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Steeped in Black History, MACE Elevates—and Celebrates—the Delta

In recognition of Black History Month, we are spotlighting the Mississippi-based group MACE, a longtime LISC partner with an illustrious past rooted in the Civil Rights movement, and a deep and continuing track record of comprehensive community development. Before anyone ever called it that.

The year was 1967, in rural Greenville, Miss., the heart of the Mississippi Delta: Fifteen trailblazing women and men—veteran leaders of the Civil Rights movement who had put their lives on the line many times over—formed an organization to help enfranchise poor African-Americans living where the benefits of civil rights had yet to arrive. 

Among the founders were Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, Amzie Moore, Annie Devine and Rev. J.C. Killingworth, and they called their group MACE, for Mississippi Action for Community Education. Their first order of business was to train a cadre of local leaders who could fan out into the Delta to connect people living in isolated rural pockets with education, resources and routes to activism.

But ultimately, they also created one of the country’s first community development corporations, and went on to practice what we now call comprehensive community development—by tackling persistent poverty and a dearth of opportunity through everything from housing and jobs to social services and small businesses. In 1995, LISC began partnering with MACE, helping connect the group to farflung public and private resources, and to other rural CDCs across the country with a shared mission. Since then, LISC has also invested in MACE's work on affordable homes, economic and youth development and even a music festival. 

For its part, MACE has worked continuously to link people with tools that improve lives, and to celebrate, promote and preserve the history and culture of African-Americans in the Delta. “MACE’s commitment to its communities over the last 50 years is unparalleled, and has made it possible to do what we do in the region,” said Rural LISC director Suzanne Anarde.

 

In the organization's early years, MACE community leaders surveyed residents near Greenville, MS to gauge their priorities.
Workers at a blue jeans manufacturing plant established by a MACE subsidiary in the 1970s.
MACE founders Fannie Lou Hamer and J.C. Killingworth at a congressional hearing in the 1960s.
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MACE's leaders had their work cut out for them. Structural racism and inequities were deeply entrenched. Many Mississippians lived without indoor plumbing or electricity; literacy rates were low and jobs were extremely scarce. But in just a few years, MACE’s leaders had spearheaded the incorporation of four rural communities, bringing basic municipal services like sewage systems, power and paved roads to places that had never had them before.  

“The founders felt there needed to be a grassroots organization to hold leaders accountable and to make sure opportunities were available to the people,” said Mable Starks, president and CEO of MACE, who returned to her Delta roots and got involved with the organization after nearly 20 years working in services for the homeless and education in New York State.

In its earliest days, MACE also created a subsidiary dedicated to economic development and setting up manufacturing plants—making such products as blue jeans, bicycle wheels and folding attic staircases—and whose mission was to create jobs and train black managers and entrepreneurs. At their height in the 1970s, those enterprises employed hundreds of people and helped stimulate the local economy.

Since LISC began partnering with MACE, supporting its operations and programs, we’ve invested more than $1.2 million, including some $800,000 in capacity-building and pre-development grants, and leveraging $4 million more as a result. LISC also helped MACE develop nearly a quarter of its 400 units of housing for disabled and elderly people and low-income families, as well as 44,000 square feet of community facilities and industrial space.

“MACE's founders [built] a grassroots organization to hold leaders accountable and to make sure opportunities were available to the people.”
— Mable Starks

Today, under Starks’ leadership, MACE can point to 300 local businesses that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without its investment and technical assistance. And to a successful YouthBuild program, which Starks brought to Greenville to support youth ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or employed, through education, coaching, vocational training and career placement (YouthBuild graduates in photo at top). In 2014, Rural LISC launched a program called GO Youth to expand MACE YouthBuild, which now serves 60 young people a year in Washington County, where Greenville is located, and many more in three adjacent counties, too, with additional support from the Mississippi Legislature.

Quality affordable housing is also still a crucial item on MACE’s day-to-day agenda, and Starks and her staff take pride in managing buildings that are indistinguishable from market-rate homes in the area. Sheila Watson, a MACE staffer, is a third-generation resident of the Bannerman Apartments, named for Charles Bannerman, one of the first CEOs at MACE. Watson moved in as a girl, after her family’s home burned down, and then raised her three children in an apartment of her own there. Under Starks’ leadership, property managers of MACE developments are required to hold monthly tenant meetings. “We all come together for fellowship,” Watson said. “We have really bonded. We know each other and each other’s kids. It’s made a huge difference in the community.”

MACE President/CEO Mable Starks (left) and staffer Sheila Watson
MACE President/CEO Mable Starks (left) and staffer Sheila Watson

If MACE is renowned in the Delta for its legendary beginnings and its contributions to the community, it may be equally well-known as the founder of the first large-scale celebration of local African-American culture and history: The Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, which marked its 40th anniversary last year. “Our great-grandparents and grandparents grew up on the legacy of the blues and gospel in order to make it through another day and to make things better for their children,” Starks said. “We are descendants of that, and [the festival] is a recognition of just how important this music is and that we need to pass it on to our children.” 

The event has also become a powerful economic engine for Greenville, bringing $3.7 million dollars in investment and tens of thousands of visitors to the area, and raising Greenville’s rightful profile as a destination on the American cultural map.  

With support from LISC, MACE recently renovated the field where the festival got its start—at the former site of Freedom Village, a housing community built for and by displaced agricultural workers. A museum charting the festival’s history was also just inaugurated on the site last year, along with a three-story stage, a commercial kitchen and 100 RV hook-ups with electrical and water. MACE is still raising funds to complete the stage and build a parking lot. “If we ever have a rain during the festival this Mississippi buckshot soil will hold every vehicle parked,” Starks joked about the parking lot. “Back in the day I am told people had fun playing in the mud, but I’m not so sure our guests today would enjoy that adventure.”

The crowd at a recent Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, which MACE founded 40 years ago to preserve and share the region's music and culture.
The crowd at a recent Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, which MACE founded 40 years ago to preserve and share the region's music and culture.

From parking lots, RV hook-ups and world-class music, to clean water and safe housing, to high school diplomas and jobs, MACE has been an integral part of the trajectory of Greenville and the surrounding area for half a century. “As MACE heads into the future, it will continue to make history in the Delta," said LISC's Anarde. “And we are honored to be a part of that.”