Commentary: reflections on the culture of the lower Mississippi Delta: challenges and opportunities.
Subject: Economic development (Evaluation)
Economic development (Mississippi)
Public health (Evaluation)
Author: Hyland, Stanley
Pub Date: 06/22/2008
Publication: Name: Journal of Health and Human Services Administration Publisher: Southern Public Administration Education Foundation, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Government; Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Southern Public Administration Education Foundation, Inc. ISSN: 1079-3739
Issue: Date: Summer, 2008 Source Volume: 31 Source Issue: 1
Product: Product Code: 8000120 Public Health Care; 9005200 Health Programs-Total Govt; 9105200 Health Programs; 9008000 Economic Programs-Total Govt; 8515300 Development NAICS Code: 62 Health Care and Social Assistance; 923 Administration of Human Resource Programs; 92312 Administration of Public Health Programs; 926 Administration of Economic Programs; 5417 Scientific Research and Development Services SIC Code: 8000 HEALTH SERVICES
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Mississippi Geographic Code: 1U6MS Mississippi
Accession Number: 180948025
Full Text: This symposium addresses the interrelationship between two issues critical to the Mississippi Delta--poor health and limited economic development. I will address this linkage from three perspectives, the historical context of the Delta culture, the role of culture in the evolution as well as in the correction of these issues, and the potential role of higher education institutions in improving the conditions in the Delta region.


An examination of the history of culture in the Lower Mississippi Delta, i.e., the way of thinking and behaving, has two rather distinct aspects. First, there are the values of a ruling elite who control the flow of wealth and who symbolize a stately way of life, often referred to as "southern culture." This model has been identified by historians as Southern Progressivism (Brownell and Goldfield 1977; Goldfield 1981). At the core of Southern Progressivism is the belief that it is the obligation of the few enlightened white leaders to take care of the poor whites and blacks, and that modernization can be accomplished without conflict if trust is freely and entirely given to their leadership. Second, there are the values of the rest of the social structure--the middle and low-income residents. Typically the literature has emphasized the latter's values as expressed in its oral traditions that centered on individualism, extended family, factionalism, fatalism, and personalism (Goldfield, 1981; Biles, 1986; Hyland & Timberlake, 1993; Hill, 1977).

The symbiotic relationship between the two components became the predominant way of thinking and behaving from the mid-1800 until the 1930's. During this period, there existed a delicate relationship between the ruling wealthy elite and the middle- and lower-income residents of the Delta. This relationship is similar to that described for other regions of the Southeastern Coastal Plain where one-crop plantation agriculture dominated the economy (Pearsall, 1966). Basically the plantation model required that a hereditary elite rule for the good of all. While the poor were an integral part of the Delta region, the large majority of the population remained outside the mainstream "southern culture."

Southern Progressivism

In the context of poverty, the residents of the Delta adapted to the dominant political culture of Southern Progressivism. The large mass of laborers from the fields of the Delta plantations and the small farms of the sandy hill area of eastern Mississippi moved to urban areas such Memphis and New Orleans but had little influence over local political decisions. These masses of people competed for jobs in a crowded labor market and at low wages. Many, in fact, were forced further north as the market became even more crowded during the 1940's and 1950's. For the most part, these laborers were relocated in the large service industry without benefit of influential and powerful labor unions.

The Legacy of Dependency

The legacy of the region's long history of structural dependency under the southern progressive philosophy has shaped the culture of the Delta and the character of its people. Former Congressman Ed Jones called it "The plantation mentality, an ingrained attitude--a kind of caste system--rooted in the region's history. The landowning rich remain complacently superior . . . The poor, too often, remain apathetic, without any realistic job prospects and utterly dependent on welfare" (Farney, 1989). The legacy of dependency and the fear of change that accompanied it have dominated the region's culture.

Closely intertwined in this legacy of dependency is a complex set of regional beliefs that have been described by some scholars as fatalism, personalism, and factionalism. Of these beliefs, fatalism seems to reinforce the dependency through religious beliefs that reiterate the goal of suffering to attain redemption and salvation. The trust that residents put in government or a benign boss to take care of them often leads to a lack of risk-taking and a lack of personal and institutional accountability (e.g., "what difference does it make since it will all turn out the same"). Factionalism in the rural Delta accentuates the separateness and isolation of residents through appeals to an intolerance and mistrust of "the other" (Ciaramitaro, Hyland, Kovarik, & Timberlake, 1988). Examples of this include prejudices against non-kin, other ethnic groups, and other geographically identified groups such as towns, neighborhoods, the "other side of the railroad tracks," and all outsiders. All of these ingrained cultural issues must be appreciated and overcome to implement changes that improve health and economic conditions.


Culture does not stand still. In any discussion of the future of health and economic development one cannot afford to ignore the culture that has and will continue to shape the Lower Mississippi Delta. My reflections will try to place this discourse in the context of a transformation in the ways of thinking and behaving that is slowly evolving over the past two decades. The transformation involves a paradigmatic shift from what some scholars (see Green, 2007) have labeled a "plantation mentality" discussed earlier to a culture that is characterized as engaged, regionally collaborative and globally oriented (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, 1989). From my perspective, several strands that symbolize this transformation have emerged. These strands are not exhaustive of this transformation, but are part of a growing set of symbols that reflect both national and local stakeholders who embrace a fundamental change in the culture of the Delta. These strands, in turn, are linked to a change in health status in the Delta through the mechanisms that have been discussed in this symposium.

The Southern Regional Growth Policy Board

One of the early strands was the formation of the Southern Regional Growth Policy Board in 1971 and its subsequent development. Of particular relevance is the agreement of nine southern governors to recommend approaches to regional problems that would "foster continued economic growth, while at the same time mitigating adverse sociological and environment efforts" (Crews & Winter, 1989). The Board saw the importance of critical legislation that affected not only economic development, but also education and health policy issues. For example, during the 1980's the governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana developed a regional compact that focused on economic development. By 1988, the collaborative agreement was expanded to a seven state, 214 county Lower Mississippi Delta corridor that focused on strategic planning for economic development (Hyland, Register, & Gunther, 1991).

Emerging in the discussion was the important distinction between economic growth and economic development. White, then Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policy Board, wrote: "Simply put, it is the difference between spurring economic activity, on the one hand--which is growth--and developing the long-term capacity to generate self-sustaining economic activity, on the other (1989, p. 17)." A comprehensive understanding of the health of communities is much more effective when integrated into the economic development agenda, as detailed in this symposium.

The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

A second strand was the development, publication, and dissemination of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Wilson & Ferris, 1989). Its genesis was the creation of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1976 for the purpose of beginning a change in the definition of southern culture. Over a ten-year period, William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson, Co-Directors of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, pulled together a collection of the voices and intellectual achievements of a complex and richly diverse southern landscape. Genuine and often diverse representations of identity in music, food, architecture, and literature were expressed in the context of forgotten or previously marginalized voices of African-Americans, women of all color, people of diverse faiths, and community-based activists.

Among the issues considered was the role of medicine in promoting health. Hill (1989) among other health scholars, pointed out that much of the rural South, particularly the Delta, uses folk medicine and exchanges information about ways to address health problems. These folk beliefs are important to understand and "complement the scientific medical systems, and they do not preclude the use of medical services" (Hill, 1989, p. 1355).

The significance of this opus was not its publication but its presentation to the U.S. Congress and its international marketing. The accepted voices and their symbols and stories of change were now legitimized by scholarship.

The Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission

The third strand was the passage of a federal law (Public Law 100-460 in October 1988) that created the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission (LMDCC). Building upon the political networking and research of the Southern Growth Policy Board, the LMDDC was a bipartisan, two-year effort to initiate a strategic economic development planning process to address the region's needs, as defined by Delta citizens and expressed in their public testimonies, that would embody any and all future approaches to development in the Delta. Hawkins and Hyland wrote that this was "The first federal commission to be housed outside Washington and in the target area ... that represents the first comprehensive regional economic development effort for the most economically distressed region in the United States" (1990, p. 80). While data-driven in its assembly of facts and figures, the primary thrust of the LMDDC was its public hearings and public testimonies by residents from all walks of life in every part of the seven state Lower Mississippi Delta area.

The approach represented an important symbol of the new Delta culture for and by the powerful and powerless. Then Chairman of the LMDDC and Governor of Arkansas, William Clinton wrote in the introduction to the final report that "our goal should be nothing less than full partnership for the Delta ... it is a handbook for action that anybody can pick up--congressman, a governor, a legislator, a chamber of commerce president, a major, a teacher, or a student--and see what he or she can do to help" (LMDDC 1990, p. 5). From their research, Hawkins and Hyland concluded "the Delta's staggeringly poor health combined with its rural and decentralized nature necessitates innovative and inclusive programs. A new mode of health care, driven by educational and preventive strategies must be at the foundation of all future development efforts" (1990, p. 94). The final report to the U.S Congress was a "Call to Action" both from and by all the major stakeholders in the region.


Empowerment, civic activism, and accountability, as well as individual and community health and economic conditions have all become causalities of the old Delta culture. Given the legacy of the old culture, who leads the transformation to the new Delta?

The obvious answer is not necessarily the correct one. Bill Clinton pointed to a comprehensive approach that involves multiple stakeholders at all levels of society to move the Delta to full partners in the "emerging global economy ... to increase the capacity of all our people to succeed in it" (LMDDC, 1990, p. 5). The reality of the Delta is that many of its major institutions and community-based organizations continue to struggle to meet the everyday demands of providing job, health, and social services to a needy population. There exists little reservoir of capacity in the Delta, and that which does exist is questioned because it is not using this capacity to meet the "real needs." In a zero sum environment, who can afford to change?

This is foremost in the case of higher education. The LMDDC, in its final report (1990), noted that the role of higher education was absolutely critical to the economic development of the Delta and future health agenda. The final report noted "that the role of all Delta institutions of higher education must expand." Economic development in higher education can no longer afford the luxury of each institution of higher education operating as islands unto themselves (1990, p. 44). Similarly the final report called for a strategy that would increase the small amount of research and development dollars going into Delta universities to at least national averages. While there has been some progress on these goals, the higher education institutions of the Delta continue to lag behind due to very limited state and private investment. To make an even more dramatic case for the challenges of higher education institutions in the Delta, the LMDDC pinpointed major themes, such as developing leadership, changing attitudes, building institutional capacity, improving abilities to function in a multicultural society, and securing new resources for advancing its future.

Given the slow progress of higher education institutions to assume a leadership position in the Delta, why am I suggesting that the economic development and health agenda described in this symposium be squarely put in their hands? The short answer is that it is their mission, their students, their partnerships, their physical location and stability, and their resources that are most likely to make a difference in an emerging knowledge economy that seeks new approaches to producing healthy and economically productive residents and communities. The universities that have a future in the context of a global system will recognize and invest in becoming the drivers of this phenomenon.

There is a growing literature on the changing roles of universities as urban anchors for metropolitan areas in terms of their pursuit of their international competitiveness (Soska & Johnson Butterfield, 2004; Wiewel & Perry, 2005; Percy, Zimpher, & Brukardt, 2006; Wiewel & Perry, 2008; Rodin, 2007). Universities' roles in the knowledge economy are not limited to technological innovations, incubators, and policy analysis. The universities are also ideally suited to produce a new kind of citizen who is better prepared to facilitate the kind of partnership to produce a healthy community. At the core of this transformation of higher education must be a new approach--what some scholars have called engaged scholarship--where university researchers engage in reciprocal relations with their community partners and build new knowledge. Health advocate Serna Seifer notes the engaged scholarship trend is most pronounced in the health arena, a concept consonant with the suggestions of Barry Smith in this symposium. Seifer notes:

"what we need is different than what the health system itself is pushing ... it is not necessarily from some commitment to improve communities. It is also how do you prepare graduates to be effective in their jobs and in practices? How do you translate research into practice? ... How do you develop interventions for complex problems, such as obesity, or health disparities between blacks and whites? These problems are intractable for a reason. They are very complex. Communities need to be involved" (Dubb, 2007, p. 72).


The arguments developed in this Commentary can be succinctly summarized. If there is to be a transformation in economic development and health status, then it must be linked to a fundamental change in the old culture of the Delta. Change in the Delta Culture cannot occur without a transformation of higher education institutions to a comprehensive engaged scholarship approach.

The efforts of this symposium developed by investigators from several of the major regional and national universities represent a start in this direction. The symposium has defined many of the basic contexts and theoretical constructs for improving economic and health conditions. What is needed, then, is to meld the ideas that may promote or impede implementation with the cultural aspects of the region and develop realistic interventions that can translate theory into action.


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