Mississippi 2nd District
“The Mississippi Delta,” wrote Delta native David Cohn, “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” For centuries, the flooding Mississippi and Yazoo rivers left their sediments here, producing a fertile, dark soil. Ironically, what may well be America’s richest agricultural land has been home for more than a century to many of its poorest people. Crisscrossed by rivers and famously disease-ridden, the Delta wasn’t much settled until after the Civil War. The tradition here is Reconstruction-era profit-seeking operators who used late-19th-century technology to drain the land, line the river with levees, and build railroads on tracks above the rise of the river. Black sharecroppers and field hands worked here in conditions almost of bondage. From this episode of industrial farming came both great misery and great art: Clarksdale in Coahoma County was the real birthplace of blues music, the home of W.C. Handy and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke. Greenville on the Mississippi has produced writers of the caliber of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. Yazoo City produced author Willie Morris and bluesman Skip James. Today, Vicksburg’s antebellum mansions and battlefield monuments bring in 1.5 million tourists annually.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Twentieth-century technology changed life in the Delta. The mechanical cotton-picking machine, invented in 1944, came along just as Northern factories were seeking low-wage workers. The great exodus to Chicago and other cities in the North began, and the Delta’s population has been declining ever since. Income levels remain very low, poverty is over 50% in some areas, and infant mortality is at Third World levels. City-style crime and drugs from Chicago have been brought back by Delta migrants returning home. Yet there are signs of hope. Soybeans have become a big-dollar crop here, poultry farms have become a major enterprise, and the Delta produces most of the nation’s catfish. To control flooding and boost crop yield, farmers are pushing for the installation of pumps between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, but the Environmental Protection Agency has been reluctant to approve them.
Tunica County is by some measures the nation’s poorest county, and the best it could do economically in recent years was to attract gambling businesses. It has nine casinos, and runways at the regional airport have been extended to accommodate jets bearing tourists and players in national poker tournaments. The casinos have increased local per capita income and decreased welfare rolls, but there is still a gulf between rich and poor. The Delta has been slow to develop a self-propelling market economy. At the edge of the Delta there are other economic stories. Just north of the fast-growing and affluent suburbs of Jackson, Nissan operates a 5,000-employee factory in Canton, historically a heavily African-American area. The plant produces the flexfuel Titan and Armada vehicles, and is expected to expand to build Nissan’s new light commercial vehicle, the NV2500. One consequence was the tripling of land values, as thousands more jobs were created for suppliers, and property moved from agriculture to residential or commercial use.
The 2nd Congressional District of Mississippi includes the entire Delta, indeed the whole Mississippi riverfront from Tunica almost to Natchez. It includes most of heavily black and low-income Jackson and surrounding Hinds County except for the affluent Bellehaven neighborhood. This is Mississippi’s one black-majority district, created in 1984. It includes a few counties in the east that are majority white and vote Republican, but the political tone of the district is set by the African-American neighborhoods in Jackson and the counties of the Delta. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these were run politically by segregationists like Democratic Sen. James Eastland, a Delta cotton plantation owner and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman from 1955 to 1979. In 1986, the district elected its first black congressman since Reconstruction, Democrat Mike Espy, whose grandfather and father were among the biggest landowners in the state. In 2008, the 2nd was the only Mississippi district to vote for the nation’s first African-American president, Democrat Barack Obama, who got 66% of the vote.