On the Mississippi River just below Memphis, you can sit on the bank all day and not see a single canoe, or much of anything afloat that isn't a tug or a barge. We read about Huck and Jim, and are fed visions of idyllic riverbank beaches, but the Mississippi is a working waterway: 67 percent of the grain that gets shipped by boat in the United States goes down it. Between Memphis and Natchez, the famed river town in southern Mississippi, there is only one recreational marina, in Greenville. Just big industry, and the strangely retro faux-paddleboat casinos. The Mississippi Delta—the sprawling cotton land that begins in Memphis, Tennessee, and fans south, spilling over Baton Rouge and New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico—has always been defined less by what people do or don't do than by a massive river that is fast becoming more man-made canal than natural waterway.
It's nearly impossible to find a piece of the Delta that is untouched by human hands, except for the no-man's-land strip of jungle inside the levee. More than 3,000 miles long, the Mississippi River Levee might be the baddest thing man has ever made, almost as big as the Great Wall of China, a thing visible from outer space. The biggest human response to the titanic power of the river, it has shaped the history of the region. To cross the Mississippi River Levee is to enter a wilderness that, every spring, drowns in snowmelt from the Rockies and the Alleghenies, from the northern woods of Canada. This river, the third largest in the world, drains 41 percent of North America. Bears and panthers live here. The fact is, the Delta is land that should be out of business. Rivers snake and swell. The Mississippi's flooding has caused two national catastrophes, in 1927, when hundreds of farms were drowned, and again in 1973, when the control system failed. The flooding in 1993 and this spring was pretty severe as well. In Darwin's world the Delta's cotton fields would be underwater much of the time, not farmed. But since the '27 flood, the Mississippi has been the epicenter of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The government, vigorously lobbied by the Delta Council, a cotton-heavy organization with the lineage and the tactics of 19th-century cotton barons, has turned the river into its own economic laboratory.
In the Delta, 50 percent of the Mississippi's banks are now concrete. What the river wants to do is slide west. If it had its way, its mouth would be at Morgan City by now, and New Orleans and its massive seaport would be strangled in mud. Whether you're in a canoe drifting with the lazy current, or in the towns and anonymous intersections along Highway 61 (the busy two-lane that shadows the river and connects the Delta's historical and cultural dots), it's easy to see that the contest between river and man, and even between man and man, is at best a standoff.
SOUTHERN LORE HAS IT THAT the gateway to Highway 61 is the lobby of Memphis's Peabody Hotel. Memphis and its environs sit astride the river at a wide, lazy bend, once the center of Native American river culture. In the 19th century, the Peabody was where the cotton barons ate, slept, traded, and generally ruled the known universe. In those days the Delta was what California would become: the place for a fresh start or a last chance. Today the Peabody is an upscale tourists' pit stop and convention hall. The gilded lobby reverbs with mechanical schmaltz from a computerized player piano.
As with Rome or Athens, you hear the name Memphis and you conjure the city's past: Elvis and W. C. Handy and Beale Street. All of it is more legacy than reality. Mulberry is an unremarkable street in a part of Memphis no visitor would hear of, let alone go to, but for the Lorraine Motel, resting place of canceled expectations. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot through the neck while standing on its second-floor balcony, outside room No. 306, on April 4, 1968. I am tempted to say that the gates of Highway 61 have been moved to the Lorraine Motel, but even that feels tidy.
Minutes from the Peabody, the modest Lorraine, the hub of the "wrong" side of the tracks, was where African-American royalty ate, slept, and traded. Cab Calloway, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin. Now it's part Hollywood set, part attempt at a national conscience. The elements of the motel's exterior—the stark architecture, the letter-box sign, even the shark-fin cars in the parking lot—have been frozen in the assassination moment. King's room has been preserved, from the bed he slept in to the nightstand he ate his last meal on. The rest has been re-outfitted as the National Civil Rights Museum, an exhaustive, and sometimes jumbled, archive of recent African-American history.