LAST JULY, Jesse Jackson, accompanied by two congressmen, Reps. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) and Charles Hayes (D-Ill.), visited Sugar Ditch in Tunica County, statistically the poorest county in Mississippi and the second poorest in the United States.
It was a large media happening in this neck of the woods. Lots of print and television news pictures were taken, and several yards of newsprint were devoted to the event.
Jackson called the Sugar Ditch neighborhood a "human disaster" and "America's Ethiopia." Rep. Hayes rated the poverty there "obviously the worst."
Sugar Ditch runs through the little 1,200- person (one-third of them black) town of Tunica which is the county seat of the not quite 10,000-person (three-fourths of them black) county, a flat expanse of landscape in the northwestern corner of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.
The town is 30-odd miles from Memphis, and the Peabody Hotel, which is famous for the ducks that promenade through its sumptuous lobby at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The Ditch instantly surpassed the Peabody Hotel ducks in notoriety.
Jackson and his congressional friends have gone back home, but Sugar Ditch, the Peabody ducks and the Sugar Ditch problems remain.
Poverty always has been of morbid interest to me. I was born, reared and still live in Mississippi, where poverty is commonplace. During 25 years in the U.S. Army, I have seen poverty in Calcutta, Peshawar, New Delhi, in what used to be known as Saigon, and in Baltimore and Washington. Thus I was instantly intrigued by the discovery of such poverty right under my nose.
So there was nothing that could stop me from bestirring my 65-year-old bulk, leaving my comfortably upholstered arm chair from which I manage a little 60-bed nursing home in West Point, Miss.,throwing my diddy bag with toothbrush and razor and a change of underwear into my mini-pickup and driving 31/2 hours catty-corner across the entire northern breadth of the state to see the "American Ethiopia" and "obviously the worst" poverty that exists in the whole world -- we must presume that all congressmen are well traveled, and we know doggoned well that Jackson is.
I approached Tunica County from the south on U.S. Highway 61 on a lovely September afternoon at a time when the faint chill of fall had broken the grip of summer heat. On the vast, lushly fertile plain which is the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the cotton and soybeans and milo (a grain sorghum) were ripening.
Highway 61 was once to Mississippi what Route 66 was to America. Highway 61 is a flat, straight belt of asphalt and concrete over which the sickeningly rich, the modrately well-off and the not-even-breaking- even white folks drove their Buicks and Packards and Oldsmobiles through places like Shelby and Duncan and Lula and Walls to hole up in comfortable hotels in Memphis which were called the Peabody, the William Len, the Gayosa and the King Cotton where they ate delicious filet mignons served by obsequious white-jacketed, black male waiters and drank good bourbon which they carried in brown paper bags.
But Highway 61 is not a big deal anymore since they built Interstate 55 over to the east. To make things worse, for industry, the Illinois Central Railroad, which paralleled Highway 61, has died, leaving folks to grit their teeth at places on the old rail bed where the steel tracks have been ripped up and rank Johnson grass grows.
The highway shows you the tacky face of Tunica -- the Sonic drive-in, Fred's discount store, the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and the usual accumulation of roadside litter which sores the eyes. But, ah, my friend, you turn left (or west) at the Blue and White Cafe, and you see another face of Tunica.
This is the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta version of Norman Rockwell country. The streets are shaded by tall oak and pecan trees, and I thought I glimpsed the squatty, gnarled trunk of a hackberry. The homes, resting in the ample shade, range in appearance from modest to imposing. Most are well kept. Truly, this face of Tunica is the "Good Place to Live" which the welcoming sign out on Highway 61 proclaims.
The face of downtown Tunica where the stores are gives you another pleasing view. The old brick buildings flank the railroad that ran down the middle of the main drag like it had been a streetcar line on Canal Street in New Orleans.
There was a somnolence about the scene which made this old man sigh, God, if I ever really do retire, let me come here. I could sit out my days on the concrete park benches which are scattered along the green, manicured railroad bed or on the paved crescent- shaped seats of the tiny amphitheater which was built with federal money a couple or three years ago.
Tunica's county courthouse is old and genteel, and the people working in the offices were white, friendly, courteous and equally as genteel as the building. A lady clerk smiled faintly and forgivingly as she gave me the directions to Sugar Ditch. One must assume that she had given the directions several times during recent weeks.
From the prose I had read during the previous several days, I could have envisioned Sugar Ditch as huge and awesome as the Tennessee-Tombigbee canal, with a flotsam of human heads, sheep entrails and a fetus or two bobbing along amidst telltale blobs of fecal matter. But Sugar Ditch turned out to be a harmless-looking little thing. It is a drainage ditch. Its banks are grown high in Johnson grass. Its bottom is cemented over and its waters flow with the somnolence of delta life itself.
I was told next day by Tunica's Mayor James Wilson that the Ditch probably does have some raw sewage in it, but as one who was raised on a Mississippi homestead farm with the traditional outhouse on the bank of a drainage ditch, I can hardly be faulted for not getting too uptight about a bit of sewage in Sugar Ditch.
Actually it is about 100 houses that about 200 black people live in along Sugar Ditch that have caused all the furor. The houses are sheds. They are little tin and wooden warrens rotting with age and falling in upon the filth that infests them and the people who inhabit them. They are hovels.
I couldn't help but notice that white folks live alongside Sugar Ditch too. Their houses are big and clean and imposing in appearance for the most part. Some of them are almost palatial. So it must not be the proximity of black versus white housing to Sugar Ditch that is the problem.
There are great plans to attack the poverty in Tunica symbolized by Sugar Ditch. Mayor Wilson patiently told me all about them the next day. (The mayor and I hit it off right away. He is an Army Air Corps veteran of WWII, recently retired from a career with a utility company. He took on the thankless job of mayor "after nobody else wanted it.")
He said he hopes that $1.5 million in federal money will enable the town to demolish the hovels and build 20 or 30 decent homes for the black elderly who live alongside the Ditch. He talked about $6 million worth of federally funded hopes for 120 housing units, and a vocational-technical school in the county to train the county's unskilled workforce. There would also be a project to enclose the waters of the Ditch in a box culvert and cover the whole thing with dirt and manicured grass so that thing will not offend human eyesight.
Despite the desirable sanitation aspects of this scheme, it seems almost a shame to cover Sugar Ditch from view since all the fuss it has caused. (The very idea of throwing a cover over Sugar Ditch is as offensive to me as dining on one of the Peabody ducks.)
But there are many desperate and vociferous claimants for the reported $21 million available through community development block grants administered by the Mississippi governor's office. Dozens of Sugar Ditches have been identified throughout the state. Sugar Ditches are as common as toadstools. It seems that every community or city or town or county has a Sugar Ditch.
And there are other problems too.
A black attorney who speaks for the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services has threatened legal action to prevent black residents from being moved to 17 mobile homes outside Tunica because it would dilute black in-town voting strength.
Voting strength? Black power? White power? In a little town where the mayor's job is up for grabs for anyone with no better sense than to volunteer for it?
Then, too, housing is only the outward manifestation of the problem that exists in Tunica County.
There is a futility about the situation there. There is a futility which is so apparent, so deep, so persistent and so permanent that former President Lyndon B. Johnson's slogan for a Great Society -- everyone would have a chance for fulfillment, prosperity and hope -- is an obscene mockery, as obscene and mocking as another futile slogan: the light at the end of the tunnel.
At 7:30 in the morning of my second visit to Tunica I met with County Agent Dwayne Wheeler in his offices at the northern edge of town.
Wheeler is a youngish black man. He is himself a symbol. In 1939 when I first entered little Delta State Teachers College about 75 miles south of Tunica it would have been considered a wild fantasy to imagine that a black man would someday be in charge of a local and state agricultural business in any county in Mississippi.
But there he sat behind his desk feeding me statistical data on farming operations in his county: 146,000 acres planted in soybeans: 28,000 acres in cotton, 15,000 acres each in rice and milo; and 1,480 acres used for raising catfish.
I didn't need more specifics. He had confirmed what I already knew. Farming is still where it's at in Tunica County. And farming doesn't employ a lot of people these days when machinery does the work that mules and black cotton choppers and black cotton pickers used to do when the Delta planters (don't ever call them "farmers") didn't think much about planting anything but cotton. Of Tunica Country's 9,600 white and black souls, only about 500 are employed in agriculture.
Since no one has made much effort to give the hoe handlers and cotton choppers new jobs, you don't really have to wonder why the county's total population has declined by almost 55 percent during the 50-year period leading up to 1980. Pick up an excellent economic development study on Tunica County published by the Mississippi Research and Development Center in July of this year, and Tunica County's economic plight swats you in the face like a wet towel.
What the economists call "transfer payments," and what we plain, ordinary people call "gubamint checks," constitute the leading source of income in the county. Income from property holdings (dividends, interest and rent) rank second, and manufacturing is way down the line in seventh place.
All of Tunica County's "industries" employ 550 people with average wages of about $5 per hour. In July, 450 people were not employed at all. Fifty-four percent of Tunica County's population is either under 16 years of age or over 65.
You think these barebone statistics paint a dismal picture?
Wait. It gets worse.
There is not simply financial poverty in Tunica. There is also paucity of spirit among many of the people there. The latter is a much more serious form of poverty.
There was time when the plantation owner -- the Ol' Massa -- took care of everything. Nobody was going to starve as long as Ol' Massa needed hoe hands and cotton choppers.
But Ol' Massa is dead and gone. Uncle Sam doesn't need hoe hands and cotton choppers. Uncle Sam just writes checks and sends them through the mail. Because of Uncle Sam, there are no distended bellies of starvation -- Ethiopia-type -- in Tunica, Jesse Jackson to the contrary.
Until little more than a decade ago, public schooling for blacks in Tunica County and quite a few other counties throughout the South was not designed to provide more academic skills than those needed to swing that hoe and pick that cotton boll; or clean the house and cook for "Ol' Miss." The owners of the plantations and the businessmen who looked to the financial success of the mechanized farming operations were busy salvaging their own. Sorry about that.
Movers and shakers at the state and regional level who were trying to lure industries from other parts of the nation looked vainly for movers and shakers in Tunica County to campaign for a piece of this action.
A bill in the state legislature which would have legalized horse racing and pari-mutual betting on a county basis died in the Mississippi Senate this year after the president pro tempore was arrested and charged with extortion of a sizeable amount of money from promoters of the "race-track bill." The defeat of this bill was a disgusting consequence of group guilt on the part of state senators.
Tunica is one of two counties in the state where many of its citizens had looked forward to welcoming the race-track operators and the resultant jobs that would have been created -- no matter how few, no matter how menial. And how sweet it would have been to see some dollars flowing from Memphis into Mississippi for a change.
And then there is the vacuum that exists where one would have hoped for positive, rational leadership from among the black people.
You may ask, "What is positive, rational leadership?"
I can tell you what it is not.
It is not positive and rational leadership which forces local school districts to spend tens of thousands of scarce dollars defending the dismissal of grossly incompetent teachers and administrators. And it is not the threatening of legal action to prevent the moving of some 17 black families from squalid hovels to temporary mobile home sites because such a move would dilute black voting strength in a town which has to beg people to run for office.
Poor Tunica County!
There isn't much going for Tunica County. It even comes in second to an obscure former leper colony Hawaii for the "top poor county in America" prize.
Tunica County can't even make an uncontested claim that Hernando DeSoto made his discovery of the great Mississippi River within the boundaries. The civic-spirited citizens of Memphis make a counter claim that DeSoto made his discovery of the Mississippi at the Chickasaw Bluffs just below Memphis.
Why doesn't Memphis just settle for its Peabody ducks?
Will all of Mississippi's poor people profit from the July visit of Jesse Jackson and his congressional traveling companions?
There are too many Sugar Ditches in Mississippi and throughout America for Jackson to point a perpetually indignant finger at and vent his marvelous blend of spite, piety, righteousness and rancor. And there are not enough federal and state funds to go around to all.
The trend toward alleviation of poverty along the Sugar Ditches in Mississippi will move with the same somnolence that has characterized the changes that have come about through past decades. The Great Society is not yet upon us. Hope perhaps. But not fulfillment and prosperity. Sorry about that, Lyndon. We never found the light at the end of the tunnel either.
But all is not lost either. Any number of small things could happen to brighten the economic picture in Tunica County. A little 10-to-20-employe factory here; a small recreation or service facility there to mop up some of the unskilled labor force would help; and it could happen. I wish it would happen. I so want it to happen.
In my fantasies I see Tunica becoming a Disneyesque resort area. The tourists could come on down after stopping in Memphis to see the Elvis Presley mansion and the parade of the Peabody ducks.
Right now the only draw it has is Sugar Ditch. Then again, it brought in Jesse Jackson and a couple of congressmen, and lots of media and even me.