Meet the Woman Who’s Fought Racism in the Mississippi Delta for 54 Years

The days of racist policymaking are far from over. But where the state has refused to invest in Black communities, We2gether Creating Change is filling the gap.

Eli Day

Gloria Dickerson (center) founded the nonprofit We2gether Creating Change, which provides food and civic and financial education in Drew, Miss. (Photo courtesy of We2gether Creating Change).

DREW, MISS. — Inside what was the city’s last remain­ing high school before it closed in 2012, Glo­ria Dick­er­son, 65, leads me through the hall­ways she and her six sib­lings inte­grat­ed back in 1965, when she was 12. She describes how fright­en­ing it was to be the only black stu­dent in class, sur­round­ed by white peers who would hurl racial epi­thets and tell her she didn’t deserve to be there.

Integrating the high school in Drew, Miss., was an opportunity to reclaim resources owed to black students.

The build­ing now hous­es a food pantry run by We2gether Cre­at­ing Change, a non­prof­it com­mu­ni­ty hub Dick­er­son found­ed in 2011. The orga­ni­za­tion pro­vides food and civic and finan­cial edu­ca­tion in a poor and work­ing-class black com­mu­ni­ty that suf­fers from a pover­ty rate of 43.7%.

Dick­er­son attrib­ut­es the lack of resources in Drew and oth­er black com­mu­ni­ties to a long lega­cy of neglect and racist pol­i­cy­mak­ing. It all goes back to the strug­gle that African Amer­i­cans have had because of slav­ery,” she says. And the racism … the white supremacy.”

In the state of Mis­sis­sip­pi, upward of 55% of the pop­u­la­tion was once enslaved. The Low­er Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er Val­ley had more mil­lion­aires per capi­ta than any­where else in the coun­try in 1860 — wealth cre­at­ed by forced labor. After the Civ­il War, Black Codes crim­i­nal­ized so-called mis­chief, and vagrancy laws forced unem­ployed freed peo­ple into essen­tial­ly unpaid labor, ensur­ing black peo­ple remained poor or in jail. By 1960, more than a third of black peo­ple in Mis­sis­sip­pi still worked land they didn’t own. As In These Times has report­ed, the low per­cent­age of black land own­er­ship con­tributes to lim­it­ed job oppor­tu­ni­ties, low edu­ca­tion lev­els and low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty.” Black peo­ple in Mis­sis­sip­pi con­tin­ue to win set­tle­ments for the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry way the state hands out farm subsidies.

The dis­crim­i­na­to­ry dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources in the state is more sub­tle now,” Dick­er­son says, from vast­ly unequal state fund­ing for edu­ca­tion to one of the country’s cru­elest his­to­ries of incar­cer­a­tion. ZIP codes that don’t have very many peo­ple in them, ZIP codes where the peo­ple are poor — those peo­ple are not get­ting their fair share,” she says.

Going to school with white chil­dren wasn’t about being around them,” Dick­er­son says — it was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reclaim resources owed to black stu­dents. That’s what Mama kept say­ing … That school is just as much your school as it is their school.’ It was about claim­ing … what we were enti­tled to.” Dickerson’s moth­er, Mae Bertha Carter, fought to end school seg­re­ga­tion, most notably as a plain­tiff in an NAACP law­suit that in 1969 over­turned Mississippi’s free­dom of choice” law, which dis­cour­aged black fam­i­lies from send­ing their chil­dren to white schools.

But edu­ca­tion­al resources are still lack­ing in Drew. In 2012, the state of Mis­sis­sip­pi scrapped Drew’s pub­lic school sys­tem by merg­ing three school dis­tricts into one. While state takeovers may help with bud­get issues, they also strip the local­ly elect­ed school board of deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er and have not been shown to improve aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. The state may then choose to close schools, as was the case with Dickerson’s old high school, which state offi­cials say was closed due to poor aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance and a hard finan­cial sit­u­a­tion. School clo­sures fur­ther impov­er­ish com­mu­ni­ties by reduc­ing grad­u­a­tion rates and lay­ing off long­time teachers.

Orga­ni­za­tions like We2gether are work­ing hard to fill the gaps. Where the state has failed or refused to invest in the futures of young peo­ple, for instance, We2gether’s “$$$ For Your Thoughts” pro­gram pro­vides schol­ar­ships to young peo­ple who set goals for them­selves, such as grad­u­at­ing from high school. The orga­ni­za­tion also pro­vides class­es for youth on lead­er­ship devel­op­ment. A host of adult pro­grams help par­tic­i­pants access resources, find eco­nom­ic foot­ing and launch com­mu­ni­ty projects. The food pantry serves around 900 peo­ple every month.

We2gether hosts reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings to dis­cuss plans for the city, with atten­dance upward of 100 peo­ple. The Drew Col­lab­o­ra­tive, also found­ed by Dick­er­son, brings togeth­er rough­ly 20 rep­re­sen­ta­tives of civic orga­ni­za­tions across the city to make col­lec­tive deci­sions, often based on input from the com­mu­ni­ty.” The col­lab­o­ra­tive is cur­rent­ly devel­op­ing plans for more afford­able hous­ing units and a gro­cery store, both of which have the city’s back­ing and are grind­ing through a long process for space and funding.

Asked about the change she’d like to see, Dick­er­son doesn’t hes­i­tate to think big, from major leaps in pub­lic trans­porta­tion and afford­able hous­ing to rebuild­ing health and edu­ca­tion infra­struc­ture. I’m talk­ing about real change,” she says. Soci­etal change. Sys­temic change.”

ELI DAY was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He’s also a Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in Vox, Cur­rent Affairs, Moth­er Jones, and the New Repub­lic, among others.

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