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BLM: An alternate view from Mississippi

Two years ago I adopted Clarksdale, Mississippi as my “virtual second home.” Clarksdale nestles deep in the Mississippi Delta, the wellspring of American blues and Southern soul music. I’ve visited twice, in 1978 and 2018. Alas, I had to cancel flights for a third and much longer visit I’d planned for this past April.

But I keep in touch. I subscribe to the weekly newspaper, the Clarksdale Press Register. I listen to Clarksdale’s XRDS blues radio online, and I track “Visit Clarksdale” and a couple other related connections on Facebook. I support the free meals program at the Clarksdale Care Station. I try to feel the pulse of the community.

In many respects, Clarksdale resembles Ashland. Both cities are about the same size, and both economies are dependent on tourism. However, the attraction down there is blues music rather than theater. Clarksdale is home to the Delta Blues Museum and it touts live music 365 days a year in its lively blues clubs — with the premier venue co-owned by Morgan Freeman, who lives nearby.

Like Ashland, Clarksdale voter registration tilts overwhelmingly Democratic, but that’s primarily due to a glaring demographic difference: Ashland has only 1% Black population while Clarksdale is 79% Black. And though it has taken decades to reach full effect, the Voting Rights Act has tipped the balance of power. Now the mayor is Black, the city council has a Black majority, and the police chief is a Black woman. In the four days I was there, I don’t recall seeing a white police officer.

That difference shifts your perspective dramatically. It’s easy to see why the reaction in Clarksdale to the killing of George Floyd differed from the feverish eruptions in Seattle and Portland. According to accounts in the Press-Register, there were gatherings in the aftermath, and yes, there were expressions of grief and outrage. But that anger was not directed at local police. No squad cars were smeared with graffiti. No police-free zones were declared.

Nevertheless, Chief Sandra Williams addressed the gathering, and promised to review all policies regarding appropriate use of deadly force. She also promised that officers would treat all suspects with fairness and dignity — perhaps giving comfort to the white residents shown in press photos as well.

Yes, there’s a difference when both the political and police power structures are in Black hands. Black Lives Matter becomes a given. What comes to the fore instead is a different BLM: “Better Lives Matter.”

And therein we find another crucial difference between Ashland and Clarksdale: wealth versus poverty. By every measure of income, education and access to health care, Clarksdale lags far behind. If you measured average household net worth, you’d find a yawning chasm between the two cities.

In Clarksdale, the road to “Better Lives Matter” was filled with potholes before the pandemic. Now it seems virtually impassable. But like in Ashland, I sense a strong and resilient sense of community down there, a belief that by working together, all residents — Black and white — can have better lives.

Why the optimism? Despite the pandemic and entrenched systemic racism nationwide, the people of Clarksdale have glimpsed a ray of hope. The old Mississippi flag is down. A new flag is coming. How this came to be is a long and twisted tale, with one key figure being the granddaughter of former U.S. Senator and arch-segregationist John Stennis. It’s worth further reading, but for now suffice it to say that a political majority finally realized that clinging to a racist symbol was blocking the road to better lives for all.

Because when “Better Lives Matter” is the emphasis, the movement cuts across color lines. Better jobs, health care and education benefit everybody. Yes, national outrage in response to racist police killings is necessary and justified. But if you don’t have such killings in your community, then you can do what they are doing in Clarksdale. Work to make lives better.

When you see anybody of any color struggling with poverty, homelessness, despair or addiction, remember: Better Lives Matter, too. It’s a systemic problem and a personal problem. So let’s all get together and do something about it.

Bruce Borgerson lives in Ashland.