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South hopes Barack Obama can fix social ills

INDIANOLA, Miss. - On the first Sunday after Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's first black president, congregants at black churches throughout the Mississippi Delta prayed for his success, but cautioned that change would likely come slowly.

"We have not arrived simply because we have a black president," said Bill Steen, 57, a church deacon and son of a sharecropper, who lives in a neighborhood of rutted streets and tumbledown houses.

"What I like about him is that he is realistic, and will select people who can help bring change from anywhere he can," said Shirley Hamilton, 66, a retired school administrator.

"But we have big issues," she conceded.

Here in the Black Belt, the Southern cradle of black America, historical patterns of poverty, substandard schools and other social ills temper hopes that the election of an African-American president can swiftly end the nation's racial inequities.

The Rev. David Matthews, 88, who attended Morehouse College with the Rev. Martin Luther King, says many social challenges taken up by his old school colleagues still plague Delta residents despite Mississippi having more black elected officials than any other state.

"We can't just depend on the fact that we have black elected officials," said Matthews, pastor of Indianola's Bell Grove Baptist Church. "A black president can't do it alone, but can help us a whole lot if we are willing to do for ourselves."

Indianola, the cotton-growing hometown of bluesman B.B. King that has been shedding population since the fields were mechanized in the 1950s, lost one of its last major employers in 2001, when an equipment factory shut down.

Kenneth Johnson, a University of New Hampshire demographer who studies patterns of poverty, said Obama faces sharp income inequities in many of the same communities that were impoverished when President Lyndon Johnson called for a war on poverty in 1964.

A map of counties in the United States where child poverty has remained above 20 percent since at least 1970 forms an almost unbroken line that cuts through the heart of America's "Black Belt" - Southern states whose slave and sharecropping economies left them with disproportionately large numbers of black people with few skills and little education.

In Sunflower County, Miss., which is home to Indianola, 43.3 percent of black families live in poverty, compared to 7 percent of white families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (In Nassau, 8.8 percent of black families and 2.2 percent of white families live in poverty, according to the Census. In Suffolk, 8.1 percent of black families and 3.1 percent of white families live in poverty)

"When you look at the maps, the communities with persistent poverty are the same communities Bobby Kennedy visited when he was running for president 40 years ago," Johnson said, referring to Kennedy's 1967 fact-finding tour of the Mississippi Delta.

The Rev. Jesse King, a local high school teacher who is president of the NAACP in neighboring Washington County, said despite the hopes raised among many African-Americans by Obama's election, many of the most vexing problems facing impoverished communities would take years to budge even if Obama were able to focus on them exclusively.

But King said watching Obama's yearlong surge toward the presidency has cultivated among his students a growing belief that merit can bring success - even in a Mississippi Delta region where legal restrictions and social traditions once made black advancement nearly impossible.

"Even at the school where I work, the young people say they really believe it can happen for us," King said. "It happened for Obama. His children actually live in the White House. It inspires our students."


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