July 22, 2017

Two excerpts from Deep South by Paul Theroux (2015)

Hot Springs — Pleasures and Miseries

My afternoon drive from Monticello to Hot Springs was a long panning shot of sad towns and beat-up villages, Warren to Edinburg, which was poor and small and lifeless, and Fordyce, which I’d heard about in Alabama as the birthplace of the beloved coach “Bear” Bryant, a town where every store was shut or abandoned or turned into a thrift shop. At the crossroads on Fordyce’s Main Street, the faded signs and empty premises were a testament that there was no call for Benton Hardware, Farm Implements, a dress shop, or a soda fountain in the Walmart era. Then tiny Tulip, and Malvern, which had some vitality that radiated from Hot Springs, farther along the road.

In a sudden, rocky, high-sided vale of the Ouachita Mountains, with two tall Soviet-looking buildings, one the VA hospital, the other the Arlington Hotel, Hot Springs was a surprise, a spa town with a claim to architectural splendor and the gamy smell of an old circus. The thermal-spa buildings that lined Bath Row were Art Deco marvels well restored, and narrow buildings lined steeply sloping streets on the cliffsides. Half the place was painted, decked out, yet with a residue of its vicious past existence; the other half was blandly residential. The town looked carved from rock in the mountain gap, one of the most dramatic physical settings in any Southern town.

Many signs on the main streets extolled its raffish atmosphere, its criminal history — allusions to the visits of gangsters, gloating mentions of crime, brothels, and sensational murders. “It’s hard to imagine the city as a hotbed for organized crime, such as gambling, prostitution and bootlegging,” said the Hot Springs promotional brochure, piling it on (it was subtitled “The Past Is Where the Fun Is”). “But from the late-1800s through the mid-1900s, especially in the 1930s, Hot Springs was a popular hangout for Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, and other infamous mobsters. The safe, secluded scenic location of Hot Springs made it the ideal hideout.”

Of the many houses of prostitution, the busiest was “The Mansion,” owned by the celebrated Hot Springs madam Maxine Temple Jones, who catered to the rich and powerful, criminals and politicians. For decades resisting the mob, whom she ratted on in return for a pardon, she stayed in business into the mid-1960s and later wrote a book about her life and times.

“Honey, I like an old-fashioned whorehouse that has respect and dignity,” she told the Arkansas Times in 1982. “And my girls were always very proper. I always taught them what my daddy taught me: to walk tall and always remember that it’s not what you do, but how you do it.”

The gangster era came to an end in the late 1960s and is luridly depicted in the Gangster Museum of America on Central Avenue (“where you won’t be gambling on a good time, but betting on a sure thing!”). Because of its pleasant climate and sleaze, the town had been a destination for spring training for Northern baseball teams from the 1880s to 1940 — a wild era too, when players routinely binged and whored.

That was Hot Springs’s colorful past, but it was the recent past. No place to raise a child, is what you’d say — dangerous, wild, full of malign influences, opportunists, career criminals, tarts, cheats, trimmers, and schemers. Yet that’s what the newly married Virginia Clinton did, accompanying her second husband, Roger, there, her seven-year-old Billy in tow.

Bill Clinton was born in the small, sweetly named town of Hope, in southwestern Arkansas, in 1946, as the often-told story has it in the mythology of the man. But the banal truth is that he grew up — was formed, educated, became a man — in raw, reckless Hot Springs, a hundred miles north, amid its miseries and splendors. His father, William Blythe, was killed in a car crash before he was born. His mother studied nursing, so that she could provide for the boy. In 1950, his mother met and married Roger Clinton, and three years later they moved from Hope to Hot Springs, Roger’s hometown.

“While Bill Clinton’s writings about his boyhood in Hope in the late 1940s acknowledge the racial separation of the town of 7,500 people, his memories are mostly sepia-toned and nostalgic, like those of his Pawpaw’s grocery store,” the Arkansas writer Jay Jennings explains in Carry the Rock (2010). “But in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when cotton was king and Jim Crow was unwritten law, Hope was the site of enough racial murder that it was sometimes called the lynching capital of the South.”

In Hot Springs, Roger Clinton was known as a shiftless drunk. In a town of degenerates, being a boozer was no shame, but Roger proved to be a wife-beater as well as a demented alcoholic, and when young Bill was old enough (he says he was fifteen), he defied his stepfather’s wrath and defended his mother. The marriage ended. Virginia continued working as a nurse anesthetist, but in an expression of hope over experience, she remarried the same pathetic man a year later.

Meanwhile, young Bill studied, learned to play the tenor saxophone, excelled academically at Hot Springs High School, attended church at Park Place Baptist, bought chili cheeseburgers at the Polar Bar (now Baily’s Dairy Treat), ribs at McClard’s Bar-B-Q, apple pie at Club Café, and ice cream at Cook’s Dairy, and went to movies (Elvis movies, biblical epics) at the Paramount and Mako theaters. He tells us this in his autobiography, My Life, displaying great affection for the town and an extraordinary memory for detail.

But he does not say that the theaters’ balconies and back entrances were for blacks, that the motels and restaurants were segregated, and that the black part of Hot Springs was miserably poor and decrepit. Speaking of the time of Governor Orval Faubus’s racist intransigence and of the federal marshals forcing the integration of Little Rock’s Central High, all he says is “Most of my friends were either against integration or unconcerned. I didn’t say too much about it, probably because my family was not especially political, but I hated what Faubus did.” He is equally disengaged when describing segregation in Hot Springs: “It bothered me that Hot Springs’ schools weren’t integrated. The black kids still went to Langston High School.”

One afternoon in Hot Springs, I made a point of driving over to Langston, the neighborhood on the opposite side of town from where Clinton lived. I found broken streets, run-down houses, a wholly black area around the school, Southern impoverishment, the other side of the tracks. Still a disgrace fifty years after Clinton lived in town, still poor and obviously neglected, Langston looked like a black “location” in South Africa, ripe for uplift from an NGO (though none was in sight), the very sort of place that should have been a target for improvement by the Clinton Global Initiative, but wasn’t.

While Clinton was a teenager (and from his account he roamed freely in Hot Springs), gambling was rife, murders were common, gangsters were part of the scene, Maxine Jones’s brothel and many others were thriving, and the town, run by a crooked political machine, was alight with roisterers, whores, and high rollers. You’re bound to wonder what effect that ingrained culture of vice might have had on an impressionable schoolboy.

Contemplating Hot Springs, it is difficult to imagine a more unpromising origin for a president, one so likely to warp a mind or corrupt a soul. Yet the defining characteristics of a president are worldliness and guile. The world in all its bizarre forms had come to Hot Springs, and Clinton was buoyant in it; the town was clearly the making of the man. In My Life, Clinton repeats the tedious Hot Springs boast of larger-than-life visitors — “outlaws, mobsters, military heroes, actors, and a host of baseball greats” — and describes his upbringing: the abusive stepfather, the hardworking and loving mother (who was also a drinker, gambler, chain smoker, and harmless flirt — an Auntie Mame type, adored by her son), his love of the tenor sax, his visits to relatives, his after-school job at the small grocery, his classes as a math whiz, his dabbling in student politics, his earnest posturing that successfully masked a troubled home life.

The pain of being hard-up and frugal in such a flashy, freewheeling place; the necessity to succeed, to achieve something and get out, to prove himself worthy of his mother, and to redeem her belief in him — these aspects formed him. It’s an American story, but in Hot Springs it is gaudier than most. Clinton was transformed by his upbringing, yet he was, like many white Southerners, a late convert to vocally demanding integration. In My Life he extols the diversity of the Hot Springs population — Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Italians — but the black side of town, the Langston neighborhood, is not mentioned; black life does not exist for him; he apparently has no black friends.

In his autobiography, Clinton continually makes the point that he was a keeper of secrets, leading a double life, never letting on in school of the turmoil at home. The succession of houses he grew up in (now all privately owned and unwelcoming) were in modest but respectable white neighborhoods. But a visit to Hot Springs is convincing proof that throughout his early life, as a young boy, as an older student, Clinton was performing a balancing act, keeping his head up while tiptoeing through a mud-puddle sludge of human weakness and greed, crookedness and carnality (the survival strategy of many politicians).

His relief at leaving Hot Springs is palpable in his telling. He had chosen Georgetown University because “I wanted to be in Washington.” Yet after Georgetown, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and Yale Law School, he did what many might regard as the unthinkable: he returned to Arkansas. It was a calculated move. He was still in his twenties, it was a state he knew well, and he was implausible anywhere else. Perhaps he had a long-term plan — he doesn’t say in his book, but you can see he is driven: the desperate, do-anything-to-win drive of the man from nowhere, who seems to be hiding something (wounds, fantasies, transgressions, family secrets). He taught law for a year at Fayetteville, then ran for Congress in 1974, and lost. He became state attorney general in 1976 and governor in 1978, at the age of thirty-two — “the boy governor,” as he was known.

To his supporters, Bill Clinton was a man of immense charm who improved health care and education in Arkansas, at the same time mastering the art of consensus building, while retaining his amorous disposition. To his enemies, he was the fiddler and liar who turned the governor’s mansion into a fornicarium. He served multiple terms, totaling almost twelve years, and, still only forty-six, became president.

It was a breathless run, and he kept on running, for a second term, and afterward — he has never lived away from the public eye, has an obvious, perhaps pathological aversion to solitude, has always sought attention — for the role of world statesman, global humanist, and reformer; but also plotter in the shadows, conniver in schemes, and double-talker, in a mold described by Thoreau in a skeptical essay, “Now, if anything ail a man so that he does not perform his functions ... if he has committed some heinous sin and partially repents, what does he do? He sets about reforming the world.”

Hot Springs had two distinct sides, so did the Clinton household, so evidently does Clinton himself. This conflict could have made him a criminal, or disillusioned him, turned him cynical; instead it made him ambitious, adaptable, eager to please, charming, charismatic, sympathetic, and hardworking. But it also made him covert, adept at role-playing and posturing, with a hint of the huckster in everything he proposed, a teller of half-truths, and a master of secrets. Clinton’s drive to succeed was unstoppable, and it continues: his passion to lead, to be in charge, to relieve the planet’s ills, to be an explainer, a crowd pleaser, friend to the great and good (Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama), emotionally immature, and hungry for the world’s affection. “He seemed like the hungriest man I’d ever met,” a writer friend told me after accompanying the candidate on the campaign in 1992. In his autobiography, Clinton continually interrupts the narrative ·of his early life by flashing forward and describing how he learned a lesson or atoned for one lapse or another. America knows him as the great atoner, the fixer, the compromiser. The bird-dogger of chicks is also, inevitably, the most fervent sermonizer at the prayer breakfast.

Hot Springs has tried to reinvent itself as a family-friendly holiday town and destination for conventioneers. It has a look of solidity and criminal elegance, a big-city gloom and density, rare in a Southern town — the shadowy aura of a place in which many dramas have occurred, the rub of history, where a great deal of money has been spent to tempt the visitor to linger.

Horse racing and some low-level gaming persisted, as moronic pastimes rather than vices, but the present was simply seedy, college kids barhopping and late-summer tourists traipsing the streets, darting in and out of the gift shops and bars, shabbily dressed, pushing baby carriages, screaming at their children, hunting for fun in a place that seemed chilly and bleak. The barbecue joints and the occasional pageant or festival could not compete with the shootouts and the orgies of the past.

Now Hot Springs is a place wholly itself: the decaying abandoned buildings and vacant hotels on the main drag, funky motels, tacky shops, a whiff of damp motor courts on the outskirts — Southern neglect combined with Southern casualness and vulgarity, and redeemed by hospitality and self-parody. Part of the town’s good fortune is that it is just a gap in rocky cliffs, minutes from.the deep woods and lovely hills.

There is something joyless in a place advertising itself as joyful, a note of desperation in the hype. Faded glory, faded hope, faded hilarity, the weird junk shops, the air of desperation, the stink like an alcoholic’s breath or a carnival sideshow, the shallowness and obvious scheming that is part of every gambling town on earth. And, like every other boomtown, doomed to failure.

But Hot Springs had once been a vortex of energy, and it is a characteristic of the power of such libidinized places to make their residents morally blind — you could say the same about the White House. Hot Springs, destination of murderers, cheaters, and whores, produced a president, a peculiar one, morally blind on many occasions — as in 1992 when Governor Clinton rushed back to Arkansas to sign the death sentence of drooling, brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector, sending him gaga to the electric chair, so that candidate Clinton would win votes as a crime fighter. Complex and contradictory, the public man seeking redemption, mock humble in manner but lusting for glory, perpetually enlisting big companies to help him expand his brand, Clinton is the quintessential Southern huckster who does not know when to stop, and Hot Springs, the corrupted town, which advertised its waywardness, was itself Clintonesque.

Farmers on a Rainy Day

On a wet day in Fargo, just north of Brinkley, I made my way under a gray sky along muddy fields — some of them silvery with puddles and others lightly flooded — past the turnoff to the derelict town of Cotton Plant, to meet Dr. Calvin King again. As he promised, Dr. King had invited some black farmers to meet me — early risers, they had arrived before me, and some had come many miles for this meeting. We gathered around a table in a room at Dr. King’s Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, a low brick building on a Fargo dirt road. Black Angus cattle grazed where the road abruptly ended at a fenced field; they were stock from the experimental ranch, chewing at bales of damp, darkened straw.

The farmers were men in overalls and feed caps, the oldest in his late seventies, the youngest twenty-three. A woman sat at a side table, appearing to take notes. Two other women, both of them farmers, had been invited, but at the last minute had other obligations. They were silent, watchful, patient men, somewhat ill at ease among the bare tables and many spare chairs in the conference room. Farmers are not a sedentary lot, and these men seemed restless and out of place.

“I’m a stranger,” I said, to introduce myself. “I’ve traveled and written about many foreign countries, but I realized I hadn’t spent much time in the Southern states, where many of the problems are the same as in the so-called Third World.”

I went on in this vein, explaining that I was traveling through the Deep South, trying to understand what I saw. I thanked Dr. King for arranging this session and said I was grateful to these workingmen for meeting me on a weekday morning, a helpful turnout.

“It’s the weather,” one of them said. “It’s too wet to do anything on the farm. If this had been a sunny day, you wouldn’t have seen any of us. Our fields is flooded.”

“And we already done our chores this morning,” another said, and laughed with the others.

They were resigned to the realities of Mother Nature and human nature, but they were anything but passive and fatalistic. As I was to find, their willingness to work, to plant, to harvest, to repay loans, made them self-sufficient and gave them dignity.

They laughed again and introduced themselves. The first man who had spoken was Andre Peer, who was forty-two and had been farming for twelve years. He now had four thousand acres under cultivation, near where he lived, about forty miles away, outside Lexa, in Phillips County. He was a stocky, well-built man of medium height, forthright in gesture and word, who looked me in the eye and spoke his mind. The best educated of this group, Andre had earned a degree in agriculture in 1995 from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He grew wheat, corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans. I later learned that he had made such a success of his farm, he and his wife and son had been named Phillips County Young Farming Family of the Year in 2013, with a profile in the Helena World.

“But it’s always a struggle,” Andre said, and placed his muscular farmer’s hands against his head and squeezed hard. “You got to hear about the banking.”

“That’s a mighty big subject,” Ernest Cox said. He was a slender, mild-mannered, and sinewy man in his late sixties, weather-beaten from a life of farming — he’d worked in the fields since boyhood, on his father’s acres. He had an attractive and disarming habit of smiling and nodding even when he was speaking about something unpleasant, such as debt or financial obstacles or the hurdles at the loan office. He ran a large third-generation farming business with his brothers, Herschel and Earmer, on five thousand acres. This family farm — soybeans, wheat, and the grain sorghum known as milo — was just outside the small town of Marvell, also in Phillips County.

All these men — family farmers — lived and raised their crops in the Arkansas Delta, in communities ten miles or less from the Mississippi River, and near the river town of Helena, where their crops were loaded, to be barged downriver. Talking to them, I remembered Reverend Lyles in Alabama telling me how his father had been advised by a white man not to sell any of his land to a white person. “Sell to blacks,” he’d said, because that was the only way a black man could get a foothold in a rural area.

“I’ve got views on the banking,” Samuel Ross said. In his late seventies, he was the oldest of the group. “But I’m retired. I’ll let the others speak.” And that was all he said for an hour, though he was an attentive listener.

“Me, I’ve just started, sort of,” Roger Smith said. He was twenty-three, yet was in his fourth season farming. He’d begun as a smallholder at the age of nineteen, leased a few hundred more acres each succeeding year, and now had seven hundred acres in rice and milo. He was soft-spoken and shy, with a drawl so heavy and such a sideways reflex of talking that many times I had to ask him to repeat himself, and even then had to mentally translate what he said.

“And that’s Rickey Bone,” Dr. King said, introducing another older man. “He’s the only one here not planting row crops.”

“My wife and I are growing produce,” Rickey Bone said. “She’s really the one who should be here. Mary’s a ball of fire.”

“For these men the problem is access to capital,” Dr. King said. He was a farmer too, as he had told me before. And although he had an authoritative, almost scholarly way of speaking, he was fluent in enumerating the issues. He ran the Arkansas Land and Farm organization, so he was used to conferences and workshops and committees. “It’s imbalance,” he went on, “and it’s the problem of expanding impoverishment. Listen, I had a friend said she was going to South Africa. I asked why. She told me about the need. I said to her, ‘You don’t have to go to South Africa to find the need: She was from Little Rock. I said, ‘What about our need?’ She said, ‘I don’t think it’s the same. In South Africa it’s water quality issues: I said, ‘I can tell you about water quality issues right here!’”

I said, “I started traveling in the South for that very reason, because I saw so many outsiders committed to solving Africa’s problems. They were the same problems that exist here — poor housing, poor access to health care and education. Child hunger. Illiteracy.”

“And the banking,” Andre Peer said, tapping his thick fingers on the table. His tapping was insistent, but he also had a way of widening his eyes to express impatience.

“Banking is a white monopoly in Arkansas — it’s white controlled,” Dr. King said. “Traditional banks lend on the basis of a hundred and twenty percent credit security. Think of that. And there are serious problems of imbalance at the USDA.”

“We need operating loans,” Ernest Cox said. “Every year we have to go to the bank. We’re doing all right — I’m farming with my brothers. But we’re at the mercy of the merchants.”

“Thing you got to understand,” Andre said, and thought a moment before he proceeded. “Bankers give other farmers more.”

“What other farmers?” I asked.

Andre widened his eyes and blew out his cheeks but said nothing.

“You can speak plainly to Mr. Paul,” Dr. King said.

“By ‘other’ I mean white,” Andre said. He told a story about a loan he had sought.

It was then that I realized what these men were up against, because the loans — for machinery, for seed, for infrastructure — were considerable, in the many hundreds of thousands.

“She let me have $442,000,” Andre was saying. “It was a bad, disastrous year — 2006 into 2007 — drought and excessive heat. My harvest was poor. I asked her not to turn me in to the USDA to file a loss claim. I didn’t want to be in default. I knew I could make good on it. I know how to work. I wanted to pay what I owed. I needed time. And I did pay — every dollar.” He thought a moment, then said, “White folks say we lazy. All we want is opportunity. We willing to work.”

“These guys are surviving against the odds,” Dr. King said.

“If you’re in a bind, in serious default, white farmers want to buy your land,” Andre said. “They’re just waiting for you to fail. They’re on one side, bankers on the other. My bankers are all right, but I have to explain a lot to them to get them to understand my situation. There are no black loan officers. It’s not talked about, it’s not written about. There’s none.”

“Loan officers,” Ernest Cox said in a knowing voice, smiling, nodding, adjusting his cap.

“Another loan officer,” Andre said. “We just talking, talking about people. I said, ‘Would you give that man a loan?’ He says, ‘No.’ I say, ‘But you don’t know him.’ He says, ‘How can he buy all that equipment? Must be selling drugs.’ He thinking, ‘How he able to do that, ’cause black people don’t do that.’ The same ones talking like that are the ones sitting on the banking boards.”

“Arkansas is not like other places,” Roger Smith said in his drawl, and turned aside, as though he’d surprised himself by offering an opinion. He was shy and oblique, but he was not timid.

“The Klan don’t wear sheets,” Andre said, and looked around at his fellow farmers. “They sitting behind the desks in the banks. Uh-huh!”

“The South gives indications of being afraid of the Negro. I do not mean physical fear,” Frank Tannenbaum wrote ninety years ago in Darker Phases of the South. “It is not a matter of cowardice or bravery; it is something deeper and more fundamental. It is a fear of losing grip upon the world. It is an unconscious fear of changing status.”

Roger said, “Harrison. That town — it’s a Klan hotbed.”

It was not by chance that this remark was dropped into the conversation. Allusions to the Klan, to the past, to the insecurity that Southern blacks face especially in rural areas, I found to be common, for the Klan was the historical nightmare, the arch-destroyer, relentless and reckless, with connections in high places. Harrison is an Ozark community, the seat of Boone County, in the center of the northern edge of the state, where it lies flat against Missouri. Its decent citizens, of whom there were presumably many, hadn’t made any headlines, but its cranks were infamous.

Roger said, “Harrison has a big billboard advertising the Klan.”

“Oh, God, Harrison” was a murmur in the room.

The farmers talked generally about the miseries and abuses of Harrison, and then Ernest said, “You don’t have to go all the way to Harrison to find this business. Moro does not have a black family.”

Moro was a crossroads in nearby Lee County, with fewer than three hundred people.

“A black family moved in some years ago,” Andre said. “But they bought him out.”

“So many inequities here.” The speaker was the woman taking notes, Ramona Anderson, whom I had taken to be a recorder of the remarks in the meeting. But she was a staff member of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, and up to now had been sitting quietly over her notebook.

She told a story about the strange history of Cotton Plant, a town just north of Brinkley. “A man came in the 1960s and saw a bird — not the ivory-bill woodpecker that everyone talks about, but another rare one. He was the only man who saw it. The result was that town authorities set aside many acres for that bird. They used eminent domain to get black farmers off the land around Cotton Plant.”

“This was done maliciously,” Dr. King said. “No one wants to talk about inequities in race around here. Brinkley has a majority black population but has never had a black mayor. This is not talked about.”

“Cotton Plant was once an important town,” Ramona said. “It’s now small and poor.”

“The big landowners don’t want schools and hospitals,” Dr. King said. “Marianna Hospital closed in 1980. It has never reopened. DeWitt is just the same size, but it has a hospital. DeWitt is majority white. They don’t want educated blacks, they want blacks driving their tractors.”

This again put me in mind of the white farmer James Agee mentioned in his survey Cotton Tenants in 1937: “I don’t object to nigrah education, not up through foath a fift grade maybe, but not furdern dat.” Rural Lee County, where Dr. King lived and farmed, had one of the highest rates of illiteracy in Arkansas (and the nation).

“Public education continues to deteriorate,” Dr. King said.

“Economic development has no color,” Ramona Anderson said. “But they manipulated the minorities. Instead of a Delta-wide initiative, they control each portion by dividing them. A true community development plan would benefit the poor, and that’s not something they want.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” I asked.

“The powers that be,” she said. “Instead of a big hospital, they put in a clinic. You think that’s all right? But in a true community development plan it would be a big hospital rather than a clinic here and a clinic there.”

“People have forgotten about the farmer,” Andre said. “We are producing food for people to eat. We are creating exports. How about rice? Our rice is exported. It’s seven dollars a bushel — the price is up. Our production is increasing.” All true, I found. The National Farmers Union reported a massive increase in rice growing in the United States, and that exports were going to China, Africa, and the Middle East. Andre went on, “But all the while it’s a struggle. We’re fighting the good ole boy.” He clutched his head again and said, “Keep Pigford in mind and class action.”

“Pigford” was a word I heard from other black farmers. It was shorthand for a court case that related to some of what these men were telling me about the racial inequities in the farming business. Pigford vs. Glickman was a class action lawsuit brought in 1997 by Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina, and four hundred others, against the Department of Agriculture (and its secretary, Dan Glickman), seeking redress for the routine denial of loans to black farmers, whom the USDA had discriminated against, thus leading to a sharp reduction in their numbers.

Although a settlement was approved in 1999, and more than a billion dollars had been paid so far by the government (under both the Bush and Obama administrations), serious allegations of fraudulent claims have been made, and there was proof of connivance by profiteering lawyers and politicians, scammers and “race hustlers.” If you look into the details of this tangled case, it is obvious that a trough was provided for the benefit of many worthy farmers (successful claimants got $50,000 apiece) as well as for the snouts of many opportunists. Yet black land loss was reversed, and after years of decline, the number of black farmers and black landowners had grown in the South and elsewhere.

“But we’re still struggling with the banks,” Andre said. “We’re still struggling with the good ole boys. After all these years we still have to prove ourselves.”

I said, “Bill Clinton spends a lot of time in Africa and India. Couldn’t he do something here to help?”

“If Clinton came here,” Andre said, “the good ole boys would say, ‘Why you coming here? Why you want to change things?’” He looked around the room for approval, and got the nods he expected. “That’s why he doesn’t do it.”

All this time, in all this talk, I could sense the men were restless. As farmers, habituated to digging, to fetching and carrying, loading trucks, repairing machines, tramping the margins of their fields, they were unused to sitting indoors for such a length of time. They were too polite to object but still seemed uncomfortable, hitching forward, clasping their hands, squirming on the plastic chair seats.

I went on asking them about their farming operations, until finally, one of them — probably Andre, because he was the most frank of the group — stood up and said, “You won’t learn much here from us talking. We have to show you, if you have the time.”

I said, “I have all the time in the world. I’d love to see your farms.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Dr. King said, as he’d said to me before. Then he took me aside and said, “When you look at the Delta, do you see businesses owned by blacks, operated by blacks? In manufacturing? In retail?” He smiled, because the obvious answer was: very few. He went on, “Compare that to the black farmers here, who are part of a multibillion-dollar business.”