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Jan 19, 2005 6:07 am

"Mississippi, God Damn ..."

There's long been a contrast in the national perceptions of deep South states like Alabama and Mississippi. The contrasts have often not been to the credit of either of them. With its major urban centers and stronger black middle class, Alabama won the spotlight, headlines, and national media attention during the years of the civil rights movement. Only the grossest of abuses, whether in the murder of civil rights workers or the notoriety of its state prison at Parchman, drew national attention to Mississippi. We've long known that the lack of major urban centers, the high concentrations of African American population, and the relative weakness of the black middle class gave the movement in Mississippi different contours than it had elsewhere in the South or, rather, contours more like those of the rural than the urban South.

Perhaps for that very reason, Mississippi has recently had the attention of much of the best work on the civil rights movement. John Dittmer's Local People and Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom re-directed our attention to Mississippi, opening a floodgate of new biographies and local studies. In Sunday's Chicago-Tribune, David Garrow reviewed two of the best of these new books, Todd Moye's Let the People Decide, on the movement in Sunflower County, and Mark Newman's Divine Agitators, on the National Council of Church's Delta Ministry. Moye's subject is especially effective in highlighting the fragility of the early movement in a rural county and the extraordinary strength ordinary people can have, once they are energized. I'm cautious about commenting on the Delta Ministry because its founder, Art Thomas, was my god-father in the movement. It would be painful to say anything critical of Art or his work, but Newman sees the limited possibilities for even a major national alliance of denominations to intervene locally, when its black affiliates in the area are suspicious and its local white affiliates are openly hostile.

We've known, too, for a long time that Mississippi needed economic development. My own moralism doesn't know what to make of the fact that legalized gambling has increased standards of living in the Delta where voluntary programs, philanthropy, and government initiatives previously failed. But with legalized gambling, as Moye points out, has come drug trafficking and crack cocaine to re-enslave the great-grandchildren of freedmen in chains that emancipation proclamations and, even, constitutional amendments cannot break.

It's all the more disheartening and outraging, then, to read Robert Campbell's excellent accounts of the on-going saga at the University of Southern Mississippi over at Liberty & Power. Here are our middle-class, academic peers, harassing and driving out responsible faculty members, in ham-fisted and autocratic ways, and exploiting the hope to address Mississippi's greatest need with fraudulent programs in"economic development" for their own little imperial purposes. In the process, they jeopardize the accreditation of the kind of institution to which we have plighted our troth. As Nina Simone used to sing:"Mississippi, God Damn!"

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Ralph E. Luker - 4/10/2005

Thanks for the inquiry. I'm not sure that Art qualifies for your interest. He was a native of upstate New York and was doing his graduate work at Duke in economics when I knew him. He was already an ordained clergyman, though I don't know where he went to seminary. Before he could finish his doctorate, Art left Durham, NC, to become the director of the National Council of Church's Delta Ministry in Mississippi. You'll find many references to him in the standard secondary accounts of it and of the movement in Mississippi. His papers are at the King Center here in Atlanta, but there is no adequate biographical treatment of him.

Richard Croker - 4/10/2005

Do you have a brief bio of Rev. Thomas that deals in some depth with his activities in the Civil Rights movement? I am researching the small but courageous corps of Southern whites who stood up for civil liberties in the 60's.

Richard Croker

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