Thatâ€™s the one word repetitive answer a newspaper reporter heard when he interviewed small town leaders about the Mississippi Delta’s shrinking population.
Where are the people? Gone. Where are the jobs? Gone.
I guess it makes sense for the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, to take a poke at the region. Longtime Mississippi Deltans have considered Memphis, Tennessee, the â€œcapital of North Mississippiâ€ for years. I grew up there decades ago, and didnâ€™t make it to Jackson, the real capital of Mississippi, until I was 21. Why drive south when the bright lights of Memphis were less than 2 hours away? Thereâ€™s no doubt that the city of Memphis has noticed fewer Mississippi vehicles and less Delta dollars headed north on Highway 61 in the past 10 years.
According to U.S. census figures, 16 Arkansas and Mississippi Delta counties lost a total ofÂ more than 56,000 people from 2000 to 2010. Those are painfully drastic numbers which are often blamed onÂ industry going elsewhere, changes in modern agriculture and theÂ simple need to reach out and see what life has to offer elsewhere.
Leaving the Delta is not a new concept, but neither is coming to the Delta.
In the 1920s-1940s, multitudes of Chinese, Jewish and Italian immigrants actually migrated to small Delta towns. ItÂ was a new frontier with the appearance of endless possibilities, or at least something better than where they came from. These folks knew what it was like to start with little more than a fierce determination to get their hands on a better life. Once they achieved that goal, the next step was to educate their children and send them forth to new opportunities, which usually meant the kids left home. In fact, the only remains of many of these families are names carved on tombstones. Names that, most likely, haven’t been uttered in the Delta for more than 50 years. Their descendents cleared out … gone.
But, realistically, the migration of our lives from where we are to some place else happens all the time. We leave for education, for jobs, for love and sometimes out of pure desperation. The Delta, bless its heart,Â is always the “best” example. It has become a microcosm for illustrating the painful fact that itâ€™s easy to be left behind â€“ again and again.
From my perspective of working as a photo journalist in agriculture, rural areas will always be a tougher place to create a life and carve out a living.
As for the Delta, there are still plenty of us with hearts and minds eternally wed to our beloved flatlands even though that doesn’t count with the census takers.
Maybe the region just needs to borrow an inspirational line from Frank Sinatra (apologies to New York City):
The Delta â€“ If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!