MONEY, Miss. – The sun was low in the winter sky north of Greenwood on Money Road, where on the right sat the crumbling ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. It was as frozen in time as the day was cold.
“This store is where the spark occurred to light the fuse of the American civil rights movement,” said Mississippi Delta historian Luther Brown. It’s a dilapidated image that 22-year-old Natalie Dickson of French Camp will never forget after Brown revealed the horror that 14-year-old Emmett Till endured nearby in 1955.
“It was quite symbolic,” said the University of Mississippi senior journalism major. “It represents a part of the rich (albeit sometimes dark) heritage of Mississippi, a heritage that impacted the entire country.”
During a daylong trek through the central Mississippi Delta, Dickson and a hand-picked group of UM journalism students made museum tours and even two juke joint jaunts. But the falling facade of the Money store was the most somber stop, with Brown, director of the Cleveland-based Delta Center for Learning and Culture, sharing the details surrounding Till’s racially motivated kidnapping and murder.
The account and eyewitness view of the location where the civil rights movement was launched struck a chord with Dickson and her peers, who have embarked on an experiential learning opportunity called The Delta Project. The two-semester course, which culminates this spring, calls for students to tromp the streets and absorb the culture as they report on problems and glimmers of hope within the Mississippi Delta, said Will Norton, dean of the UM Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
“We’re assigning these students to report on the extreme poverty along a collection of once bright, thriving Delta farm towns on Highway 3 and Highway 49,” Norton said. “It’s an ambitious concept. We want to push the students out of their comfort zones and into professional newsroom-like conditions.”
Sponsored by Cleveland publisher Scott Coopwood, the journey to the Delta was an introduction, of sorts, to the course. Throughout the day, Brown, serving as a tour guide, set out to offer the students a better understanding of the heritage, history, culture, myths and legends, along with the realities of the area.
The tour focused on a Clarksdale-Indianola-Greenwood triangle with stops at both the Delta Blues Museum and the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretative Center. The group also paid homage at Little Zion M.B. Church, home to bluesman Robert Johnson’s official grave site. The day ended with a nightcapping affair near Merigold at Poor Monkey Lounge, the last authentic (meaning the owner resides on site) Mississippi Delta juke joint.
“Poor Monkey’s was the highlight of the trip for me,” said 20-year-old UM junior Lillian Askins. “It was such a unique experience. It’s one of those places that you’ll never forget.”
That mystique is what draws thousands from throughout the nation and around the globe annually to the Mississippi Delta.
“We could probably sell these tourists dirt, and say it’s from the crossroads,” said Ground Zero Blues Club co-founder Bill Luckett, referring to the legendary intersection of highways 61 and 49. “That’s the kind of reverence we get here.”
Addressing the students inside Ground Zero, Luckett, who has announced a gubernatorial bid for 2011, said cultural tourism can help combat poverty and her ills. Recalling a downtown business district in Clarksdale that was dormant before he opened the juke joint in May 2001 with actor Morgan Freeman, Luckett said the economic difference nearly nine years later is night and day.
“When we opened, there wasn’t a car in sight out here on Delta Avenue – on any night of the week,” Luckett said. “Now, you can’t find a parking place.”
Despite the economic gains from cultural tourism, problems remain in the Mississippi Delta. Where cotton was once king, it appears the cash crop has been replaced with high teen pregnancy rates, single-parent homes and rampant drug use.
To ease the social ills, lifelong Mississippi Delta resident Mary Sheppard believes education is key. Crowned Queen of the Jook in 2008 upon retiring after 34 years as owner of Indianola’s famed Club Ebony, Sheppard uses her royalty to inspire young people. She reminds them of the past when she worked from “sun up to sun down” chopping cotton for a mere $1.50 a day.
“There are tons of opportunities today for these kids,” she said. “All they have to do is get on the bus and do their lessons. If it was that easy back then, I’d be smart as a whip!”
Despite some of the state’s past dark days and shortcomings, the Mississippi Delta is transforming. Pockets of racial reconciliation and resolve have started to peer from under gloomy skies, according to the queen.
“Thirty years ago, the whites wouldn’t cross the tracks to come to the juke joint,” Sheppard said. “Now, they cross the tracks. Now, we dance together. Now, we laugh together. Everybody has concern for others. We love one another. Things are different now.”
That connection is something Dickson covets as well. She hopes that besides enhancing her journalism skills, The Delta Project enables her to reconnect with her Mississippi roots.
“The Delta is an honest picture of my state,” said Dickson, who aspires to become a foreign media correspondent. “The culture, the heritage, the food and the music: it’s what I know and love.”
For more information on the UM Meek School of Journalism and New Media, visit www.olemiss.edu/depts/journalism.