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Memory and Judgement: Race and Class in the Mississippi Delta

Jane Adams and D. Gorton

Our project aims to understand how “white” people in the lower Mississippi Delta negotiated and understood the transformation of their society that occurred during the social revolutions following World War II: the civil rights movement which abolished legal segregation; the mechanization of agriculture and the consolidation of commerce; and the vastly enlarged sphere of government. These transformations fundamentally reworked agricultural and small town economies and societies. With the legal foundation of white supremacy eliminated, African Americans moved, for the first time since Reconstruction, into positions of political power in many regions, while the white farming and business classes lost much of their economic hegemony to government agencies and outside capital. The countryside has been largely depopulated, the smaller towns emptied out, the landscape stripped of most relics of the past.

In this reconstituted public arena, “whiteness” lost much of its practical usefulness and its power to conjure powerful solidarities. With the unifying force of white racial identity attenuated, those who are not African Americans have begun to appear distinguished by ethnicity, religion, and class. Whether explicitly deployed in the public arena or not, people’s complex personal histories – their ethnic heritage, class background, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation -- have provided significantly different tools for negotiating the rapidly shifting social terrain.1

The contemporary dynamics of the South cannot be understood through a bi-racial lens: its social diversity must be comprehended. Contemporary identities, far more protean and malleable than those instituted through the rigid classification of “white” and “black,” appear more through practices of daily life and through tellings of family histories than through explicit ideological claims or publicly available films and other visual representations. We will, therefore, use the tools of ethnographic research and of documentary photography/ visual anthropology to explore people’s verbal and visual narratives of the past and the ways they have lived their lives – their vocations, their marriages, their religious affiliation, their political activities, their associates.2 We focus particularly on the Arkansas-Mississippi portion of the lower Mississippi Delta, a region that remains majority African American and largely rural.


The people alive today lived through, or grew up in the shadow of, the fundamental transformation of the region: the elimination of legal racial segregation and the displacement of the agricultural and small business economies by mass manufacturing and distribution systems and government services.3 Whites have been displaced from legal and, in many locales, political ascendancy. They remain important in the region’s economy and social orderings. Young adults, those born in the 1970s, are the first generation to grow up inside of the new order; their parents, born around World War II, were the last to come of age under the old.

The parents of today’s young adults grew up in an order in which they were members of a clearly defined ruling or subordinate caste. Except for Chinese who, despite their legal classification as non-white, gained access to many white institutions during and soon after World War II, everyone who was not African American was legally classified as white. This identity, though sometimes troubled by ethnic and religious distinctions, prescribed an elaborated set of behaviors and privileges, drew on stereotypic representations of blacks and whites, and defined codes of masculinity and femininity, particularly in regard to relations across the color line.4 Our research focuses on the people who were classified on the white side of the color line.

With the mantle of legal identity lifted, it is now possible to view this “white community” as diverse, embodying varied modes of negotiating their roles in the new order. This knowledge is carried largely inchoate in people’s daily lives; it has been subsumed in public discourse under the received experience of legal white supremacy, rendering the experiences of large numbers of whites invisible (see, for example, Cynthia Duncan’s characterization of “Dahlia County”, Mississippi in her 1999 book, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America (Yale University Press) and press characterizations of the 2001 white campaign to maintain the Confederate battle flag design as part of the Mississippi flag).

It is, therefore, important to trouble the received narrative of a society divided only by race. A significant proportion of whites in the lower Mississippi Delta formed their social identities, not as old stock propertied white Protestants, but through other ethnic, racial, religious, and class positions. We seek the knowledge of those who stood in sometimes complicated relationships to the color line—Italians, Syrian/Lebanese, Jews, Chinese—as well as the old stock whites. Catholicism marked off many whites and some blacks from the Protestant majorities. White Protestants were not homogenous, divided most significantly by the overlapping categories of religion, class, and ancestry. Gender also played an important role, both in the system of white supremacy and in the new orders that are emerging.5 These locations placed many whites in relationships to African Americans that differed significantly from those so often described by scholars.6 Their stories need to be understood and made public.

The Lower Mississippi Delta

In the South, between the 1890s and the 1960s law cemented white supremacy, legitimating a system of privilege that shaped everyone’s identities, regardless of their individual backgrounds and commitments. Drawing on this history and its overwhelming black majorities, the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta came to stand in the American imagination as what James Cobb once termed “the most southern place on earth." Yet, as Cobb and others document, the Delta region of Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi Delta in general – a region reaching from southernmost Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico – was thinly settled when the Civil War ravaged the region’s economy and freed the slaves. Its plantations arose as industrial enterprises which, like their northern counterparts, competed for and recruited wage labor – land-hungry old stock blacks and whites and immigrants from Europe . Commerce developed as enterprising immigrants – Jews, Chinese, Syrians, Italians--, as well as Yankees and some old stock southern whites drew on relations with landsmen and kin as much as America’s developing financial and commercial systems, bringing capital, goods, and services to the region.7

Following World War II powerful movements resisting and calling for extension of civil rights to African Americans developed in the South in general, and in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in particular. Some attention has been paid to the “inside agitators” , and Marsh reveals the widely divergent ways some of the whites drew on their faith to act against and for the movement to eliminate white supremacy.8 After the crisis of the Little Rock, Arkansas, school integration, the process of desegregation was somewhat more peaceful in Arkansas. In most parts of the Delta region, the whites were dwarfed in numbers by blacks, yet although they operated within the political economy and racial coding as "white," they were diverse and in many ways deeply divided. Those divisions remain, shaping a region that remains unique in American culture in ways that have been infrequently observed and even less adequately analyzed. The ways that whites negotiated this transformation remains opaque, both in popular representations and in scholarship.

This web site will publish our research. We expect it to grow and change continuously. We have one area, or "essay", based on a classroom video we made from our first field season, "Race: Mississippi, Summer 2000". "Out of Africa," a video about African missionaries to white congregations in the Delta is posted here, with an accompanying site. A third video, "Allen's Choice," will be posted. Another link is to our research on the Farm Security Administration.

While doing our research we came across the photographs of J.C. Coovert. We have dedicated a site to his important work.

Other "essays" presents D. Gorton's photographs of "The White South: 1969-1970" and photographs of "Places of Worship in the Delta." Published articles from our research are also posted here.

© D. Gorton and Jane Adams 2007



The Delta of the lower Mississippi River is one of the few regions in the United States where a black majority has lived continuously since the area was settled. Out of slavery, crossed by race and ethnicity, the "white" minority set up one of the most repressive regimes in America, rivaling apartheid in South Africa in its strict adherence to the racial "line". Religion, class, and gender further divided, and sub-divided, the people who lived in the region. In the 1960's and 1970's the legal forms of segregation were finally destroyed.

In the summer of 2000, my husband, photographer D. Gorton, and I returned to Mississippi to ask people about their memories and judgments of the civil rights era. Both of us knew Mississippi, and the Delta, well--D. as a white native of Greenville, Mississippi, and a civil rights worker, and myself as a volunteer in the civil rights movement in 1964 and 1965. I came to the project after many years research on the transformation of American farming and teaching anthropology. D.'s career as a photojournalist brought his keen eyes and deep knowledge of photography to the project.

We interviewed the people in this video that summer: Hoover and Freeda Lee, Chinese-American grocers in Louise, with Hoover the seemingly unlikely mayor of Louise; Horace Harned a farmer and leader in Mississippi's white resistance to desegregation; Alyene Quin, a leader in the McComb civil rights movement whose home was dynamited by the Ku Klux Klan while her children slept; and Betty Furniss, a former sharecropper in Coahoma County and organizer of a white private school.

We spoke about many things with them, but we knew that we had to find out more about a key issue: race -- what it means, how each individual learned to distinguish themselves from others, how it shaped their relations with other people. The idea of "race" is not a simple one. It blends with ideas about ethnicity and culture. It is laden with social implications: superiority and inferiority, intimacy and distance, inclusions and exclusions. It is cross-cut by class; it means something different in the North and in the slave-holding South. Men and women confront the color line in different ways. People who were neither entirely "white" nor "black," like Chinese, Italians, Lebanese, and Jews, experienced the color line differently from their Protestant white and black neighbors.

In the United States, race has long been one of the major ways people have created social and political solidarities. It has been a source of many of our deepest conflicts, as well as a foundation for powerful identities.

I teach a course at Southern Illinois University called "America's Diverse Cultures." What these five people told us about race, we thought, would help classroom discussion of this fraught and complex issue.

D. set to work making a film. We had done the interviews with two digital video cameras, in studios we built in motel meeting rooms around Mississippi. We had acquired Apple Computers and a film editing program, Final Cut Pro. Additionally, we used portable scanners and laptop computers to acquire images, papers, and other ephemera while on site. Scanning technology is a particular blessing for it relieved me of the burden of possibly losing priceless heirlooms as I had copied them in the past, far away from the site.

We envisioned this pilot project as an experiment: How do we combine my anthropological training and D.'s photographic skills in collaborative research using new digital media? And how do we create rich content, using materials fresh from the field, to help students understand the issues scholars investigate?

This "essay" presents the materials we created for my class: the 23 minute video; the didactic essay concerning the questions raised by the excerpts; a brief bibliography; and a note on methods. We have added some photographs and other information from our continuing field work in 2001 and 2002.

We will, in the future, explore other aspects of our research in this site.

-Jane Adams, Carbondale, Illinois, July 2002

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