Task force report on Delta as honest as its chairman

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 8, 2009

“Whatever has gone on in the Delta, it hasn’t helped the Delta. The condition is getting worse.”

That’s a pretty sweeping indictment.

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Normally such a generalized statement could be ignored, but it shouldn’t be this time.

That’s because it came from Robert Clark of Ebenezer, one of Mississippi’s unsung heroes.

Clear-thinking and soft-speaking Robert Clark was a teacher in the Delta in 1967 when he was talked into running for the Legislature. He was the first black Mississippian elected as a lawmaker since Reconstruction. Respect for him and his quiet manner rose through his decades of service. He didn’t make demands. He made plans. He was a realist, an advocate for progress because he knew incremental change takes roots where revolutionary rhetoric is soon forgotten. A flash in the pan is a flash in the pan. Systemic changes last.

Two years ago as he was leaving the Capitol, Clark was tapped for one more task. The state wanted a definitive assessment and plan for the 18-county alluvial plain and wanted Clark to chair it.

He wasn’t interested in just another study to go on just another shelf, he said. Clark, 70 and a gentleman farmer, said he’d rather work his brace of hunting dogs than spend time in committee rooms or poring over data. After all, the famed Delta has been on the receiving end of countless millions in aid, countless well-intended programs and countless studies, analyses and reports.

He did accept the job, though, and after two years, $300,000 worth of committee and staff work, the final report came out last week.

The recommendations are not earthshaking.

More than anything else, the suggestion is that state, federal and charitable funding and programs designed to counter the Delta’s crippling poverty be coordinated. In other words, stop throwing scatter shots, develop a plan with attainable goals, then coordinate, execute and measure. If that’s not pure Robert Clark, nothing is.

Through the years I’ve written at least a dozen columns, maybe more, about the Delta.

The premises are simple.

1. The region is not to be pitied.

Some really great folks live there and lead happy, productive lives. A place doesn’t have to be like Silicon Valley for people to be fulfilled.

2. To the extent that the region embodies “shameful” statistics (one of every five teen girls has a baby, which is several times the average for the rest of the state, and one of every five residents stopped school before the ninth grade), somebody needs to admit the role of choice. It’s one thing not to have opportunities to make better choices. It’s another to have opportunities and still make poor choices.

3. The Delta has great natural beauty and it’s people, hands down, have a richness of spirit not found elsewhere.

It’s been a little maddening through the years to see one grant after another flow to the region with no net gain. It has been a little maddening to see many of the same mis-leaders get re-elected time and again.

The best hopes for employment and prosperity, which are what the Delta needs, are in developing industries related to existing Delta assets — music, culture and nature.

The Delta doesn’t need a makeover. If anything, all it needs is a plan that makes sense for the reg