I finally read John Barry’s truly horrific account of the great Mississippi flood of 1927, Rising Tide. It is one of the most frightening books I have read in a long time — not because of the power of the Mississippi in flood stage (which was really scary), and not because of the suffering and devastation that resulted from this terrible disaster (heartcrushing), but primarily because of the appalling record of wickedness, demagoguery, deceitfulness, arrogance, and cruel heartlessness left behind by the civic and political leadership, national and local, statewide and county-wide.
The account of the treatment of the black population of the Delta region is nightmarish and infuriating. The cold deceit of the rich and powerful of New Orleans is chilling. The hypocrisy of the Federal administration is astonishing. The callousness of the aristocracy of the Delta is stunning. The ineffectiveness and abject failure of the efforts made to bring about something approaching justice for the victims of this disaster is bone-jarring. But that which is the most terrifying of all is something Barry doesn’t address (though it hangs over the entire account as palpably as the odor of a dead skunk in the road) — the sad testimony this story gives to the the monumental failure of the Church, North, South, East, and West, in the early part of the 20th century.
Barry subtitles his book, “The great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America” — but this misses the big story. The flood was not the instrument that changed America, it was merely the occasion to expose the real cause for the change that occurred. Few books have displayed more clearly the ramifications for a society when the Church becomes uncaring, indifferent, distracted, and consequently irrelevant. Horrifying.