Read more about the Mississippi Delta and the Civil Rights movement.
Cobb, J. C. (1992). The most southern place on earth: The Mississippi Delta and the roots of regional identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gardner, J., & Nolan, T. (2009). An Agricultural Economist's Perspective on the Mississippi Delta. Arkansas Review: A Journal Of Delta Studies, 40(2), 80-89.
Lee, C.K. (2001). Anger, memory, and personal power: Fannie Lou Hamer and civil rights leadership. In B. Collier-Thomas & V. P. Franklin (Eds.), Sisters in the struggle: African American women in the civil rights-black power movement. New York: New York University Press.
Scratching a living; the mississippi delta. (2013, Jun 08). The Economist, 407, 31-32.
Whayne, J. M. (1999). What is the Mississippi Delta? A historian's perspective. Arkansas Review: A Journal Of Delta Studies, 30(1), 3.
The Mississippi Delta, as James C. Cobb, a Southern historian writes, is a place of enduring extremes - geographic, social, and economic. The "Delta" is an alluvial plain in northwest Mississippi which lies between two rivers - the Mississippi and the Yazoo. It is a region with some of the most fertile farmland in the world, and for more than two centuries agriculture has been a mainstay of the Delta economy. The history of the Delta as an agricultural economy is also the history of an economy and society built on the backs of black slave labor. Before planters arrived, the Mississippi Delta was a "swampy, disease-ridden, heavily forested, relatively remote" backwater (Whayne, 1999, p. 4), which slaves cleared and turned into arable land.
In The Most Southern Place on Earth, Cobb writes that:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Delta had already assumed an enduring identity as a region where a wealthy, pleasure-seeking, and status-conscious white elite exploited the labor of a large and thouroghly subjugated black majority. The planter's grip on both the economy and the society of the Delta seemed completely secure in 1850. Yet, from the earliest days of the region's settlement and for well over a century thereafter, regardless of how affluent they became, Delta planters never lost sight of the fact that their capacity to harness and maximize the wealth-producing potential of their land - and, hence, their freedom to indulge their legendary addiction to material finery and high living - was wholly dependent on their success in retaining and controlling a large supply of black labor (Cobb, 1994, p. 28).
The Delta was also the site of vicious racial violence targeting blacks after emancipation and throughout the civil rights movement. Cobb notes that from 1900 through 1930, the seventeen-county Mississippi delta averaged a lynching every 5.5 months (Cobb, 1994, p. 114). The goals of ending segregation and discrimination against black Americans and enforcing constitutional voting rights spurred the Civil Rights Movement beginning in 1955. The murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi and the acquital of his white captors was a major catalyst for the movement.
Today, the Delta is an important rice, sugar cane, soybean and cotton producer (Gardner & Nolan, 2009, p. 80). But where hundreds of laborors were once required to pick and process cotton, machines now do most of the work. This has resulted in fewer jobs in counties across the Delta, high rates of poverty, and it has spurred another exodus of people out of the region. An article in The Economist notes that Issaquena County, which in 1860 relied on 7,224 slaves and 580 whites to support it's economy, today has a population of 1,386. With an average income just over $10,000, 40% of the population live below the poverty line. Aside from farms, the entire county has ten private businesses, employing just 99 people. Like the region as a whole, it suffers from low rates of education and high rates of obesity and diabetes.
Located in Tallahachie county in Northwest Mississippi, 70 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, Tutwiler has an estimated total population of 3,523 according to the 2012 U.S. population estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.
A poor community, the median annual household income in Tutwiler is $26,250 with more than 37% of its residents living below the federal poverty line. Just 53% of residents have a high school diploma or further education. The average age of residents is around 32 with male residents more than doubling female residents: 2,446 to 986. African Americans comprise about two-thirds of the population with whites making up about one-third. (Source: 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).
To learn more about its population and demographics, check out the Community Facts for Tutwiler from the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder website.
Clarksdale, Mississippi is a city in Coahoma County, about 15 miles northwest of Tutwiler. It has a population of 17,648. Its population is split 55% female and 45% male. African Americans make up about 79% of the population, while whites comprise almost 20%. Seventy-nine percent of the population has graduated from high-school or received further education (Source: 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).
To learn more about Clarksdale's demographics, try searching for Clarksdale, Mississippi in the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder website.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 - 1977) was a grassroots civil rights leader from Mississippi. A sharecropper until the 1960s, Hamer went into cotton and soybean fields as a field worker to urge African Americans to register to vote.
Fannie Lou Townsend was born in rural Montgomery County (70 miles southeast of Tutwiler) on October 16, 1917. She was the youngest of 20 chidren. The granddaughter of a slave and daughter to poor sharecroppers Jim and Ella Townsend, she began picking cotton when was six years old and had dropped out of school by the time she was in the third grade.
Hamer's involvement in the civil rights movement began in 1962 after attending a rally organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the Ruleville Baptist Church on August 23rd. There a Rev. James Bevel, a SNCC organizer, delivered a sermon and appealed to the audience to register to vote. In 1960, blacks comprised more than 61 percent of the voting age population in Sunflower County, Hamer's home county. Yet they made up only 1.2 percent of registered voters (Lee, 2001, p. 144). Black people who registered to vote in the South faced serious hardships at the time. Institutionalized racism, harrassment, the loss of their jobs, physical beatings, and lynchings were not uncommon. Hamer's own experience after attempting to register involved the plantatation owner, W.D. Marlow, demanding Hamer rescind her voter registration application or leave the plantation she had worked on for 18 years. Hamer left the plantation but returned to Ruleville to participate in voter registration movements through SNCC. Chana Kai Lee writes that "[A]s her movement years passed, she would prove to be the respected, spiritual and political advisor, the daunting mobilizer, of folks whom others simply chose to ignore...Hamer did not have the level of national visibility held by similarly influential male leaders, particularly men of the cloth. Still her leadership mattered, and not every local or national "leader" could make such a claim" (Lee, 2001, p. 151).
Today, the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, located in Ruleville, Mississippi, serves as a marker of her legacy.
To learn more about the life and work of Fannie Lou Hamer, check out books owned by HNU including The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer and Sisters in the Struggle as well articles in our Credo Reference Collection.
The Tallahatchie County Courthouse is located in Sumner, Mississippi, five miles south of Tutwiler. The courthouse is notable as the site of the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant in September of 1955 for the kidnapping and murder of 14-year old Chicago youth Emmett Louis Till, who had been visiting his uncle in Money, Mississippi that summer. His brutal murder and the subsequent acquital of Milam and Bryant by an all-white, all-male jury was a major catalyst for the African-American Civil Rights Movement beginning in 1955.
A complete timeline of the murder, trial and reaction is available through the website of the PBS series American Experience and its episode The Murder of Emmett Till. According to the timeline, on August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till was abducted from the home of his uncle, Moses Wright, near the tiny town of Money, Mississippi. Four days prior to his kidnapping, Till and friends had visited Bryant's Grocery in Money. Exactly what happened in the store is uncertain. However, Till flirted with, whistled at, or touched the hand or waist of Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working at the store she and her husband Roy Bryant owned.
Four days later, at 2:30 a.m. on August 28, two men arrived at Moses Wright's home under the cover of darkness armed with a pistol and took Emmett Till away. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were arrested on August 29th on kidnapping charges in connection with Till's disappearance. Till's corpse would be found several days later, brutally disfigured, a bullet hole through the skull, and decomposing in the Tallahatchie River. A 75-pound cotton gin fan had been tied to his neck with barbed wire. The body was returned to Till's mother in Chicago and on September 3rd, an open casket service was attended by thousands of Chicagoans. Press accounts of the funeral and images of the body outraged black audiences throughout the nation.
During the trial, Milam and Bryant admitted kidnapping Till but claimed they released him. Attorneys for the defendants, working pro-bono, concocted various explanations to account for Milam and Bryant's innocence including that the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was not in fact Till. A ring belonging to Till's father and given to Till by his mother was worn on one of the fingers. The jury deliberated for little more than an hour before returning a verdict of not guilty. The acquital sparked international outrage and marked a significant point in the beginning of the 1955 Civil Rights Movement against a policy of segregation in the South. One hundred days later, Rosa Parks would refuse to stand up from a Montgomery bus seat and the Montgomery Bus Boycott would begin.
The following links provide further information about the murder of Emmett Till, the trial of Milam and Bryant, and the reaction and response their acquital generated:
Harold, C., & DeLuca, K. M. (2005). Behold the corpse: Violent images and the case of Emmett Till. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 8(2), 263-286.
Public Broadcasting Corporation, American Experience home page, "The Murder of Emmett Till".
Whitaker, Hugh Stephen, "A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Emmett Till Case" (2004). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 7071.
The Tutwiler Clinic is a non-profit health clinic founded in 1983 by Sister Anne Brooks, D.O. and three other Sisters of the Holy Names. The clinic offers holistic health care by providing medical, counseling, dental, optical, and podiatry services in addition to education and outreach to the community of Tutwiler.
To learn more, see the Tutwiler Clinic website.
Marco McMillian was a 34-year old mayoral candiate from Clarksdale, Mississippi. In February, 2013 McMillian was found dead beside a levee near Clarksdale. McMillian, who was black and openly gay, had returned to Clarksdale after working in Memphis and Washington, D.C. to run for mayor of his hometown. The Coahoma County Sheriff's Department charged Lawrence Reed of Clarksdale with McMillian's murder. While Reed is black, and police have ruled that the death was not a hate crime, the family of McMillian has been frustrated by the pace of the investigation as well as discrepencies in the autopsy report. They have called for a Federal investigation into his death.
To read more about the case, see links to news articles below:
Family of Slain Candidate Seeks Federal Inquiry
The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi exists to collect, preserve and provide public access to and awareness of blues music. To read more about Blues music and its development in the Mississippi Delta, see articles in our Credo reference collection.