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Calvin King.


Going to see Calvin King isn't like visiting many business executives. There's no elevator to an upper floor, no spacious office, no lunch at a trendy restaurant. You turn off Interstate 40 at Brinkley and head north on Highway 49 to the tiny community of Fargo. A sign indicates Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation. The arrow points east down a road with potholes on the way to becoming swimming pools if this rain continues.

Finally, there it is: a cluster of brick buildings, once a correctional facility for girls on the site of the old Fargo Agricultural School. A swamp across the way seems to be slowly engulfing the place. Water is everywhere. Leaden skies and soggy land seem to merge. Surely nothing is more forlorn on such a day than the Arkansas Delta, a flat expanse which stretches away in every direction, repeating over and over again the scene at Fargo. It's this way every winter in the Delta -- wet, muddy, and gray.

But this is home for 36-year-old Calvin King. He is where he wants to be. But it's more than a place where he was born and raised--on a farm near Marianna, a location to bring up his own family. There's also a "serious job to do," as he puts it.

King is on the cutting edge of an effort that seems almost hopeless--the the retention of Arkansas' black farmers. That's the most important purpose of the Land and Farm Development Corporation. King is executive director.

In 1930, about one of every three farmers in Arkansas was black, almost 80,000 in number. Most of them now are gone. There is agreement on that, but not on the number left.

The most recent government figures aren't too recent. The Agriculture Census of 1982, identified only 1,300 minority farmers remained in the state. That would mean a decline of 98 percent during the half-century period, a trend that strips the traditional economic base from blacks in the Arkansas Delta.

"If we're not participating in agriculture," King says of blacks, "then that means we're slipping a little further behind."

Like so many others, King planned on leaving behind, way behind, his rural roots. "The only thing I could reflect back on and see on the farm was work...definitely with a capital W," reminisces King of those long, hot days. "We chopped a lot of cotton. We picked a lot of cotton."

Then there was the livestock, the garden. It was a typical family farm of the 1950s in eastern Arkansas. King's father started it on 40 acres after a year or two as a sharecropper. The little farm grew and so did the family. After a while there were more than 100 acres and 11 children, a happy family according to King. "Family has been the basic foundation for us, I guess, more than anything," he offers. "Family was always first."

A close second was education. King's father was not an educated man, but he believed in it. The importance of education was drilled into the children. As a result, all finished high school. Nine are college graduates. It was made possible by the little farm near Marianna -- just like his father said -- that if you have land you can make a living and do other things. Get an education, for instance.

King is a product of the segregated schools of that time in Lee County. Integration didn't come to Marianna until his senior year. It was not a happy experience. If integration was such a good thing, a teenaged King couldn't see why and felt he somehow was singled out by those who controlled "the system."

He was glad to get away from Lee High School after what for him, at least, had been a fitful year. Armed with a diploma, King headed to Arkansas State University.

A year and a half later, he moved to Little Rock and began working. Education didn't seem quite as important anymore. He was an assistant manager and then manager for a fast-food restaurant in North Little Rock. He worked for Richard Mays, a Little Rock attorney who has since become an associate justice with the Arkansas Supreme Court.

"He took responsibility seriously," Mays recalls. "He was a pleasant experience for me."

The eager King was a delight to Mays. The attorney and business owner had been plagued with managers who were less than competent, including one who couldn't get back in the restaurant shortly before the noon-time rush because he'd locked himself out.

But King couldn't escape the expectations from back home. "My family definitely wanted me to finish school." So he returned to college and got a degree in business administration from Philander Smith in 1976.

His father hoped he would major in agriculture and return home to be part of the farm. King had no such intention and told Mays he didn't plan to go back to East Arkansas because of what he experienced there, and likely would leave the state. King's attitude was no different from thousands of other young people, both black and white, who fled the Delta and its hardships.

But King got some advice. "Well, if you cannot deal with where you've come from," Mays counseled, "then you're going to have a very difficult time with where you're going."

It was Calvin King's turning point. He returned to the Delta.

His college placement officer was stunned. "You've got to be kidding?" he gasped. "There are no jobs in eastern Arkansas. What can you do in East Arkansas?"

"I can at least go back to the farm," King recalls his reply, and proceeded to turn down a hotel management offer from Orlando, Florida.

"Not everyone can say they have something to go back to," he opines while telling the story. "That's saying a lot."

Mays thinks it also says a lot about King. "You really have some comfort in a guy who can make it in a big way who sacrifices that to return to the Delta."

For years King overlooked the fact he always had a job because of the farm. There was a roof over his head, food on the table, and clothes to wear. Looking back now he admits, "We were truly blessed as a family."

He began to see himself as part of a larger purpose. "And if everything is always taken away and nothing put back, then pretty soon, you know, there's nothing. And that's normally what happens in a family line," he explains. "If everyone leaves the area... particularly those who are going to get a college becomes basically a place of emptiness."

A year later, King found his calling during a research project on farmers. Afterward, he joined others concerned about the problems confronting black farmers in a series of meetings at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

From those sessions came the Land and Farm Development Corporation. King was among the founders and about six months after the incorporation he was elected executive director. That was nine years ago, and King doesn't regret it.

He looks on his work with the corporation as a challenge, a chance to deal with basic issues which apply to blacks--who could become a landless farm people in Arkansas 2000, he fears, if present trends continue.

Over the years agriculture in the Delta has turned from small family tracts--80 acres was typical, what a man could handle with a mule or two--to operations spreading over hundreds or thousands of acres, requiring enormous investments. We call it intensive agriculture. Above all else this concept is why black farmers are disappearing in Arkansas and other Southern states.

The emphasis these days is on credit and capital, which increases the managerial requirements of commercial farming. Yet the average black farmer has less than a high school education. The Department of Agriculture points out this puts blacks at a huge disadvantage in a business that comes to rely so heavily on information and technology.

But King thinks a new attitude is developing. "People are talking about low input agriculture right now...reduction of chemicals, pesticides," he says. "If that's a proven concept...then black farmers have been doing that all their lives."

As a result King is convinced black farmers can compete, even today. Government figures reveal what King and the development corporation are up against. The average black farmer still owns less than 70 acres, the same as in 1920. That means access to credit is difficult. Because of these smaller landholdings, black farmers aren't able to invest as much in machinery and earn smaller profits than whites generally do.

Labor is what blacks had to offer. But that becomes less important in an agriculture which rewards size, research, and technology.

Blacks, however, have lost their land for other reasons -- tax delinquency, partition sales, foreclosures -- through what one state official has called skulduggery by whites.

King sums up the overall situation in a word: racism. "That's the nuts and bolts of it."

How can he continue to deal with it and maintain such a positive attitude? After all, his own county is one of the 10 poorest in the country. The whole Delta suffers from crushing poverty, illiteracy, low expectations. He's surrounded by that--just like the expanding pools outside his door on this rainy afternoon. It's everywhere.

"The response has to be one from a point of action, not reacting," he replies, admitting he sometimes gets depressed. "Why does it have to be this way?" he will ask. "Why does change take so long?"

Sometimes King wonders if progress will ever happen. "But you try not to get stuck in that mind-set. It's easy to give up, but working for it is the challenge, and you go for it."

He talks of ways blacks can save their land and still make a living from it. Alternative crops, for instance--okra, peas--labor intensive, suited for a small acreage.

There's also the development of loan funds for black farmers and public awareness programs. "You have to bring it to the public's attention," he insists.

King thinks the development corporation has made a difference and points to changes in government foreclosure policies. Others feel it is King who has made the difference.

"Once he gets onto something, he has a single-mindedness of purpose," according to Olly Neal of Marianna, deputy prosecutor for Lee County, who speaks highly of King's determination to stay the course.

"He will work tenaciously without much praise," adds Bob Nash, director of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, "because he cares about the Delta in his head, his heart, and his gut."

King, of course, was brought up to believe in the value of work. It's no accident one of his favorite phrases is "work will win." Besides, for his father problems were simply a "job to be done."

King also appreciates the influence of Dr. Floyd Brown, who came to Fargo in 1919 with $2.85 in his pocket and big dreams nurtured by the teaching of Booker T. Washington.

Brown started with nothing. "But he didn't give up," King emphasizes.

Brown's dream became a reality, a school for young blacks who'd been shut out by poverty and segregation. By the time Brown turned the place over to the state 30 years later, there was a facility covering more than 700 acres -- with yearly enrollments of several hundred.

King looks on his efforts as a similar building process, one in which the torch has been passed to him. "If I've benefited from anything that anyone else has done...then what right do I have to escape working toward trying to achieve something that will be a benefit for my children and for their children?" King asks. "If someone hadn't done it, then where would I be today?"

No matter how tough, how bad things seem, King's philosophy is to look for the positive. "The bright side of it," he reminds, "is to know that it can be better."

King's approach impresses Tom McRae, president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, a major underwriter for the development corporation. "He's special," McRae adds. "People like Calvin are so critical in the Delta, because we're never going to change things unless people with some sophistication and education do go back."

Not only did King go back, he will stay and continue farming. In fact, if it weren't for the family's farm, he doubts he could afford to be executive director of the corporation.

He lives on the farm with his wife, a Marianna school teacher, and two children, a daughter who's 11 years old and a son, five. King works the farm with an older brother. They're purchasing 20 additional acres and now have more than 200.

This, too, gets back to family, the desire to be independent, to own your land. King says his father quickly realized sharecropping was a losing proposition. "There was one thing he wanted to be sure of -- that if he didn't make but two stalks of cotton--those stalks of cotton were going to be his," King recalls.

While he is wedded to the farm, King is not to the position of executive director. "There comes a time when there is a need for a change," he offers.

He's toyed with the idea of retailing, a clothing store maybe. Politics is another possibility.

He tried it once, in 1978, a race for the Lee County Quorum Court and lost by just eight votes to the white incumbent. "I'll probably try the area of politics again," he predicts, pleased by a changing political climate in the Delta that once was dominated by what he labels as greed and insensitivity from those in power.

"I see myself as an individual who could be a victim just like anyone else," he admits. "As long as this kind of injustice is taking place, it could be me, or it could be my child."

For King, elected office would not be a power base, but rather an opportunity for service. He wouldn't even consider it otherwise. He believes an elected position is the one area in which a person should be the most sensitive to people's needs. What really upsets King is the way the system in the Delta has worked to create poverty and then turns around and criticizes those who are trapped by it.

"So when you criticize a problem versus trying to deal with it, trying to resolve it, that probably disturbs me more than anything," he says, frowning.

Meantime, an occasional job opportunity beckons from the city. King is not interested -- even if the money is better in Little Rock, or wherever. "It's not about money," he claims. "It's about making a contribution."

The example of his father is always before him--a minister who could have moved the family to Chicago to preach from there, but he didn't. King asks why can't he stay at home, too, and contribute like his father did--"at least that much?"

The whole money thing is self-destructive, he feels, and claims to be rich in other ways. "The family itself makes you rich," he believes, and in knowing you've "helped this guy over here."

While others see the poverty, the isolation, the hopelessness of so many in the Delta, King still sees the potential to make a difference.

"I feel I'm definitely making a contribution," he says with a smile, "and it makes you feel good when you feel you're helping other people...that's what it's about.

"Oh, yeah," he quickly adds. "There's reason for hope. If we lose hope, what do we have then?"

Outside, the rain is beginning to let up. King walks his visitor to the door of the abandoned school the corporation is reclaiming for its offices. In a few weeks, spring again will creep across the Delta. The world will be renewed. The water that seems to be engulfing this property will recede. Men and machines will return to the fields--as the rhythms of the seasons play on.

It is a life Calvin King knows well.

And he wants blacks to continue to share it--with an independence and prosperity so often lacking--before he and others like him passed this way.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:of Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corp.
Author:Hill, Jack E.; Parsons, Bill
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Mar 13, 1989
Previous Article:Don Kirkpatrick; amid the elegant surroundings, he's growing Quality Foods with an open-collar style.
Next Article:Going for the Gold's.

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