of man." A firefighter named Andy Devine said that liberals were in the midst of a long-term plot to take over the schools and impose socialism. They were sneaking this through because the media diverted the public with "the rutting habits of the Kardashian sisters."

There wasn't any debate about any of this; there was absolute conviction. The positions were stated in matter-of-fact fashion, but there was a media-wise quality to it as well. There was no mention of African Americans. The McDaniel supporters had been accused of racism and wanted to leave no trace of that. An accountant named Vince Thornton did mention that "so many people were getting something for free," but that was about as far as it went. "We are not going away," said Robert Kenney, who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer about silence being a political decision. "We fight this," he added, meaning the struggle against the state Republicans, "until we win."

My first day on the job, a white plantation owner killed his wife," said Andrew Thompson Jr., the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. "I waited until 7 p.m. to arrest him because I wanted him to spend at least one night in jail. But at 10 p.m., they"--the local white business community--"opened the bank so he could post bail." That was the way it was now: no more lynching, no more violence. The white folks had gotten clever. "It's been a roller coaster," Sheriff Thompson continued. "We made some progress in the '70s and '80s, a lot of folks got elected, but we've lost ground the last 15 or so years, and especially since the Tea Party came along."

The mood in the basement of New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville was a roller coaster too. It started with anger and slowly lapsed toward despair. There was none of the lockstep certainty of McDaniel's supporters. Something had gone very wrong in the Mississippi Delta black community, and there were an array of different explanations for it. Racism was one: Why were the white folks making all the money from the development of the 80%-black blues town of Clarksdale? Even the local Delta Blues festival--said to be the oldest in the country--was being supplanted by a white-led effort, the Mighty Mississippi Music festival, that was being supported by the business community. "If the whites aren't running it, they don't want to be part of it," said Errick Simmons, a Greenville city councilman, who pointed out that the local casinos, which didn't help out with the Delta festival, had contributed to the Mighty Mississippi, which--by the way--also featured country music.

The stories of subtle, and not so subtle, racism were compelling but insufficient. There was a piece missing, and these thoughtful people were growing uncomfortable with the increasingly obvious vacuum. The discussion really began to get lively when the Rev. Torey Bell, who said that "the system" was set up to keep blacks dependent, went a bit too far. Even the federal money that had come to upgrade the schools was a trick. "They're putting in laptops and computers for our kids," he said, "and they got none of that at home. They can't comprehend that environment. It's near impossible for them to succeed." This was disputed by most of the older people in the room. They'd been working to secure that funding for decades. "At a certain point," said Timaka James Jones, a clerk at the local court, "we've got to take some responsibility in our community too."

I asked what had happened to the community, so famously strong during the civil rights movement. There was reluctance to answer, at first. But then it came in a rush: the rug had been pulled out from under them. They had rushed into integration and left some of their most cherished institutions in the dust. "We used to have black banks, insurance companies, bakeries, newspapers," said Willie Bailey, a lawyer and state legislator for District 49. Now, Nelson Street--where most local black businesses were housed--was mostly deserted, except for churches, drug dealers and the famed restaurant Doe's Eat Place. "The black church was the last institution standing, and then the [George W.] Bush Administration came along with that faith-based stuff, offering money to the churches for social programs, but they couldn't talk politics anymore." (I don't know about that: more than a few black, urban pastors took the money and kept their megaphones.)

The segregated schools had been better, said Jessie Williams, who said she was the first black teacher in the newly integrated schools in the 1960s. The whites left and went to private "academies," and the integrated public schools became sad all-black husks. The thing was, integration had enabled a lot of the best kids--those who would have been teachers and business owners--to go north. There was some resentment that they had never looked back. "Integration has been a problem," Williams concluded, setting off a buzz in the room. "It's the worst thing that ever happened to us," muttered Sheriff Thompson. But he didn't really mean that.

I'd like to thank Congressman Bennie Thompson for putting together the extraordinary group at New Hope First Baptist Church. The contrast between their candor and self-doubt and Chris McDaniel's bold, bluefaced conservatives could not have been more striking, or more depressing. It is the difference between simplicity and complexity. The Tea Party folks believe that all they have to do is win their revolution and everything will be better. The blacks won their revolution, and lost their focus, and inherited a chimera of equality. Now they've got to do the hardest thing: regroup, develop new strategies and come on strong again.

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