Delta Center's Dr. Rolando Herts and Lee Aylward (front center) gathered with Lens Collective multimedia storytelling scholars at Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden in Ruleville, Miss., in April 2018. More than 50 photojournalism students and award-winning faculty mentors from across the country traveled to the Mississippi Delta to document civil-rights heritage stories. Courtesy Dr. Rolando Herts

‘Get on Board, Little Children’: Civil Rights Heritage Is Mississippi’s Next Tourism Movement

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote in “Requiem for a Nun.”

Certainly, the Mississippi Delta is a distinct place that has become a cultural-heritage tourism destination based on the powerful stories and history that live and breathe here.

Yes, the Mississippi Delta—at least before the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year.

A 2017 economic impact study conducted by Tripp Umbach for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area found that more than 5.1 million tourists visited MDNHA partner heritage sites and attractions throughout the region and contributed $676.7 million to the Mississippi Delta’s economy. Moreover, of more than 20 National Heritage Areas for which Tripp Umbach had conducted an economic impact study at the time, the MDNHA had the third-largest overall economic impact.

This is no small feat, especially since the Mississippi Delta generally is considered to be the poorest region in the poorest state in the U.S. It really should come as no surprise, however, when one considers the Mississippi Delta’s cultural significance to our nation.

Mississippi Delta: ‘The Cradle of American Culture’

The National Park Service has proclaimed the Mississippi Delta as “The Cradle of American Culture.” We are known as the “Birthplace of the Blues,” which is fundamental to Mississippi’s claim as the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” The Mississippi Delta is a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its role in shaping our nation’s culture through the Mississippi River, foodways, agriculture, folk art, literature and more.

The Mississippi Delta also is known as the “Birthplace of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.”

Emmett Till, pictured here with his mother Mamie, was shot in the head by white men in Money, Miss., then thrown into the Tallahatchie River at age 14.

The brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till happened here in August 1955. Rosa Parks said  she thought of Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.. Her arrest in December 1955 launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal Civil Rights Movement event that lasted for 13 months.

After Emmett Till’s horribly unjust murder sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi Delta saw many courageous men, women, and young people step forward in the fight against racial oppression and discrimination. These highly esteemed activists include Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville; Amzie Moore of Cleveland; Vera Mae Pigee and Aaron Henry of Clarksdale; Mary Lou and Andrew Hawkins of Shaw; Dr. T.R.M. Howard from the historic Black town of Mound Bayou; participants in the 1969 sit-ins at Delta State University; and the list goes on and on.

Safe Spaces for Mississippi Voices

Over the past two decades, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area have empowered Mississippi Delta residents and tourists to gain a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement in the Mississippi Delta, as well as to share their own stories.

Delta Center staff and Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area board members gather with the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement after touring the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson in May 2019. Courtesy MDNHA.

It should go without saying that this understanding is more critical now than ever due to heightened awareness of racial and social-justice issues nationwide. To paraphrase the old adage, if we do not teach, understand and apply lessons from our collective civil-rights history, we will see it repeated again and again. This is what is happening right now across the country.

Through partnerships with the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mississippi Humanities Council, Visit Mississippi, and various organizations throughout the Mississippi Delta, The Delta Center and the MDNHA have created safe spaces for storytelling and conversations about how civil rights and racial-injustice issues from the past connect with the same issues that we are grappling with today. 

Examples include our Most Southern Place on Earth workshops for K-12 educators and the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership that celebrated the lives of African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta. Civil rights icon Myrlie Evers is a Delta Jewels church mother, and she is still alive today. 

Such programs and events actually are seeds of civil-rights heritage preservation, interpretation, education and tourism. We have seen these seeds take root and flourish throughout the South, becoming the Martin Luther King National Historical Park in Atlanta; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; and our own Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Mississippi Delta residents give a staged reading of the civil-rights play Beautiful Agitators at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. The performance was supported by The Delta Center for Culture and Learning’s June 2018 Most Southern Place on Earth K-12 educator workshop, Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, Mississippi Today and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the civil-rights heritage development train is moving full-steam ahead nationwide. Is the entire Mississippi Delta ready to join? I optimistically say yes.

This is an opportune time for us to work together to shed light on little known civil-rights people and places, to record oral histories of activists still living in our communities, and to explore collaborative proposals for national funding opportunities—such as Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project and the National Park Service African American Civil Rights Preservation Grants Program.

To quote the Negro spiritual: “Get on board, little children. There’s room for many-a-more.”

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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