It’s cotton picking time in the Delta.
Fields are white with cotton, and gins are operating around the clock.
When it comes to cotton and its legacy, many Americans think of Mississippi and Alabama. The fact is that Arkansas grows more cotton than either of those states.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas ranks fourth among states this year in the amount of cotton acreage. Texas is first (growing five times as much cotton as the next closest state), Georgia is second and North Carolina is third.
With the cotton harvest in full swing, it was an appropriate time for Ruleville, Miss., native Gene Dattel to appear at the Clinton School of Public Service and talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America.”
Dattel spoke Thursday night.
“The story of cotton in America is a dramatic economic tale whose fundamental importance in the nation’s history has been largely ignored,” Dattel wrote in the book’s preface. “Because of its connection with race, cotton is uniquely tainted in American history. … Slave-produced cotton was shockingly important to the destiny of the United States; it almost destroyed the nation.”
Ruleville is in Sunflower County, which is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta’s cotton-growing region. Dattel’s ancestors were part of the influx of Jewish immigrants who moved to the Delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s to serve as peddlers and merchants in what was then a growing region.
Dattel’s family came from Latvia. His grandfather opened Dattel’s Grocery and Market in Sunflower.
“The Delta was opening up,” Gene Dattel said. “It was a frontier area.”
Bottomland hardwoods were being cleared, lumber was being shipped north to Chicago and what was once forest became vast fields of cotton. Levees were built to hold the water out, and railroads were built to haul out the cotton.
The Dattel family moved from Sunflower to Ruleville when Gene Dattel was age 2. His father opened a dry goods store in Ruleville, and many of the customers were black. Saturday was the big day for merchants as sharecroppers and tenant farmers came to town to shop, visit with neighbors and seek entertainment.
Gene Dattel would work in his father’s store from early in the morning until late at night on Saturdays.
“I became quickly aware of how poor people shopped and was privy to their wants and dreams,” he told Memphis writer Helen Watkins Norman. “It’s not difficult to develop sensitivity in that situation. There’s no way to talk about the Delta without talking about race.”
Of the large number of Jews in the Delta in those days, Dattel said: “There were so many Jewish athletes that the high school football coaches would call the rabbi to find out when the high holy days were so they could schedule football games.”
Norman wrote: “Dattel made friends, played sports and, like every other white boy in Mississippi in the 1950s, became an authority on Ole Miss football. But his ethnicity and family background were different from the majority living in the Delta, and he knew it.
“‘No one in our family hunts,’ he laughed. ‘Our family sport was arguing. It was egalitarian, nothing personal. Our Thanksgiving holiday sometimes required reference material.’
“By the time Dattel reached high school, the Delta was in the throes of desegregation, and racial tensions were high.
“‘My little world in Ruleville was confining, and I wanted out,’ he said. Besides, he explained, he had outgrown the public schools in Ruleville and was looking for more academic challenge.”
In the second semester of his junior year, Gene Dattel moved to Memphis to live with relatives Ann and Sidney Dattel and enroll in the Memphis University School.
Sidney Dattel, a former physics professor at the University of Prague, spoke six languages. He had been injured in World War II and was a paraplegic. Each night, he would grill young Gene with various questions.
A classmate at both MUS and Yale was Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx.
Gene Dattel excelled in school and was accepted at Yale. In the fall of 1962, he was the only Mississippi student in the freshman class.
James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi that same fall. After having been barred from entering the university in September, Meredith was admitted on Oct. 1. His enrollment sparked riots in Oxford the day before, requiring enforcement not only from U.S. marshals but eventually from Army troops shipped in from Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
The riots left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard. At one point, there were 20,000 U.S. combat infantry, paratroopers, military police and National Guard troops in or near Oxford.
Time called it “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War.”
In his book “An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962,” William Doyle wrote: “The mayhem of the riot was so severe that many reporters fled the scene early in the fighting or couldn’t get there until after the fighting ended. Since the crisis occurred in the days before national TV networks began covering such events live, there were almost no TV images of the battle. There were exceedingly few newsreel or still images, either, since it was a nighttime battle and photographers on the scene were threatened and attacked by rioters. There do not appear to be any newsreel or video images of the daytime rioting in downtown Oxford on the morning of Oct. 1, though a few still photos were made.”
Still, the word of what was happening in north Mississippi dominated the news.
More than 1,000 miles away in Connecticut, Dattel followed those sometimes sketchy news accounts, shocked by what was happening in his native state.
He said he was “put on the defensive because I was from Mississippi.”
Reacting to the events back home, Dattel became immersed in Southern history as a way “to understand where I was from and who I was.”
The famed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, an Arkansas native, was a professor at Yale at the time. Woodward had arrived at Yale the previous year from Johns Hopkins. He would become Dattel’s favorite writer.
Dattel also helped start a speakers’ program at Yale that brought some of the top Southern writers to the campus. One of those who spoke was Hodding Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Delta Democrat-Times at Greenville, Miss.
Norman wrote: “Dattel’s interest in the Mississippi Delta and how it worked economically, socially and racially led to a fascination with what he calls systems. By that, he means economic systems, legal systems, financial systems and value systems — the broad picture. After graduating from Yale with a degree in history, he entered law school at Vanderbilt.”
Dattel wrote a senior thesis on antitrust as it relates to institutional investment. It came back to his interest in systems — in this case the movement of money. He joined Salomon Brothers in 1969 and spent years working his way up through the ranks at the investment firm.
Dattel was a vice president for the company in New York, London and Hong Kong. During the 1980s, he managed Salomon’s Tokyo branch as it grew from five to 250 employees.
Dattel later managed Morgan Stanley’s equity operations in Tokyo, serving as an adviser to U.S. and Japanese financial institutions.
Dattel’s first book, “The Sun That Never Rose,” came out in the early 1990s and accused Japan’s financial institutions of “squandering the wealth of the nation” due to a lack of accountability, a lack of central planning, bureaucratic excess and provincialism.
Dattel later turned his focus back to the Southern United States. Now 67, Dattel had long been fascinated with how cotton shaped the global economy in the 19th century while increasing racial problems in this country.
“Without cotton,” he wrote, “slavery would most probably have been headed for extinction.”
His book covers events from the 1780s until the 1930s when subsidies began making cotton what Dattel calls “a permanent ward of the federal government.”
A European thirst for clothes made of cotton rather than wool made cotton the top U.S. export from 1803 until 1937. Southern cotton farmers needed black labor to grow the massive amounts of cotton demanded by consumers worldwide. And even though many people in the North had opposed slavery, racism remained rampant in Northern states.
“The blatant racial bigotry in the North played a vital role in consigning blacks to a life in the cotton fields by impeding and even curtailing their physical and economic mobility, thus furthering the entrapment of most blacks in the South after the Civil War,” Dattel wrote.
Racial oppression, you see, wasn’t limited to the South.
Dattel spent three years writing “Cotton and Race.” The book was released in 2009. It was a subject Dattel had begun researching as a freshman at Yale.
Ruleville, surrounded this week by fields of white, now has about 3,000 residents. More than 80 percent of them are black. Ruleville was larger when Dattel was growing up there with the population evenly split between black and white.
“I do think what’s going on in the Delta is of interest and value outside the Delta,” he told Norman. “If you want to talk about American history and developmental economics, you don’t need to go any further than the Delta. It had a beginning and an end in terms of economic growth.”
Towns were being born in the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi when Dattel’s ancestors arrived from Latvia. Now, dozens of those communities are almost dead.
When Dattel’s book came out two years ago, he spoke to about 60 people at the Mississippi state archives in Jackson. Sitting quietly in the back of the room, wearing an Ole Miss cap, was James Meredith.
As he spoke, Dattel was looking at the man whose efforts to integrate Ole Miss had sparked in a young Yale freshman the hunger to explain the South’s history and the effect of race and cotton on the region.
“The symmetry was unbelievable,” Dattel later would tell The Associated Press.
In a sense, Gene Dattel had come full circle.