King Cotton and hate bite the dust

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The landscape remains the same; a vast alluvial plain of woods, swamps and streams, but above all of flat cottonfields stretching to the horizon, dreamy and more beautiful than ever in the soft glow of autumn. And everywhere the unseen presence of the river, whose floods have left behind the richest soil in America.

This is a place haunted by ghosts, of segregation, brutality, slavery. And by many measures,this is still among the poorest places in America. But, amazingly, life on the Mississippi Delta is changing for the better.

Not very long ago, the blacks picked the cotton, bondsmen of hard-nosed white farmers lacking even the veneer of ante- bellum graciousness. People like Leslie McLemore, son of a sharecropper who is now a professor at Jackson State University, remembers those days well. Like every other black teenager he spent late summer and autumn picking cotton.

One image especially sticks in his mind. "It must have been around 1956. Some white people were driving down to New Orleans and stopped to take pictures. And it truly was an amazing sight, a sea of people, all the white cotton and black faces for acres and acres and acres.

"Back then a black boy was paid 25 cents an hour for a 10-hour day - slave wages. But for the family budget it was vital.The only way a sharecropper could escape was to run away at night. No wonder I had Mississippi nationalism at high school, saying to myself, `we've got to change this damn place'."

Now, finally, it is changing. The harvest is done by machines but more important, King Cotton is slipping from its pedestal. The big money is soyabeans and catfish farming and the biggest money is in gambling. Casinos are springing up along the river from Tunica county in the north to Vicksburg in the South.

But the greatest change of allis in race relations. In growing numbers, Delta Mississippians who left to seek their fortune are returning. McLemore says: "Nowadays I find overt racism elsewhere. Here I don't act any differently from any place in the world." Can this be Mississippi, USA?