When Al White was growing up in a three-room shotgun house in Duck Hill, Mississippi – the town for which he today serves as mayor – the hours were imbued with the sounds of the outside world.
He and his brothers woke up to WONA-1570, a country music station in Winona, 10 miles down the road. Patsy Cline, George Jones: the classics. His mom was a fan. Mid-afternoons brought WDIA-1070, out of Memphis, which makes claim to being the first radio station in the country programmed entirely for a Black audience. And at night, it was WLAC-1510, Nashville: rock and roll.
Country, R&B, rock; but more. On Sundays, White recalls tuning into WDIA for “Brown America Speaks,” a discussion of current events. It offered entrée to a world somewhat more complicated than a quiet life in Duck Hill.
This richness, variety, the promise – the sum of this exposure inspired a career for White in communications, most prominently as a documentarian, witnessing and preserving history, at home and beyond.
White went off to school, earned a degree in radio and television, and returned home to Duck Hill. His first job was as a DJ at WONA. Over the years, he’s served in a number of capacities. He leveraged his experiences as a documentarian to found the Duck Hill-based Action Communication and Education Reform, or ACER, advancing three primary initiatives: community organizing; youth leadership development; and culture, art, and multimedia, which includes staging the annual Grassroots Blues Festival.
“He’s very committed to the movement, to the people, and to the culture,” says longtime friend and civil rights legend David Dennis. “His personality, the way he gets along with people, is amazing.”
The World Closes In
White was born in 1955 and grew up in the temporal and geographic epicenter of the civil rights movement. In September 1966, 15 minutes away in the town of Grenada, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Joan Baez, and others marched with Black students to a newly integrated school a week after a white mob had attacked those students and their escorts.
But White remembers his boyhood in Duck Hill as “a joyful time.” His mom, a single mother, worked for a prominent, relatively progressive white family, the Scotts, for whom she’d been employed since she was 10. Christmases were spent in the Scott home.
A turning point for White came when he was in the third grade, in a segregated school: the death of John F. Kennedy. He recalls his teachers gathered in the hall, mourning, “Our man has been assassinated.”
Shortly after, a seed of activism having been planted, he was sent by the Scotts to pick up a newspaper at Beulah’s Cafe. “The colored section was in the back and the white section was in the front,” White recalls. Having now been absorbing reports of the civil rights movement, he decided he’d enter through the front.
“So I went in the front door and asked for the paper, and Mr. Mike Wood, who was the owner, he grabbed the paper, gave it to me, and said, ‘Now little n****r, next time you come down here, you go in the backdoor.”
“I don’t know if they sent me down there anymore. I was somewhat coming of age with my radicalism, so to speak.”
The world was closing in. In June 1966, James Meredith, the first African American student to be enrolled in the University of Mississippi, began his solitary March Against Fear, intending to walk from Memphis to Jackson. Shortly into it, he was shot. Civil rights activists resumed the march in his place, their numbers reaching 15,000 by its conclusion.
By the time they’d reached Duck Hill, Meredith had rejoined them. White remembers vividly the day they passed through, escorted by the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
‘Make a Difference’
White’s first documentary project was interviewing his great grandmother. He went on to work with pioneers of the civil rights movement, including Hollis Watkins, co-founder of Southern Echo; Bob Moses, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and founder of the Algebra Project; and Dave Dennis, Mississippi project director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and founder and director of the Southern Initiative Algebra Project.
In setting up the Southern Initiative Algebra Project, Dennis says he was looking for someone who was not only skilled as a documentarian but a teacher of those skills. Teaching has always been central to White’s mission.
“His work with young people is fantastic,” Dennis says, “sharing with them what he’s learned.”
Meanwhile, White had become director of the local branch of the NAACP. He was traveling the country, bringing the knowledge and experience gained back home to Duck Hill. He served as chair of the county school board. Then, two years ago, the time came to run for mayor.
“I thought I could make a difference,” White says. He felt he could leverage his relationships, both local and beyond, to help move Duck Hill forward. His primary focus was on infrastructure. He used American Rescue Plan Act money to computerize the town’s water meters and has recently submitted a grant to the Delta Regional Authority to computerize its gas meters.
The town is building recreational facilities for its young people and sponsoring intergenerational events. On a recent Friday afternoon, teenagers were participating in solar panel installation training.
His ambition is to continue to modernize the town – to make it a more attractive place for young people to stay and build a career and for attracting outside talent and tourism. The population has, in fact, grown steadily in the past few years.
White has long been committed to encouraging young people to stay in the community. Among those with whom he was successful is his predecessor as mayor, Joey Cooley.
“I’ve known Al all of my life,” Cooley says. “I’ve always been impressed with his desire to empower people and encourage them to be active in their communities.” White encouraged Cooley to run for public office. He was the first Black man to be elected mayor of Duck Hill.
“He has continued to move our town in a positive direction,” Cooley says. “His progressive thinking, his political connections, and his desire to see continued improvement are second to none.”
‘Finding a Way’
Meanwhile, the Grassroots Blues Festival, launched in 2003 and held each July, has flourished, with a mission to promote traditional blues, obscure blues artists, and up-and-coming artists. Among the legends who have performed over the years are Willie King and Duck Hill’s own Little Willie Farmer.
And in the up-and-coming category: Homemade Jamz Blues Band, who made their debut at the festival, then became the youngest band ever to compete in the International Blues Challenge, finishing second of 93 bands, and the youngest Blues Music Award nominee for best new artist, in 2009.
There’s a slogan the town sometimes employs: “Where our past and deep roots stimulate our future growth.” The festival is testament to that.
White’s devotion to mentoring young people is renowned. Marty Newell, chief operating officer of the Center for Rural Strategies, has known him for years. “Al has enabled young people to create media, to find their voice,” Newell says. “He’s put them up front, always encouraging, and generally staying in the background.”
ACER has never had sufficient funding, Newell says, “but they always got it done – making media, presenting a blues festival, speaking up for those who had a rough row to hoe. ‘Make do’ is the phrase that comes to mind: rural folks, persons of color, finding a way when the path wasn’t obvious and every choice seems difficult.”
Dennis recalls the days when White would travel Delta backgrounds in search of music, stopping to record bluesmen on their front porches – listening and learning. He now sees White’s people skills at work as mayor of Duck Hill.
“He’s never left his community, his roots, the people,” Dennis says. “He’s still driving old cars, he gets around, he’s at the churches … always smiling, always full of joy.”
“There’s just no other person I’d want more by my side.”
“A Rural Calling” is a Daily Yonder profile series featuring people throughout rural America who are making significant contributions to their communities.