The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Comments about small impoverished communities in the Delta

Posted on June 16, 2009 at 04:50 PM

In recent years, we often made generous remarks about the work of former Alternate Federal Co-Chair of the Delta Regional Authority, Rex Nelson. That is why we were so concerned about comments attributed to him by a columnist that made it sound as if they were conclusions based on his work at the DRA. We supported Mr. Nelson through many difficult situations, at considerable cost to us, so we hope to learn that the columnist in question misquoted Mr. Nelson or took his comments out of context.

Many members of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus were very concerned about comments made in a column by David Sanders, a conservative writer based in Arkansas, quoting former Delta Regional Authority Alternate Federal Co-Chair Rex Nelson as saying that a recent study indicated that aid for the Delta should focus on “critical-mass communities” that are “worth saving.” The column quoted Mr. Nelson as saying that the government should not be perpetuating many small communities in the Delta that used to support many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers that are from, in columnist Sanders’ words, a bygone era that were once home to hundreds of share croppers and boasted thriving commerce, but that are nearly empty today and are lucky to have a convenience store.” For the information of Mr. Sanders, it is not the government that makes people live in these small communities—it is the reality that those small towns are their homes.

Mr. Nelson was quoted as saying, “To be quite honest, there isn’t much reason for those communities to exist any more.” According to Mr. Sanders’ column, “by propping up these tiny communities, “the government is sustaining misery’ while wasting millions of dollars in public resources that could be directed elsewhere.” What that “elsewhere” is remains to be explained.

Mr. Nelson, according to this column, helped complete a study late in his tenure at the DRA which identified several critical mass communities that are worth saving, which have hospitals and two-year or four-year colleges. Communities like Helena-West Helena, Forrest City and Pine Bluff are where Nelson believes governments must focus resources. We hope that this information was erroneous and want to give Mr. Nelson this opportunity to communicate to us that in fact the DRA had nothing to do with this study. Surely it was a study funded by outside sources and just sent to Mr. Nelson.

The reason that this rises to a level far more serious than a couple of newspaper columns is that it was presented as Mr. Nelson’s conclusions based on his service at DRA. If Mr. Nelson did make these comments and wants to make them as a private citizen, let him do so to his heart’s content. What we object to is the idea that this is based on his previous government service at the DRA. We look forward to learning that he was misquoted or his comments were taken out of context.

In fairness to Mr. Nelson, he may have been misquoted or his words may have been taken out of context. We would request an explanation of this. We also would like to know what this study was—as we understand it, the study was completed by a consulting firm in Austin, Texas, and how it was funded. Surely it was not funded from the DRA’s tiny budget.

The column summarized a number of obvious comments such as the fact that the Delta is impoverished, that the old strategy of recruiting one big plant with government grants is outmoded, and that the heyday of big agriculture and many farm labor jobs is long past—all of this is true, but we would ask if these people could tell us something that we have not known for many years. According to Mr. Sanders’ column—and again we want to give Mr. Nelson the benefit of the doubt and he may have been misquoted—Mr. Nelson stated that “Preserving the Delta, he confesses, essentially comes down to questions of resource allocation for state and federal government, which, he admitted, will require a radical departure from the business-as-usual approach. Nelson argued that it doesn’t make sense for governments to perpetuate numerous small communities from a bygone era that were once home to hundreds of share croppers and boasted thriving commerce, but that are nearly empty today and are lucky to have a convenience store.”

These comments, if indeed they were made by Mr. Nelson, raise many troubling concerns. First, who is to decide which communities are “worth saving” because they have a “critical mass.” Are we to herd people in the Delta from the unworthy communities and relocate them to places like Helena-West Helena, Forrest City and Pine Bluff? These communities themselves have many problems and may not welcome an influx of people in search of jobs and homes. It is not the government that makes people live in places like Des Arc, Gould, Marianna, McGehee, and countless others. Those communities are home to those people and will be for many years to come, no matter how annoying their existence may be to Mr. Sanders.

Frankly, we expected this kind of contempt for the smaller Delta communities from Mr. Sanders, because he has a reputation for extreme right wing comments.

In Mr. Nelson’s case, we had hoped for better, and in fact given the source of his comments, we offer him an opportunity to clarify what was said. If he really did say that only communities with a critical mass in the Delta are worth saving—and we hope that he was misquoted or his comments were taken out of context—then there are many people in the Delta who would ask him for an apology. If he did not make those comments, we will give him an opportunity to explain if he so desires and exonerate him from any blame in this unfortunate matter.

Rex Nelson did a good job of communicating with people in his few years as a George W. Bush administration political appointee at the Delta Regional Authority, and we praised him on many occasions for doing so. We deeply regret to say that if he really made these comments about the government supposedly propping up communities that really don’t have any reason to exist, we totally disagree and if he held these views while working for the DRA we would not have been so supportive of him. We hope he was misquoted.

The choice of the communities he cited where people will be, what—relocated?–points out how ludicrous this study is. Helena-West Helena, Forrest City, and Pine Bluff are fine communities. I have spent much time in all of them. But the notion that we should focus all our resources there, to the neglect of many other communities in the region, is utterly preposterous.

We needed another study from some outfit in Austin, Texas about like we needed a hole in the head.

Dr. Martha Ellen Black of East Prairie, Missouri, was distressed, but mostly amused, to learn that her presence in East Prairie was economically irrational and she needs to relocate to Cape Girardeau or St. Louis. Desha County Judge Mark McElroy did not know that he was not supposed to be living in the tiny Arkansas City, Arkansas area, and we will give him a few weeks to pack up and clear out. Harvey Joe Sanner indicated that he has many family members living in Des Arc, Arkansas, and he is a holdout—he said he ain’t leaving.

Yes, it is very unfortunate that places like Marianna, Gould, Des Arc, and others are so impoverished. But the whole bogeyman that Rex Nelson and Sanders and the brilliant consultants are creating simply does not exist. NOBODY ever said that we should prop up dying little communities with government funding. In fact, even if somebody had been foolish enough to say that, the economic realities have defeated that and will continue to do so. Economic development in the Delta is not about propping up little communities and it never has been. It is about looking to future opportunities and making the transition from an economic system that is defunct and finding new, viable activities for a smaller, leaner region.

Yes, many people have left the Delta and a good many more will leave. Tell us something new. How much did it cost to get that Austin, Texas consulting firm to educate us poor, ignorant devils in the Delta about such facts?

Where is the hope in the Delta? In some places it might be natural resources, civil rights movement or other tourism; in Blytheville they would be interested to learn that the Delta is only a mechanized farm region, because the Nucor Yamato Steel plant happens to be one of the most efficient steel mills in the world, and they have also recruited many other economic development enterprises to that community; in Batesville the Future Fuels alternative energy plant employs people in an industry that is likely to expand in the future. In Forrest City the East Arkansas Enterprise Community has many valuable ideas about how to conserve resources. Our colleagues in southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky and Tennessee have many innovative ideas about a different future for the Delta. Our colleagues in Louisiana and Alabama are working hard in a similar vein. Yes, big agriculture and the old plant recruitment strategy is not the future for the Delta. What else is new?

There is also something called the Internet, which means that it is getting increasingly less relevant where someone is located. The stimulus package has a massive program for expanding broadband access to rural underserved areas like the Delta. Now is that going to create a huge amount of jobs in the Delta overnight? Of course not. But there are growing numbers of people who utilize the internet in the region, and for the long term, that will create at least some sustainable work, aid education in rural areas, and otherwise help the region. The Delta Regional Authority, led by career staff who have become increasingly competent in recent years, has done some fine work on information technology with specific, useful research on how to expand it. The stimulus package aids that in providing some funding. If you are looking for something useful for this region, that is one place to look. To his credit, Rex was supportive of information technology when he was at DRA. We prefer his comments in that era to what he allegedly said in the Sanders interview, and we hope the columnist misconstrued his comments.

A few Delta communities are dying. The more likely case, for the information of those who are determined to confuse and oversimplify these issues, is that these communities will not cease to exist, but will be much smaller, and very different from what they were in the past. The question is what do we do in the meantime? Mr. Sanders finds it very inconvenient that places like Gould exist and have to make a transition. That is what we are dealing with, not herding everybody to Forrest City and Helena.

One agency that targets somewhat smaller communities in the Delta—not the dying ones but the ones that are in the process of becoming much smaller than they were in the heyday of big agriculture—is the Delta Regional Authority. I worked in the Clinton administration when we researched the regional development commissions and supported the Members of Congress who sponsored the bills creating the DRA. It was never intended to prop up dying communities. It is supposed to develop those hopeful initiatives that have a future in these smaller communities. The mechanism whereby the DRA federal funding can be used as the local match was expressly intended to give smaller communities the opportunity to leverage funding for their communities. Now we are apparently being accused of propping up small, dying communities through this innovative and progressive mechanism. How unfortunate this is.

Information technology, renewable energy, better transportation and infrastructure, addressing inadequate health care and the nutrition and obesity dilemma in the region, these are what we should be investing in. That is what we thought the DRA was about. The nonsense about not wasting government resources on “Podunk” is a useless effort to find scapegoats, who usually are that terrible conspiracy of lower to middle income whites, African Americans, and those big-spending politicians who cynically want to save Podunk to get votes. For anyone who believes that, I have some excellent land south of New Orleans I can sell them for a cheap price.

Many of us know Rex Nelson as an amiable man and a good communications aide who tried to get along with everybody. If he actually espouses these doctrines, people should understand that these views are contemptuous of many of the people in the Delta we are trying to help and they have no place in the priorities of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus.

We would be delighted to receive a communication from Mr. Nelson saying he was misquoted. Since the column was in a public setting without notice to us and we have not heard any word from Mr. Nelson in six months, we are placing this communication in a public setting as well.

We welcome anyone’s feedback on this. Thank you. Lee Powell, executive director, Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347