Touring the Delta

Posted on August 29, 2011 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Down Home in Mississippi

Looking for opportunities to re-connect with our roots down home in Mississippi, we took a few days last week to tour the Delta, that flat, rich agricultural plain along the Mississippi River. Neither of us had spent much time in the region, though we have spoken at churches in that part of the state over the years. I recalled our high school band traveling to Greenwood each year to march in the Christmas parade there. Towns on our tour brought to mind college classmates who came from each one, though we could not necessarily recall their names!

The occasion was an invitation to preach at the 85th anniversary of Montpelier Baptist Church in Clay County where I served as pastor while still a college student. Each weekend for more than a year I drove the 2 1/2 hours up the Natchez Trace to this rural community. It was a challenging but valuable experience to prepare sermons each week, plan and conduct vacation Bible school, hold an annual revival and deal with squabbles among the handful of church members. It was encouraging to see that the church was thriving in a new building. Most of the leaders were newcomers or members who had been children in the congregation I pastored. I am pictured with Jim Murray who I baptized as a boy 46 years ago; it was his grandparents who had given the land and started the Baptist church in this community.

Driving west out of the central hills we encountered the Delta just east of Greenwood where the land flattened the road became straight. It was here that most of the filming was done for “The Help” now in public theaters. We would strongly recommend this entertaining movie portraying the relationship between elite Mississippi socialites and their black household helpers in the civil rights era of the 1960’s. We enjoyed seeing the houses and locations that were prominent in the movie.

There is not much to see in the Delta as flat expansive fields stretch to distant tree lines on each side of the highway. The cotton fields were coming into bloom, soybeans were turning yellow and corn was being harvested. Most local farmers have been displaced by massive agri-businesses and mechanization has decimated the jobs that supported the laboring population.

We were surprised to see lush rice fields replacing traditional crops in several areas and much of the land turned into catfish farms. Greenwood claims to be the cotton capital of the world, and this sign attests to Belzoni as the self-proclaimed catfish capital of the world! We split the Delta going west to Indianola, Leland and Greenville on the river. Highways 49E and 49W encircle the Delta, dividing in Yazoo City in the south and re-converging in Clarksdale in the north. However, Highway 61 is the Delta Road as it parallels the Mississippi River the length of the state.

It was sad to drive through Rolling Fork, Hollandale, Inverness, Ruleville, Drew and Marks, all familiar landmarks, and see what had been prosperous downtown businesses now boarded up. Many places looked like this picture of the post office in Montpelier; it had been the center of community activity when I was there as a student pastor. The poverty was heart-breaking, similar to Appalachia and other economically depressed areas. Lack of jobs has produced one of the highest proportions of welfare recipients in the country.

The evident focus of regional pride in the Delta, however, continues be its claim as the birthplace of the blues. In each city the strip of former juke joints had become major tourist attractions and the best place to find BBQ and soul food, such as the Ground Zero Blues Club. Events throughout the Delta were celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of Robert “Son” Johnson; museums commemorated the renown of B. B. King, Muddy Waters and others. With cotton, catfish and the blues the heritage of the Delta is apparently secure.

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