Delta Region — When National Public Radio (NPR) Correspondent Debbie Elliott decided to do a story about the Mississippi Delta, she says she pitched a program “about an economy that had fallen apart.” Interviews with local people caused her to rethink the angle of her story.
“The story just got bigger,” Elliott recalls. “What I found most interesting in my interviews was how people had such deep hope. People from outside the Delta might think it’s hopeless, but the people here love this place. And they’re not waiting for someone from the outside to come in and rescue them, they’re using their own skills and resources to build their local economies.”
Debbie Elliott grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and she has always had a passion for the Mississippi Delta. When a new managing editor with an interest in rural stories came to NPR in 2004, Elliott began researching a story about the Delta’s declining economy. Elliott received a tip during her research that led her to contact Calvin Head, director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization (CDO) in Tchula, Mississippi.
“We’ve got to create our own opportunities,” Head told Elliott. “Our work is about empowering people to create opportunities for themselves where none existed.” Calvin Head may work in the poorest county in Mississippi, but it is the community’s assets–not deficits–on which he has built his organization. With support from the Mid South Delta Initiative, West Holmes CDO has opened a daycare facility, a community store, an agricultural program, and a rehabilitation center.
These success stories tend to be ignored by national media. A recent report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation stated that over three of every four network television news stories about rural America focus on crime. News reports in print and on television rarely link rural life to agriculture, and Currier and Ives-like portrayals of rural charm are balanced by depictions of an economically challenged or socially marginalized environment.
“I wanted to cover this story because the story of the Delta has been under-covered by the media,” said Elliott.
Actor Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale lawyer Bill Luckett were recently interviewed along with MSDI grantees from Mississippi for NPR’s All Things Considered (Photo by Debbie Elliott – National Public Radio)
“In the Delta, the history here was really, really rich — a little ugly, but very rich — and I don’t think it’s harmful for us to not only know it, [but to] trumpet it,” said actor Morgan Freeman, during his interview with Elliott. Freeman is a native of Greenwood, Mississippi. “The Delta has always been sort of mysterious. It’s different from just about any other place on the planet, and I revel in it.”
The Delta has indeed had a complex history, and its people have experienced both pain and prosperity. The region was once home to a thriving agricultural economy and was also a battle ground for many civil rights struggles. All Things Considered uncovered how business owners and community groups are combating the negative stereotypes that have been branded on the Delta.
Viking Corporation was profiled in the program as an example of the kinds of successful enterprises that thrive in the Delta. Viking Corporation, of Greenwood, Mississippi is a homegrown maker of luxury kitchen appliances and employs 1,100 people. “People think our corporate office is probably in a double-wide trailer, and our factory’s over in a tin shed,” said Viking founder Fred Carl, Jr. as he showed Elliott Viking’s headquarters building, a beautiful structure with large skylights that faces the Yazoo River. “I’ve always been drawn back to the Delta. I’m comfortable here, and I don’t think that Viking could have happened anywhere else but here. I’m sincere about that. I don’t think I could have done it anywhere else.” Recently, the company also set up a luxury hotel downtown to house visiting clients.
The Delta is known as the birthplace of the blues and many communities are developing strategies to market themselves as heritage tourism destinations. Greenville, Mississippi hosts the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival each year in September. This is the second oldest blues festival in the country. Lake Providence, Louisiana hosts its annual Soul Food and Heritage Festival on the first Saturday in June.
Other communities celebrate the natural beauty that has been preserved in rural areas of the Delta. Thanks to the recent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Arkansas Delta, the Big Woods Birding Festival held each year in Clarendon, Arkansas witnessed record-breaking attendance, and the national news media focused its attention on another positive development in the Delta.