National Geographic : 2012 Nov
mention this conversation. Neal snaps alert, looks over, and says, "Gene, was that you I told to go home?" and he gets up, and they embrace. Talk turns personal and emotional. Neal and his brothers slaughter a steer each year for a barbecue. Gene must come down for this, he must. But for Richards, returning is complicated. In part because his time in Arkan- sas is still the burning core of his life. And in part because he left dispirited and confused about whether he'd accomplished anything at all. Now, 40 years later, the sharecropper life that he documented has slipped away. e place is less poor than it was and less rich at the same time. Whatever the South is, it stays with you, and whatever the delta is, it beats as the heart inside the South. j they think has hit bottom, and in that fact they find hope. Earl thinks the divisions between whites and blacks, between owners and workers, don't matter anymore, because unless things get better for everyone, then it's over for everyone. future. He is 71. In the early seventies he was a rebrand, a Vietnam vet and black organizer who carried a gun in self-defense, the guy who led a boycott of white businesses in Marianna and ran a VISTA-organized health clinic there. Now most of the stores downtown are closed, the factories gone. ere are only a couple of juke joints in the whole county. Neal is a retired appellate judge who once worked in the court- house in Marianna, which faces a square with a statue of Robert E. Lee. Neal has hope. He cultivates the young, has sent a dozen locals to college. He believes they will someday return and x the place. Eugene Richards remembers Neal as one who inspired him but told him to leave the delta in the early seventies, said it was time for civil rights to be a black movement. It helped Richards realize his time was up. We are sitting in Neal's o ce when I 1969: I drove out past the town of Marion beneath a quiet sky, as beautiful as anything I'd seen, to the house of a woman who lived by herself. The delta has something going for it: Race is always out on the table in plain view and is sometimes honestly discussed.