A group of Delta planters started meeting in the years after the 1927 Mississippi River Flood to coordinate their efforts and lobby governments to improve conditions in the Delta. Scattered efforts by this Delta Chamber of Commerce gave way to a larger organization, reorganized in 1935 as the Delta Council. The council established its headquarters in Stoneville, Mississippi, home of the Delta Branch Experiment Station.
The Delta Council initially sought to provide better health conditions, transportation, flood control, education, and economic development to residents of the Delta; to serve “as a general information and publicity bureau” for the region; and to represent the Delta before the state and federal governments. The council’s early efforts included working with the federal government to increase subsidies for cotton farmers and to expand cotton sales. The Delta Council helped start the National Cotton Council and consistently supported efforts to use science and technology to limit costs and improve agricultural productivity. Delta Council leaders created a brand logo for Delta cotton and encouraged Delta women to develop a “Wear What You Sow” campaign.
The Delta Council’s first leaders included Mississippi cotton planters and state and federal government officials: Oscar Johnston, head of the Delta Pine and Land and the National Cotton Council; political power broker Walter Sillers; several members of the Percy family; Will Dockery of Dockery Farms; W. T. Wynn and Hodding Carter of Greenville; and Rhea Blake of the Delta Chamber of Commerce. The council’s first president was Walter M. Kethley, president of Delta State Teachers College.
The Delta Council has always had staunch supporters and harsh critics. Detractors argue that council represents the interests of wealthy planters at the expense of poorly paid workers, especially disfranchised African Americans, and that the council’s actions pushed those workers off the land and offered little in return. The Delta Council has consistently opposed farmworkers’ organizations on the grounds that they “cause disunity and a breach of faith.” A 1944 council document contended that “the plantation system as a partnership is successful only when there is mutual understanding and mutual effort.” The council also argued against limits on child labor and opposed agricultural minimum wage laws as late as the 1960s. In short, critics have charged, the council worked hard to make sure plantation owners had access to as much cheap labor and as many government subsidy payments as possible.
Supporters, conversely, believe that the council provided enlightened leadership to support the region’s economic and human development. In the face of job losses as a result of farm mechanization and crop reductions, the Delta Council encouraged industrialization and agricultural diversification via the timber, rice, soybean, and catfish industries.
The council has a mixed record on race relations. It created a subcommittee on the topic as early as 1948, and it never merged with the white supremacist groups that actively opposed the civil rights movement. However, the organization’s publication, the Delta Council News, made no mention of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the controversy and violence over the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, or the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. It opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two years later produced a film, Daylight in the Delta, that portrayed the region as having particularly good race relations.
The annual meeting of the Delta Council has long been a major political and social event. Speakers have included Secretary of State Dean Acheson, rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, astronaut Alan Shepherd, and future presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In his 1952 speech to the Delta Council, William Faulkner discussed how Americans had moved away from assumptions about responsibility that had been so crucial to the Founding Fathers. His criticisms of the federal government and especially its welfare policies earned Faulkner applause from his conservative listeners; however, later readers of the speech wondered if Faulkner was also critiquing twentieth-century planters’ reliance on federal agricultural subsidies.
The Delta Council remains a powerful force in Mississippi, especially in setting the agenda for agricultural policy.
- William M. Cash and R. Daryl Lewis, The Delta Council: Fifty Years of Service to the Mississippi Delta (1986);
- James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1994)
- Delta Council News; Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (2003)
- Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: Race, Power, and the Blues in the Mississippi Delta (1998)