Discrimination in the Delta

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Julian C. Valdivia

IF YOU GREW up in the United States it’s unlikely that you were taught local histories in school. It’s more probable that you learned national history from a top-down perspective. I’d wager this included elements of great-man history where you learned about one figure who led the masses towards some form of progress.

This model for American history is problematic because it generalizes the experiences of hundreds of millions of Americans who have different racial, ethnic, gender, regional and class backgrounds. Unfortunately this has been taught in place of local histories which are crucial to understanding struggles like the Civil Rights Movement.

In the summer of 2019, I researched responses to the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South through my participation in the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program’s Mississippi Freedom Project. My colleagues and I got the opportunity to learn local histories from Black elders who welcomed us into their communities.

These are individuals who lived through segregation, integration, and into an allegedly post-racial America. This includes working-class people like Lawrence Mansfield, a Black farmer in the Arkansas Delta, whose experience is the center of my research. Local histories like his are important because they add nuance to national narratives surrounding race in America.

Typically discussions of civil rights in America end with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making discrimination on the basis of race illegal. Stopping at this point is problematic because it makes people assume that racial discrimination and the fight for civil rights had a definitive ending.

Take the case of Mr. Mansfield. He was a farmer in the Arkansas Delta and discussed how loan officers discriminated against Black farmowners as late as the 1980s. Loans are critical to independent farmers because a line of credit is necessary to purchase seeds and capital in time for the growing season.

Mr. Mansfield shared how the farm loan officer in his area would delay when Black farmers received their funds, preventing them from planting until later in the season. That drastically impacted their crop yields because their plants had less time to grow. Over time Black farmers in the area started to hemorrhage costs that bankrupted their operations. Most, including Mr. Mansfield, had to sell their land and move away because there were few other economic opportunities in the Delta.

While Mr. Mansfield noted that the farm loan officer was eventually removed for discriminatory practices, the damage was already done. Black farmers were forced off their land. They unjustly lost their private property just as they had after the 1919 Elaine Massacre.

Lawrence Mansfield’s oral history is important because it contrasts national narratives around civil rights by showing how racial discrimination extended into the 1980s. His experience suggests that loan officers in the Arkansas Delta subverted the 1964 Civil Rights Act by delaying the Black farmers’ loans, rather than explicitly denying them.

The inclusion of local histories like these alter our understanding of our supposedly post-racial America. Perhaps most interesting is the way that his experience echoes post-Reconstruction America. Just as new rights afforded to Freedpeople were subverted in the aftermath of Reconstruction, so too were those given to people of color after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With the inclusion of more local histories like Mr. Mansfield’s testimony, findings like these may finally make their way into national discussions about how racial discrimination continues to operate.

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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