Poverty, race and reparations: Sen. Elizabeth Warren sets tone for candidates campaigning in Mississippi

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Kelsey Davis, Mississippi Today

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons speaks with Democratic Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren this week during her tour of the Delta, which focused primarily on her plans for improving affordable housing options.

GREENVILLE — The Mississippi Delta that Sen. Elizabeth Warren toured this week is significantly different from the one Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited in 1967, just a few years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

Take Greenville, for example. In 1967, the Mississippi town had a population of roughly 40,000 supported largely by farming and industry. Still, the poverty rate was 29 percent, according to the 1970 Census. At the time, the city was split evenly along black-white racial lines and the schools were segregated.

Today, the city and its leadership are majority black along with the local schools, even though de jure segregation ended roughly 50 years ago. Poverty is higher, 35 percent, as industries have dried up and agriculture mechanized.

“Part of the Delta was industrialized and we never made the transition,” said state Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “The investment to double down on those workers was never made.”

In Mississippi, poverty statistics are well known no matter how much elected officials have sought to play down the state’s nation-leading poverty rate. But Warren, a two-term senator from Massachusetts seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, took the rare move this week to make poverty and racism the centerpiece of her appeal to Democratic primary voters in Mississippi and to those across the nation watching her live televised town hall at Jackson State University.

Hines, standing in front of the CNN stage before the event, continued: “Now the chickens have come home to roost. What we need to do is make the type of investment that they (state leaders) are willing to make on the Gulf Coast and in northeast Mississippi and in Desoto County.”

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

State Rep. John Hines points to other areas in Mississippi, northeast Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, and says now it’s time state leaders invest in the Delta.

“The leadership really doesn’t want to deal with what’s west of I-55 because of the demographics. There’s no other reason to justify why something hasn’t happened,” Hines said. “It has always shown that until you help the Mississippi Delta rise, the rest of the state will not rise.”

Interstate 55 is a symbolic dividing line in Mississippi, with most African Americans in the state living west of the freeway, an area that includes the Delta. Race emerged as a dominant theme in one of Warren’s first town hall questions, when a grandmother of 10 asked Warren about the 400-year-long legacy of slavery. 

Warren called chattel slavery a “stain on America” with connections to the nation’s current state.

“It’s not just the original founding,” Warren added. “It’s what’s happened generation after generation, the impact of discrimination, handed down from one to the next, means that today in America, whether it’s housing discrimination or employment discrimination, we live in a world where the average white family has $100, the average black family has about $5.”

“So I believe it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations,” she said, stopping short of advocating for direct financial payments. “There are a lot of ways to think about how reparations should be formed.”

In Washington County where Greenville is located, 92 percent of the population was enslaved in 1860, the effects of which are evident today in the area’s high rates of poverty, infant mortality, life expectancy and other poor health outcomes.

Earlier in the day, Warren toured Cleveland and Greenville, walking neighborhoods where those complex issues are compounded by a lack of viable housing options.

She spoke about her affordable housing initiative that aims to relieve the financial burden on low-income and middle class Americans by reducing rental costs by 10 percent. Warren’s plan involves investing $500 billion, gathered through higher taxes on the wealthiest citizens, over ten years to build 3 million new housing units. 

Mississippi Democratic Party Chair Bobby Moak said Warren’s Cleveland and Greenville visits mirror New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s poverty tours in the Mississippi Delta more than 50 years ago.

It was too early at that point to see the fruits of the landmark civil rights legislation. Kennedy made no assertions that the area’s entrenched poverty had been fixed, said University of Mississippi journalism professor Ellen Meacham, who authored “Delta Epiphany,” the 2018 book about Kennedy’s visit.

Since, Meacham said, other politicians have visited the Mississippi Delta — such as John Edwards and Bill Clinton — to wring their hands and talk about change.

“None of those seemed to talk this comfortably about race as Warren did,” Meacham said.

Kelsey Davis, Mississippi Today

Senator Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland shows Democratic Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren areas of Cleveland during her tour of the Delta.

In her comments on economic inequity, Warren did not shy away from discussing the role of racism — not just speech that should be condemned, but systemic discrimination that permeates nearly every institution and facet of American life.

Some politicians who have focused their platforms around income and wealth inequity, such as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, have faced criticism for failing to emphasize race or include enough perspectives from people of color.

Warren’s visit, an obvious appeal to the strong Democratic voting bloc of black citizens, is setting new expectations for how national candidates treat Mississippi, a state Mike Espy, 2018 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said is “always overlooked.”

For some, Warren’s Delta visit signaled a brief respite from a sense of forgottenness that comes from one-size-fits-all policies that often benefit urban areas more than rural ones.

Eulah Peterson, mayor of Mound Bayou, said the first step is “acknowledging that this area exists and is in need.”

“In the larger scheme of things, nobody thinks maybe as much as they should about the area. But it’s important to us because we’re citizens as well and tax payers and all of those things. So we have as much right to be considered when you’re making plans.”

Pam Chapman, Cleveland resident and area activist, echoed Peterson.

“I’m excited to see a presidential candidate to come to the Delta, to actually put their feet in the Delta, to see the needs that are needed here. She wants to try to help us bring better housing here and so for her to go on a tour to see some of the housing is so important, so valuable to the Mississippi Delta area,” she said.

While President Donald Trump held a rally at the Mississippi Coliseum on the east side of downtown Jackson during his 2016 campaign, “she (Warren) visited neglected spots” like west Jackson, town hall attendee Dyamone White said.

White said Warren spoke more to issues facing everyday Mississippians, such as affordable housing, than the state’s own elected leaders. White said cheers from the crowd of roughly 600, especially after a question about the impeachment of President Donald Trump, should indicate Mississippi is turning purple.

“I hope Phil Bryant was watching,” White said. “I hope he sees nobody’s comfortable and we’re tired of being at the bottom.”

During the town hall, CNN’s Jake Tapper pointedly asked Warren if she thought Mississippi should change the design of its state flag, which contains the battle emblem of the Confederacy that fought to preserve slavery in the Civil War. “Yes,” she replied without hesitation. 

During the Greenville tour Warren sat down with community leaders to hear more about the nuts and bolts of how exactly lack of affordable housing plagues the Delta.

Greenville has one of the highest concentrations of substandard housing, said Daniel Boggs, CEO of Greater Greenville Housing. The nonprofit community development corporation manages 143 rental units; over 730 families are on a waiting list to get into one.

“The mayor (Errick D. Simmons) has already done the hard work with all of his team and that is to figure out what kind of housing is needed … He’s done the hard work, he just needs more resources. And that’s where the federal government can be a good partner,” Warren said.

After the meeting, Boggs said he was grateful for the chance to dialogue, but unsure about if her housing plan would actually wind up benefiting Greenville and areas like it.

“Everybody that we’ve met with from the D.C. area just wants to throw one policy at it and say, ‘We’re gonna fix it,’ and it’s not that simple. I haven’t had an opportunity to read her bill, but I am very hopeful. I know where she stands with affordable housing and she does have a good outlook on it, but I would love to see what her resolution is to actually fix it in rural America,” he said.

Today, many politicians exalt jobs and employment as the exclusive solution to poverty, despite the fact that a single mother of two would have to work 56 hours a week at minimum wage to reach the poverty line. Mississippi’s Republican leaders have generally opposed any increase to the minimum wage and have typically only entertained raises to state employee pay, including teachers, in election years.

Poverty and its ties to slavery and the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that followed is like a name politicians “dare not speak,” Meacham said.

Even if more robust anti-poverty measures are implemented on the federal level, Meacham said, Mississippi will not begin to really move the needle until it provides high quality education to all children and “acknowledge and grapple with the systemic inequities that have impacted generations of people of color and still do.”

“There’s never been a generation of Mississippi leaders who stepped up and said, ‘We didn’t start this fire, but were going to put it out,’” Meacham said. “There’s never been a reckoning.”