The career of Owen H. Brooks dramatizes some of the main directions the Mississippi civil rights movement took during and after the late 1960s. Brooks, the son of West Indian immigrants, grew up in Massachusetts, where he received a degree from Northeastern University. In 1965 he went to Bolivar County to work for the Delta Ministry, a project the National Council of Churches had established the preceding year. Brooks took on a number of jobs in the Delta, sometimes as a director, sometimes as a coworker. His activism sometimes illustrated the tensions between native Mississippians and newcomers to the state and as well as among various strategies within the movement.
In the mid- and late 1960s Brooks worked with the Poor People’s Campaign, helped organize some new groups and bring existing groups together for meetings, offered technical support to a range of activist groups, and encouraged African American political organizing and striking agricultural workers. He was appointed acting director of the Delta Ministry in 1966 and became director later in the decade.
He faced the challenge of trying to keep up both funding and other support for activist organizations at a time when national attention was turning away from Mississippi. Brooks believed the Delta Ministry should have a centralized program for African American economic development and political mobilization, whereas some Mississippi-born African Americans believed that the ministry should work more within individual communities, with dispersed leadership and different strategies. In his calls for centralized authority, Brooks clashed with Mississippi natives Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, and Sarah Johnson, who called Brooks a male chauvinist. Brooks used the language of Black Power and called for African American economic independence and separate political institutions and for new organizations distinct from older groups. He was the Mississippi distributor of the Black Manifesto, an ambitious 1969 statement about the need for reparations for African Americans.
With some allies but many opponents and with little funding from the National Council of Churches, Brooks, in the words of historian Mark Newman, “continued the Ministry, often as little more than a one-man operation,” during the early 1970s. Brooks concentrated much of his work on grant writing and forms of technical assistance that encouraged African Americans to use money from federal government programs. He also worked with Robert Clark, the state’s first African American state legislator, and concentrated much of his attention on Mound Bayou. Brooks kept up his efforts at organizing local communities to gain access to the political and economic resources of national organizations into the 1980s and 1990s. As the project field director of the Delta Oral History Project, Brooks organized and led a team of interviewers who canvassed several Mississippi Delta counties asking activists how they interpreted the degree and direction of change since the civil rights movement. He died in Jackson on 27 July 2014.
- Bruce Hilton, The Delta Ministry (1969)
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (1 August 2014)
- Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission files for Owen Brooks, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
- Kim Lacy Rogers, Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and Social Change (2006)