The new plantation?

In Mississippi's catfish plants, critics charge that blacks do the work, while whites enjoy the profits.

Catfish are on parade in Belzoni. Five-feet tall and made of fiberglass, Mr. "Pablo Picatfish" hangs out on Hayden Street, looking happy. "Ms. Fishin' for Words" - in pink lipstick and a tutu - stands grinning outside the library. And the lovely "Mrs. Small Fry" lounges around Magnolia Street with her whiskered pal "Johnnie C. Fish."

The community artwork project celebrates that lowly aquatic vertebrate which, say officials in the mayor's office, also happens to be the pride and joy of this sleepy Mississippi Delta town. Seventy-two percent of all pond-raised catfish eaten on the planet come from this region. True, they might not be flashy like Chilean sea bass, or expensive like Norwegian salmon. But in the self proclaimed "Catfish capital of the world," that's all they've got.

"And we are grateful," says Paulet Solomon, who works the reception at Belzoni's Catfish Museum.

Catfish farming and processing are the mainstay of the economy in this region, providing employment for thousands, and bringing in about $300 million a year to one of the most depressed regions in the country. According to recent Census Bureau statistics, more than 40 percent of the population in Belzoni's Sunflower County live in poverty. Same goes for nearby Humphreys County, birthplace of B.B. King. The unemployment rate throughout the region hovers at 20 percent, infant mortality rates are higher than anywhere else in the United States, and less than half the youngsters graduate from high school. Blacks make up almost two-thirds of the population.

"If the catfish industry was not here, they would all be on welfare," says Ms. Solomon. "Anything to boost the economy is good - who would argue with that?"

And yet, the story of the catfish industry in the Mississippi Delta might not be as straightforward and worthy of unbridled celebration as it seems. Behind the grinning faces of the merry catfish parade, is a story as unclear as the waters in which the whiskered creatures crawl.

Quitting time

It's 5 p.m. and workers are streaming out of the Country Select processing plant in Isola, a few miles north of Belzoni. It's late autumn, and the setting sun casts a reddish light.

Men and women in blue overalls pour into the workers' parking lot, picking out grit from under their nails and removing the plastic coverings over their hair. Two or three are Hispanic, but everyone else is black.

At the same time, a group of white workers come out a different door, walking to cars in reserved spaces, wearing business jackets and loosely fitted ties.

"This is nothing more or less than the modern-day plantation," charges Ronald Myers, a Baptist minister, doctor, jazz musician - and self-appointed agitator of the Delta catfish industry. "It's the racist capital of the world!"

Those who do most to make the industry a success, argues Myers - the blacks who do most of the hard work in the farms and processing plants as well as then buying and eating most of the catfish - are the ones getting the least benefit from it.

Having unskilled, minority labor is not unique to the Delta, points out Tom Buchanan, a sociologist at the University at Chattanooga who recently wrote a study of the industry. But, he writes, "the elites here have ... successfully been able to assume that this work force remains unskilled and without opportunities." Dr. Buchanan points out that the isolation of the Delta and the lack of other alternatives have created a situation in which labor relations are indeed "uniquely reminiscent of plantation slavery."

Years of unhappy murmurings - or, in the case of Dr. Myers, vociferous protests - have basically led nowhere.

Accusations of black workers being mistreated in this plant or another - claims of unhealthy work conditions, limits on bathroom visits, white supervisors with stop watches, even sexual abuse - are impossible to verify. Stories vary, and no legal action has ever been sought against a processing plant or a farm.

One strike was mounted to protest work conditions at Freshwater Farms in 1998, but it quickly ended with the firing of the protestors who had no-strike clauses in their contracts.

If one thing is indisputable, however, it is that here the vast majority of workers on the production or "kill" line - doing the skinning, cutting, and gutting of the fish - are black and getting minimum wage or slightly above. And the vast majority of front-office personnel are white and making above minimum wage. More significantly, all the catfish farm and processing plant owners are white.

"I don't think the fact that the workers lower down on the totem pole are black is in itself racism," says Steven Yarbrough a novelist whose book "The Oxygen Man" takes place among the catfish industry workers in Mississippi. "But you could nonetheless honestly level charges of racism at the industry.... It's about lingering attitudes. And it's about ownership."

"Civil rights got us to the lunch counter and onto the same buses," pipes in Myers. "But here in the Delta we have yet to own the buses or restaurants or, as the case may be, the catfish-processing plants."

Trying to take ownership

There are those who argue that times have changed, but the story of Walter Roberts weighs against such assertions.

Dr. Roberts is one black man who made a play for some more opportunity and lost out. A well-to-do vet with his own practice, Roberts used to treat sick catfish up and down the Delta and knew the business inside out. A few years ago, he decided to buy some land and try farming for himself.

One white farmer told him, "Fish farming is hard work. You can't be lazy. It's not for blacks," he recalls. The bank would not give him a loan. No one would sell him the baby catfish, known as fingerlings. And the processing plants froze him out, he says. Three years later he gave up.

"The white farmers wanted to prove me wrong. They didn't believe a black man could succeed. And they didn't want any more blacks coming in," he says.

These days, Roberts is hatching a new plan: He wants to start a catfish distribution business - buying processed catfish for repackaging and redistributing.

Maybe that's where the opportunity for him, and others, lies, he hopes. He might call his business "Delta Blues Catfish." The beauty of it, he says, is that the whole thing will be set up on the Internet. That's the secret. "So no one will know my color," explains Roberts.

Not black and white

Myers, a large, loud, and self- promoting man, rubs many in Belzoni the wrong way: He goes about his crusade in a lumbering, almost infuriating way, they say - not to mention that his agenda stirs up a debate that many, black and white, might want left alone. He is ridiculed by many, and ignored by many more. He is not welcome in Alison's, the town diner, which happens to serve up the best fried catfish around.

"The biggest problem in our county is not racism," says Solomon, at the Catfish museum, reflecting the opinion of many here. "It's Myers."

"Racism, how so?" thunders Dickie Stevens, president of Country Select for 17 years. His 650-plus workers, he says, have medical insurance, retirement packages, and paid holidays. Myers, he says, is a "loud mouth who has never made any contribution to the community and has never been in one of the plants and knows 'diddly squat' about what happens here."

"In our company, there is zero discrimination," adds Julian Allen, a fourth- generation farmer who serves as chairman of SouthWest, another large farming and processing company, which employs more than 600 people. "That stuff perhaps happened in the '50s," he says. "A few activists are still talking about it - but it simply is not going on."

The problems faced by the small black farmers unable to succeed in the industry, says Mr. Allen, are no different from those faced by the small white farmers. "It's a depressed economy," he says, "not racism." The fact that the industry has been in trouble for the past three years, fending off competition from cheaper catfish from Vietnam, coupled with the growth of large farms at the expense of smaller ones - has made it hard for all small farmers, he says.

Mr. Stevens says he does not know any processing plant owners who refuse to do business with black farmers. "I don't believe there is a legitimate black farmer who would ever claim that," he says. The catfish industry, he stresses, provides work where there is no other. The fact that there are no other opportunities, he says, is beyond his control - and not his problem.

But Myers disagrees. "The Mississippi Delta is the poorest region in America," he insists. "The industry should be donating to develop youth centers, scholarships, and summer business internships, and working to better race relations."

Overtime and holidays

A few miles down the road from Country Select, workers are lining up at a mini-mart, buying refreshments and unwinding at the end of the day.

"What discrimination are you talking about?" asks one black woman who has been on the kill line for nearly 20 years.

She gets minimum wage plus $2, she says. There are sick days, and time and a half for overtime. The company gives workers a day off on their birthdays.

"Things are just the way they are around here. It's not racism," she says. "It's just the way they are."

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