MARKS, Miss. — Instead of a sign of opportunity, a new Amtrak station here feels more like an invitation to get out.
The station, funded by a $500,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and which connects commuters to Chicago and New Orleans, opened in May to the dismay of some residents.
“How many people do you see working there?” Kenny Stanford, 54, said over a Friday afternoon game of bones just blocks away.
The train stop’s clean brick structure and black metal benches, which is empty of commuters and, to Stanford’s point, employs no workers, contrasts the Delta town’s many shuttered storefronts, abandoned factories and crumbling homes. Nearly one-third of Marks’ 1,600 people live in poverty and the surrounding Quitman County has an unemployment rate of 9 percent, well over the state’s 5.3 percent.
Mississippi Today dispatched reporters to all corners of the state to ask citizens about the most important issues in their communities. In the Delta, a large number of people we interviewed were largely unfamiliar with the candidates and only vaguely aware that the midterms are approaching. But they know one thing – the Delta needs more, better paying jobs as fast as possible.
The economic anxiety among Deltans is underscored in a recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll of 1,152 adults in which 32 percent of respondents said jobs and the economy is the issue that matters most to them.
The online poll, which included 985 registered voters, was conducted between September 9 and September 24. After the economy, health care and education also ranked high for voters’ most pressing concern.
The survey also found that 37 percent of people polled said jobs and the economy should be state government’s top priority. The poll also found that 30 percent of respondents said education should be government’s No. 1 priority and 15 percent said the government should be most focused on health care.
“It all comes down to something very simple to people in the Delta — job opportunities and quality of life,” said Chuck Espy, 43, mayor of Clarksdale, the Delta blues town known as “The Crossroads,” and nephew of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy. “If the next U.S. Senator could hone in on those two issues and actually make a difference, they’ll be in office forever.”
Mike Espy faces both Republicans U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a unusual election to replace the seat left vacant by longtime former Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April. On the same Nov. 6 ticket, voters will choose between Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Democratic state Rep. David Baria.
Stanford and his friends, either retired, employed by the city or working odd jobs, sit at a wooden dining table outside an old auto repair shop the afternoon of Sept. 7. They play their game against a backdrop of worn political signs — those of candidates for state senator, tax assessor, county supervisor and longtime Democratic U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson.
Stanford inspects the few dominoes in his hand. A standing metal fan spins in its cage behind him. His peers call out numbers and place their colored tiles on the growing porcelain track.
“It’s like they’re trying to push us out the Delta,” said 40-year-old Ulysses Hentz.
When he’s not working seasonal power plant jobs, Hentz works as a handyman for several of his neighbors for income. “Nothing is reliable,” he said.
“My parents have been trying to get me to move out of here for years, you know what I’m saying. But I like this little town. I want to be one of the people to help bring it back,” Hentz said.
While the state has courted large employers in recent years, none have located in the Delta, the notoriously impoverished area along the Mississippi River between Memphis and Vicksburg.
“The state is not really that aggressive on bringing jobs to Mississippi and networking it where the individuals in those smaller towns can take advantage of those jobs,” said Jerome Murff, 69, of Tchula, one of the poorest towns in the state.
Marks lost its last large factory when Bunge Corp., a soybean, wheat and corn processing plant, left the town after not receiving desired tax cuts, residents said.
The city acquired the facility and is working with state and local officials on development, according to the Marks Project, a city-county partnership focused on solutions in education, economic development and recreation.
“It may not be written down, but it appears there’s a master plan in Washington D.C. to completely ignore the Mississippi Delta,” said Clarksdale’s Hartley Kittle, 69, who identifies as a Republican.
Fifty years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced the Poor People’s Campaign, a caravan to Washington D.C. from Marks, where he famously visited in 1966 to find children with no shoes.
Despite progress, the farm industry’s tight grip on the area and its rich soil has kept communities stagnant, residents say.
“These farmers don’t want you to bring no business in here like Nissan that’s going to pay you $25 or $30 an hour. They don’t want them to take their workers away,” Hentz said. “I hate to say it but it’s still like Jim Crow days.”
Lula Green, 63, has operated her own small business out of her Marks home since 2007. Her living room serves as a small snack shop, offering chips, skittles and pop tarts for 65 cents or a dollar. She cooks lunch plates, too. A favorite is her “to-die-for” nacho cheese sauce.
Green complains of no full-service grocery stores in Marks, just one of many food deserts across the Delta and Mississippi.
“If we could get the jobs, all the other (services) would follow,” Green said.
Quitman County has 79 churches but no hospital. Just north in Tunica, residents like Kathy Burks, 57, who is disabled and has neuropathy and fibromyalgia, have to travel 38 miles to the nearest hospital.
“I’m allergic to wasps and I got stung and my airway closed,” Burks said. “It took forever for an ambulance to come, but if they had an urgent care or a clinic that would have treated me until I got to a hospital, that would have been fine.”
Casinos are a major employer in the Tunica area, but $8 to $10 an hour is no living wage, locals say.
“There’s money here in Mississippi,” Burks said, referencing Delta’s wealth of agriculture business, “but for people needing it, it’s really hard” to survive.
On a Thursday evening just before dark, Joe Badger, 54, sits in a folding chair on the porch of a shotgun house next to his newly-opened restaurant Badger Grub on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Clarksdale. His friends surround the porch, some dancing and drinking under the colorful disco ball attached to his storefront.
Badger, a longtime chef, took a chance five months ago and left his job at the casino to open the restaurant, which serves up hamburgers, catfish, fried bologna, fried spaghetti, fries and chicken wings. He said he could have located downtown, where out-of-towners have begun investing in tourist attractions that capitalize on Clarksdale’s musical history.
But he chose this spot on MLK boulevard, where the classic funk music playing from his friend’s Bluetooth speaker almost drowns out the sound of 12 consecutive gunshots.
“This is the area that needs people who are positive,” Badger said. “My thing is to make sure that our people see that somebody cares here.”
But when he opened, there was no ribbon cutting. No visit from local politicians or the chamber of commerce. It’s an illustration of a community cast aside, he said.
Badger stresses the need for creative solutions to poverty.
“If you raise minimum wage, a lot of people that’s walking around here will have somewhere to stay. They’re tearing down old houses. Why not remodel those places and give them to people who don’t have nowhere to go?” Badger said.
Clarksdale’s Jonathan “Jon B” Bays, 34, said his area would most benefit from more job training opportunities.
Lee Williams, a 34-year-old drummer who often performs at Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club, said, “if it’s a job, it doesn’t pay well,” and “some are not motivated to work.”
54-year-old Rena Lara resident Stephen Wilkinson, who supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, said he feels the government rewards people who do not work and complains of a growing decline in work ethic. The owner of Alligator Land Management said he would like to see less unnecessary government spending.
In the Delta’s public consciousness, the systemic lack of job opportunity and the personal perception of low motivation to work become tangled.
Badger’s friend Alfonso Buford, a 54-year-old retired police officer, said the Delta needs to emphasize recreation for young people in an effort to reduce crime.
Doll Stanley, a Winona animal rights activist and director of In Defense of Animals’ Justice for Animals Campaign, reflects on the state of Mississippi’s people as she pulls live hens, drenched from Tropical Storm Gordon, out of a wrecked 18-wheeler Sept. 6.
“The biggest problem in Mississippi is funding and resources. For everything,” Stanley said.
The nearly one-third of children living in poverty, she said, are already behind before they ever start school. And the correlation between low literacy and incarceration, “means we’re living in hell.”
On the side of I-55 in Grenada, Stanley peers into the backup truck, where chickens are crammed in cages.
“It can’t be about building prisons. It has to be about building a society. A healthy society,” Stanley said.
In addition to being the most impoverished state, Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and the largest state prison, known as Parchman Farm and where farmers historically profited off inmate labor, is located in the heart of the Delta. In August, 16 inmates died in prisons across the state.
Clarksdale resident and former educator Tasha Tucker said tackling poverty has a waterfall effect, which is why, as a board member for non-profit Coahoma Opportunities Incorporated, she serves as a de facto employment counselor in her community.
“(Poverty) stems from a lack of job opportunity, which definitely affects your education. You lower the poverty level, you’ll see education, you’ll see performance increase. And then even your crime,” she said. “Your crime will be decreased when you give people options. When they know they have options and a way out.”