Clarksdale, MS, county seat of Coahoma County, lies in the heart of the famous Delta in northwestern Mississippi. Long recognized as one of America's most fertile cotton-producing areas, it is also celebrated as the home of the blues. It is, however, also one of America's poorest regions—in fact, in 1998, when President Bill Clinton chose the five poorest areas in the country to visit, Clarksdale and Coahoma County was on his itinerary. In Coahoma County MS, as of 2009, 75% of the population is African-American and half of the children under 18 live in poverty (as opposed to 31% throughout Mississippi, the acknowledged poorest state in the United States). As further indications of the widespread poverty in the Delta, $28,300 is the median income for Coahoma County, the unemployment rate has grown to 11.6% (which doesn't, of course, include those who have long since given up seeking jobs), 36% of the adults at least twenty-five years old have less than a high school education, and over 30% fall below the official poverty line. Sub-standard housing is also a significant local problem, and it is in this latter area that Habitat for Humanity, with its compelling combination of prospective and current homeowners, local benefactors, and outside volunteers, has been hard at work in the Delta for over 25 years, with local affiliates winning Habitat's national Jimmy Carter Award for per capita productivity for four straight years, until they retired the award.
That an area so flush with economic possibilities (agricultural and otherwise) should also be one of the poorest and most socially unjust sections of the country requires some explanation. 135 years prior to President Clinton's visit to the Delta, Abraham Lincoln freed America’s slaves, and millions of southern African-Americans began the long process of change that promised for the first time real access to opportunity—in other words the American Dream. But a smooth transition to freedom simply was not to be—that post-Civil War promise was at first resented by some southern whites, especially those who dreamed of re-establishing their vision of antebellum wealth built again, as it had been before, on the exploitable, controllable labor of the slaves. In the early years of what came to be known as Reconstruction, blacks made significant strides to appropriate the political, economic, and social opportunities apparently inherent in notions of their newly gained freedom. Increasingly, however, whites resisted—within ten years, they had turned to ever more violent attempts to discourage black political participation and economic initiatives and succeeded in returning Mississippi to white supremacy. Once again, one of the areas of such strife during this ugly process was Coahoma County.
The Delta, however, is more than mere geographic territory; as many inhabitants, visitors, and writers have noted, the Delta is a way of life. Characterized by a laid-back lifestyle mirroring the rhythms of nature in this lush and sometimes stupefyingly hot, almost jungle-like area, the Delta is also the home of the blues, giving rise to such giants as Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Ike and Tina Turner, and serving as a powerful coping mechanism to deal with the ongoing injustices of sharecropping and white supremacy. Besides the enervating effects of the poverty endemic to the area, the Delta continues to be a remarkably vibrant center of culture and community, and Habitat for Humanity has benefited greatly from that reality.