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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

excellence in the Delta

Excellence in the Delta

                I am grateful to the administrators,  faculty members and students of Mississippi Valley State University for inviting me to speak at its 2016 Honors Convocation.  My topic is excellence in the Delta. Although my brief remarks are addressed especially to  students who will receive awards for achievement, to  young women and men who have  demonstrated that they made good choices in using time and  innate intelligence to strengthen their minds, my words are directed to everyone.  Yes,   I salute students who have earned special distinctions.  I commend their use of common sense to acquire uncommon knowledge. Their achievement, however, is not isolated from the efforts of their unsung peers who are preparing  themselves for a future in a world that is increasingly assaulted by global changes and uncertainties.   Remember that whether we are distinguished or quite ordinary our lives and minds do matter.

                After many decades , I have come to know that  excellence is often invisible, beyond measure, and hidden in individual and collective efforts.  Thus, we can speak of excellence in the Mississippi Delta and at Mississippi Valley State University  as part of a process of thinking and doing, of work,  of the being in the world  that we call history.  If we do not grasp that we all play various roles in the production of what is to be commended in life, in the production of excellence, we  display a poverty of intelligence and imagination .

                I use the word "excellence" to include the obsolete, 14th century meaning of a favor or a kindness, because  in the State of Mississippi and in the Delta we are obligated to read both between and behind the lines.  Excellence has many dimensions.  The living text or spoken (oral)  history of the Delta that unfolds year after year provides an external reference for the invisible states of being that consistently give shape to the indigenous music of the Delta  --- the blues.  It is in the lives of people who stayed in the Delta, who did not or could not opt to participate in the Great Migration, that we discover excellence as kindness. And  perhaps that kindness is a triumph of determination and will power.   So, on this occasion,  I speak of the  ancestors and relatives of those being honored today, of  the people who lived the realities of  American Nightmare that is a corrective  for the myth of the American Dream.

                 In my poetic imagination, the nightmare is a man and a woman standing in the middle of July in the middle of a field , their bodies glistening with sweat.  They look at the land from 360 angles and declare "Lord, Lord, there is no end to it."  Then, they resume chopping.

                 The woman and the man who haunt  my imagination are the creators of lore and  wisdom that exceed what those of us in institutions of higher learning spend years to understand.  They have been written about in  Kim Lacy Rogers's  Life and Death in the Delta, John Dittmer's Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History, K. C. Morrison's Aaron Henry of Mississippi: Insider Agitator, Chana Kai Lee's For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, and hundreds of books about the peculiar history of the State of Mississippi and its Delta.  The sacrifices, suffering, and moments of joy the woman and the man endured have been partially documented.  It is our obligation to  continue documentation and to continue remembering.  What we must research, speak and write about again and again, and transmit to a future  is the man and the woman saying "Lord, Lord, there is no end to it."  They did not define "it." They figured we would be savvy enough to figure that out for ourselves.  What I want Mississippi Valley State students to never forget is this: in their defiance of every ignoble effort to break and dehumanize them , the man and the woman illuminated what excellence in the Delta is in actuality; it is  the excellence of common sense and  will power.

I shall draw attention to the power of the will by noting a few facts about the life of


Dr. Lula C. “L.C.” Dorsey, December 17, 1938-August 21, 2013

She rose from the spirit-murdering poverty of Mississippi Delta plantations to spirit-giving national service by way of appointments from Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and William Clinton.  She never finished high school.  She earned a Doctorate in Social Work from Howard University.  Although she had purposeful experiences in South Africa, Israel, India, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China, she was primarily a mother of six children and a cultural worker who stayed at home in Mississippi.

She dedicated energy to improving health care and human rights in the Mississippi Delta.  She had the courage and genius to effect crucial prison reform at Parchman, one of the most notorious penitentiaries in America.

In special ways, her life was a response to the question Margaret Walker posed in the poem “Lineage.”

My grandmothers were strong.

Why am I not as they?

The life of L. C. Dorsey replied: My grandmothers were strong, and I am just like them.

In the rare chapbook Mississippi Earthworks (1982), an anthology of the Jackson Actors/Writers Workshop, Dorsey published “The Hunters/Executioners.”  The voice in her poem is that of a woman who offered “no apologies for the events that brought her /here to speak of love and determination.”  Her listeners  ---lawyers, professors and learned folk, fathers, hunters and men ---cried.  The speaker did not cry as she sketched a question of existential irony ---

And when she finished speaking

everyone knew why

this woman did not cry

for her tear well had run dry

as she had pondered this question many

times before

and was desperately trying to understand

the laws of God and man

that would let a bird escape death through


and a rabbit to out run death on the ground

while her sons could neither run or fly

and until she found an answer

she didn’t have time to cry.

Brave people do not cry. They ask diamond-hard questions.  They think. They act.

Dr. L. C. Dorsey is mentioned in a single sentence as one of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s friends in John

Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994):

During her last days she felt abandoned by all but a few old friends, movement colleagues like Owen Brooks, Charles McLaurin, June Johnson, and L. C. Dorsey, a woman who shared Mrs. Hamer’s background as a sharecropper and who, inspired by Mrs. Hamer’s example, became active in the struggle in the mid-1960s. (433)

Dr. Dorsey’s personality and voice emerged more vividly from Tom Dent’s Southern Journey: A Return to

the Civil Rights Movement (1997).  Dent asked “But what can we do to change some of this [rapid loss of

hard-won gains in the Delta]?”  Her answer was

All I can see…is that our salvation has to come from looking back at what we’ve done in the past that worked.  We’ve got to do something for ourselves; those of us who see what’s happening have to take more initiative.  For one thing, we have to put money back into the black community.  And we’ve got to do a better job with the education of our youngsters, both in and out of the public schools. (368)

In Kim Lacy Rogers’s Life and Death in the Delta: African American Narratives of Violence, Resilience, and

Social Change (2006), Dr. Dorsey’s importance as an agent of change in Mississippi is quite strongly

projected in what is quoted from interviews Owen Brooks and I conducted on June 21, 1996 and Brooks,

Rogers, and I conducted on July 18, 1997.

Dr. Dorsey’s accomplishments, her gifts to humanity, have been partially documented. There is more to be remembered, especially the standards she set for the women and the men  who would speak truth in the United States of America.  Future generations can document her achievements more fully.  They and we can give honor and respect by trying to be as brave, brilliant, and strong as she was. It is my belief that MVSU students know as much, whether they speak out loud or meditate in silence.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Distinguished Honorary Professor (2015-2017), Central China Normal University

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