The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

“Delta Vision, Delta Voices”

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Opening Essay by John Barry

Author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

The Valley of the Mississippi River stretches north into Canada and south into the Gulf of Mexico, east from New York and North Carolina and west to Idaho and New Mexico. Including all or part of 31 States, it exceeds by 20% the valley of China’s Yellow River, is double that of Africa’s Nile and India’s Ganges, and is fifteen times that of Europe’s Rhine. If smaller than the valley of the Amazon, the Mississippi Valley dwarfs even that basin—along with all others—in its agricultural and industrial productivity. It is quite simply the most important river valley in the world.

The river itself rivals its valley in import. The Mississippi and its tributaries directed the nation’s expansion across the continent, created vast fortunes in agriculture, commerce, and transportation, and spurred technological developments in fields as diverse—and seemingly unrelated to rivers—as architecture, experimental physics, and even metallurgy. And the Mississippi is a force equal to its history, roiling its way south in layers and whorls, like an uncoiling rope made up of a multitude of discrete fibers, each one following an independent and unpredictable path, each one separately and together capable of snapping like a whip. A nineteenth century European observer noted, “It is not like most rivers, beautiful to the sight, not one that the eye loves to dwell upon as it sweeps along, nor can you wander along the bank, or trust yourself without danger to its stream. It is a furious, rapid, desolating torrent, loaded with alluvial soil. Pouring its impetuous waters through wild tracts, it sweeps down whole forests in its course, which disappear in tumultuous confusion, whirled away by the stream now loaded with the masses of soil which nourished their roots, often blocking up and changing the channel of the river, which, as if in anger at its being opposed, inundates and devastates the whole country round.”

Yet the river has always created more than it destroyed. Indeed, it quite literally created all the land from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the sea. The Gulf of Mexico once reached north to Cape Girardeau, but, as sea level dropped, the river over thousands of years deposited its enormous load of sediment and made the land from there south, made what is the Mississippi’s Delta.

The entire nation owes much to this Delta area, not only because of the past but also because of the present. Economics aside, through the birth of the blues and jazz, through literature from Mark Twain to Richard Wright and William Faulkner, the Mississippi also helped create America’s soul. As St. Louis-born T.S. Eliot wrote, “The sea is all about us…/The river is within us.”

Today, the river continues to determine the economic and demographic future of much of the nation, yet the Delta region is the one part of the United States whose economy has consistently lagged behind. It is not a coincidence. For all the wealth the river created, it and the flow of history placed a unique burden on this region and on those who live here. The time is long past that this region gets special attention. More than a century ago, a Kansas congressman declared that improvement in this area was the single most important issue to his constituents, while a Massachusetts congressman demanded the development of the resources within it. The question is what form any special attention should take.

In this, too, the river offers a model. As Mark Twain wrote of the river long ago, “ten thousand River Commissions… cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey.” And yet we have worked out a kind of accommodation with the river which, if imperfect, has allowed man to take advantage of what the river offers. Similarly, ten thousand government commissions cannot successfully dictate to the people who live within range of the river what to do. The direction must come from them.

But in conjunction with members of both parties in the Congress, with officials from State and local government, and—most importantly—with the people in the region, the Delta Initiative can help crystallize ideas, precipitating possibilities out of solution, and then focus energies and resources and communicate what works. The Delta initiative can help make ideas real.