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In 1988, pushed by Delta lawmakers, Congress authorized the creation of a commission to take a hard look at a broader region -- from Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, down to Louisiana.

Starting in 1989, the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, chaired by then-Arkansas-governor Bill Clinton, held hearings documenting the plight and came up with a laundry list of solutions. One of its main recommendations -- something also championed by the Memphis-based Center for Southern Folklore and others -- called for building on and marketing the region’s rich history and cultural legacy.

The commission spawned some initiatives and follow-up studies but fell far short of its promise. Stanley Hyland, PhD, head of the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy and professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, served as principal researcher for the commission. He says Clinton opposed the idea of creating a permanent agency -- something akin to the Appalachian Regional Commission -- which could have served as a guiding force for all the disparate stakeholders in the Delta. Such an agency would have been particularly useful to the Delta, an area with a culture of individualism and isolation, where people don’t “naturally come together,” Hyland says.

“Clinton launched his [1992] presidential campaign by going up and down the Delta, but as president, he never really came back and built anything of great substance,” he says.