Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Commentary: Reflections on the Culture of the Lower Mississippi Delta: Challenges and Opportunities

Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Commentary: Reflections on the Culture of the Lower Mississippi Delta: Challenges and Opportunities

Article excerpt

This symposium addresses the interrelationship between two issues critical to the Mississippi Delta--poor health and limited economic development. I will address this linkage from three perspectives, the historical context of the Delta culture, the role of culture in the evolution as well as in the correction of these issues, and the potential role of higher education institutions in improving the conditions in the Delta region.


An examination of the history of culture in the Lower Mississippi Delta, i.e., the way of thinking and behaving, has two rather distinct aspects. First, there are the values of a ruling elite who control the flow of wealth and who symbolize a stately way of life, often referred to as "southern culture." This model has been identified by historians as Southern Progressivism (Brownell and Goldfield 1977; Goldfield 1981). At the core of Southern Progressivism is the belief that it is the obligation of the few enlightened white leaders to take care of the poor whites and blacks, and that modernization can be accomplished without conflict if trust is freely and entirely given to their leadership. Second, there are the values of the rest of the social structure--the middle and low-income residents. Typically the literature has emphasized the latter's values as expressed in its oral traditions that centered on individualism, extended family, factionalism, fatalism, and personalism (Goldfield, 1981; Biles, 1986; Hyland & Timberlake, 1993; Hill, 1977).

The symbiotic relationship between the two components became the predominant way of thinking and behaving from the mid-1800 until the 1930's. During this period, there existed a delicate relationship between the ruling wealthy elite and the middle- and lower-income residents of the Delta. This relationship is similar to that described for other regions of the Southeastern Coastal Plain where one-crop plantation agriculture dominated the economy (Pearsall, 1966). Basically the plantation model required that a hereditary elite rule for the good of all. While the poor were an integral part of the Delta region, the large majority of the population remained outside the mainstream "southern culture."

Southern Progressivism

In the context of poverty, the residents of the Delta adapted to the dominant political culture of Southern Progressivism. The large mass of laborers from the fields of the Delta plantations and the small farms of the sandy hill area of eastern Mississippi moved to urban areas such Memphis and New Orleans but had little influence over local political decisions. These masses of people competed for jobs in a crowded labor market and at low wages. Many, in fact, were forced further north as the market became even more crowded during the 1940's and 1950's. For the most part, these laborers were relocated in the large service industry without benefit of influential and powerful labor unions.

The Legacy of Dependency

The legacy of the region's long history of structural dependency under the southern progressive philosophy has shaped the culture of the Delta and the character of its people. Former Congressman Ed Jones called it "The plantation mentality, an ingrained attitude--a kind of caste system--rooted in the region's history. The landowning rich remain complacently superior . . . The poor, too often, remain apathetic, without any realistic job prospects and utterly dependent on welfare" (Farney, 1989). The legacy of dependency and the fear of change that accompanied it have dominated the region's culture.

Closely intertwined in this legacy of dependency is a complex set of regional beliefs that have been described by some scholars as fatalism, personalism, and factionalism. Of these beliefs, fatalism seems to reinforce the dependency through religious beliefs that reiterate the goal of suffering to attain redemption and salvation. …

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