Raising Mississippi: Kellogg Embraces a Tough Slog in the Deep South

Some battles never seem to end in the United States—like, for example, the battle to ensure a fair shake for low-income people and communities of color in Mississippi. 

For nearly the past 60 years, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been involved in that battle in one way or another. And lately, it's been ramping things up. It designated Mississippi as one of its priority places in 2007. In 2013, it opened a regional office in Jackson, the state capital. The last president of Kellogg, Sperling K. Speirn, said that opening the office was one of his biggest accomplishments. The current president, La June Montgomery Tabron, may be even more committed to this fight. She has family roots in Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

One focal point of Kellogg's work in the state is Sunflower County, which lies in the heart of the delta. It's a lush, humid, fertile land where cotton, soybeans, corn and rice thrive. Catfish ponds abound, making Delta Pride Catfish the county’s biggest employer. The county is so lightly populated that it only averages 42 people per square mile. The population is 73 percent African American. No freeways run through the county. The county seat, Indianola, has a population of just 10,000. Its claim to fame is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. (Blues legend King was born on a plantation in nearby Itta Bena.) The state as a whole is dead last in median family income and in the percentage of people who have finished high school.

Oh, and another thing about this isolated spot in the Deep South. According to the Mississippi Center for Justice, “Sunflower County has some of the worst health statistics and economic disparity and is still one of the most racially segregated areas in the U.S.”

The health situation is exacerbated for the 36 percent of Sunflower County residents who live below the poverty level, because Sunflower’s native son, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, has not expanded Medicaid coverage to low-income adults. About 500,000 Mississippians are without health insurance coverage, more people than live in Kansas City, Missouri.

The forward march of history, it might be said, has stalled out in Sunflower County. And that's just the kind of challenge the Kellogg Foundation is drawn to. Certainly, though, it's under no illusions that change will come either easily or quickly. Raising Sunflower County—and Mississippi—will be a tough slog, and Kellogg's longstanding stake here stands in sharp contrast to the notion that foundations flit from fad to fad. There's nothing trendy about sticking up for people who've been underdogs for the past two centuries. 

The foundation currently has seven ongoing grants to the Mississippi Center for Justice; three support its work in Sunflower County. Kellogg money is helping the center fight to promote economic and health equity; to improve job opportunities for young people; and to reduce the structural racism of the county's education system. Among other things, the center offers a financial education boot camp in Sunflower County for working, single African-American mothers who are members of Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) a Kellogg Foundation initiative to ensure school readiness for children as young as 3.

The Mississippi Center for Justice describes itself as “a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice.” It was organized “to address the urgent need to re-establish in-state advocacy on behalf of low-income people and communities of color.”

One issue that's been on the center's front burner in recent years has been health care. It's prevented 65,000 impoverished aged and disabled Mississippians from losing health care and is fighting for full implementation of the Affordable Care act.

Of course, Kellogg money flows to many other nonprofits in Mississippi, too. These grants reflect the range of issues that Kellogg cares about, and show how the foundation is bringing the full brunt of its resources to bear in Mississippi across a variety of areas. For example, it's supporting work by the Southern Poverty Law Center to challenge harsh school discipline policies and reform the juvenile justice system.

Most intriguing is how Kellogg has made several grants in Mississippi through its racial healing initiative. Its biggest give along these lines, made early this year, was $2.3 million to help support the first state-funded civil rights museum in Mississippi.