South of the railroad tracks, on the black side of town, the Club Ebony lounge has added a menu specialty -- dinners of neckbone, pinto beans, sweet potatoes, cornbread and collard greens for $3.
Owner Mary Shepard said she added the dinner menu recently to give black Indianolans an alternative to the white-owned hamburger and chicken fast-food outlets that line Highway 82. Those are among targets of a two-week black boycott of white businesses that whites concede is exacting a heavy economic and emotional toll.
"We've been wasting our money in this city," Shepard said as she served a steaming plate of Mississippi soul food. "They're going to have to start appointing blacks to positions when blacks are qualified."
The "they" to which she refers is Indianola's white power structure, a ruling political and economic elite that runs this Mississippi Delta town like an antebellum plantation, ceding power only gradually to the black majority in a manner and at a pace of its own choosing.
What galvanized the black majority and prompted the boycott was the white-controlled school board's decision to appoint a white, Dr. Willie A. Grissom, as superintendent of the school system, 92 percent of whose students are black.
The three whites on the five-member board ignored a black applicant, Dr. Robert Merritt, a popular city elementary school principal with a doctorate from the predominantly white University of Southern Mississippi.
Blacks, who comprise 57 percent of the population in this town of about 8,000, also responded with a classroom boycott that has forced an indefinite shutdown of the 3,000-student system. Many of them say the school board choice represented the clearest evidence that whites are still trying to make decisions for a black majority.
What began as a dispute over one job, however, has become a larger struggle involving black power and white control, New South and Old South, black aspirations and white fears. Battle lines have been drawn as Indianola braces for its first municipal elections, perhaps this year, under a new ward system recommended by the Justice Department to give the black majority its first crack at breaking the whites' grip on power.
While some whites warned a visitor in hushed tones that the Merritt issue is really about blacks taking political control, some blacks openly boasted the same sentiment.
"It's bigger than the issue itself," said Willie Spurlock, a black legal assistant coordinating the boycott movement. "It's not about taking over, it's about taking power. It's not just the Merritt issue. That just happens to be the nucleus.
"Some whites feel that if they give up here, the floodgates will open. [But] they have to realize that this is a new day. This is the 1980s," he said.
Clarke Johnson, a white druggist and a progressive on race issues serving his 13th year as one of five city aldermen said, "There are some people who feel that having a black superintendent might be a threat to their future in some way.
"I could see if the black community got politically stronger, I would not be reelected so my job would be affected. It's about political control. I have heard people say that a lot of this is in preparation for the next city election, that they [blacks] are using this to solidify the black community to lay the groundwork to run their own candidates," Johnson said.
Blacks and whites interviewed here agreed that the economic boycott and ensuing racial tension have hurt the city's fragile economy just when expansion of the catfish industry was improving it.
The issue threatens to overshadow this summer's planned centennial celebrations, which could feature a return of home town blues musician B.B. King if the controversy is resolved. And more important, the affair may have exhausted a reservoir of community good will built up over many years.
This once-passive city avoided much of the violent upheaval that accompanied integration across Mississippi and the rest of the South. In the process, many racial moderates -- blacks and whites and believers in the school of genteel accommodation -- have found the center ground harder to maintain.
"I think we are in a transition, and neither the Ku Klux Klan antiblack or the antiwhites are going to get control of it," said Jack E. Harper Jr., chancery clerk of Sunflower County and a major voice in local politics.
"It's awfully lonely out there in the middle sometimes, but I believe in the end that's where the hearts and minds of most of the people really are."
Intense racial feelings and fears that the confrontation could become radicalized are found on placards and signs worn by black pickets in front of white gasoline stations, restaurants and convenience stores. They read:
"Don't Cause This Town to Blow Up." "Down With the 1950s -- This Is the 1980s!" "Racism in Education Cannot Be Tolerated!"
"You would think we wouldn't have to see this all over again," said one middle-aged picket, high school counselor Frank S. Brown. "People are still trying to maintain power . . . . White folks are trying to hold onto something they've had for a long time."
Picket David Williams, 70, said, "These white folks are trying to live like they did when I was a boy. But this is a new day. The school [system] is 92 percent black, and you're going to tell me a black guy can't run it?"
Even more striking to the first-time visitor is the attitude of many whites who mistakenly believed Indianola was free of racial tension.
For these whites, black unrest about the choice of a new white school superintendent came as a shock. "This surprised me, this really surprised me," said Morris Lewis, founder of the Lewis Grocer Co., one of the city's largest firms. "I didn't know we had this kind of problem. Evidently, it was very important to the [black] people involved.
"I thought we were living well together," said Lewis, a resident for 52 years.
Asked if his surprise symbolized a major communications failure between black Indianola and white Indianola, he replied: "I don't think there's any question. The big point of it is, none of us knew. I think we should have known, but we didn't."
Alderman Johnson said, "Maybe I was sitting up there fat and happy, but I didn't realize there were any serious problems . . . . Evidently, we have just assessed the situation incorrectly. The city has just failed to address the concerns of the black leadership."
Now the situation seems intractable: Grissom refuses to quit, the aroused black community threatens to continue the boycott until he does and the school board is eager to resolve the problem without appearing to bend to black pressure.
The crisis began last year when Dr. D.B. Floyd, a white, announced his retirement after 18 years as school superintendent. When a federal court order ended the separate school system in the 1970s, whites largely abandoned public schools for the private Indianola Academy, and blacks fully expected that the next superintendent would be one of their own. Their candidate was Merritt, who let it be known that he wanted the job.
Last October, 14-year school board president Odell Goodwin, a white, told the local newspaper, The Enterprise-Tocsin, that none of the candidates had been interviewed for the job. Later, the one black board member told the newspaper that the board had secretly talked with Grissom at his home but not Merritt. Goodwin conceded to reporters he had not told the truth.
The black community expressed outrage and quickly closed ranks behind Merritt. Merritt later sued the board, and the case remains unresolved.
"It became more than a community endorsement," chancery clerk Harper said. "It became a community demand, and it took away the school board's discretion."
Blacks also fielded a black candidate, David Jackson, to run against Goodwin when his term expired last month. Past elections were never contested mainly, black and white residents agreed, because board members never told anyone when their terms expired until it was too late for other candidates to file.
This time, the newly politicized black community, aided by a newly aggressive Enterprise-Tocsin that covered the election thoroughly, swept Goodwin from office and gave the school board its second black member. The other black member, Walter Gregory, was appointed in the 1970s to a seat that came to be seen as traditionally reserved for a black.
On March 19, the board voted 3 to 2, along racial lines, to offer Grissom the superintendent's job.
The vote was conducted in a closed late-night meeting, and the contract with Grissom was signed secretly a few days later, before the choice was made public. Blacks packed a news conference six days after the vote to hear about the winner, Grissom, whose victory was presented as irreversible.
Now competing positions have been staked out, and a lengthy test of wills seems under way. "It's a no-win situation," Alderman Johnson said. "I have asked both sides, and nobody can see any resolution."
"We don't like this," Williams said. "We hate it. But we'll stand around here five years if we have to. We aren't going to quit."