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    In the Mississippi Delta, reflections on hope and fear

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In the Mississippi Delta, reflections on hope and fear 03:22

Mississippi town watches its president leave and Trump rise

Updated 4:03 PM ET, Thu January 19, 2017

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Cleveland, Mississippi (CNN)"I'll never forget it," Clemie Burks said when asked to describe how she felt when Sen. Barack Obama took the oath of office on a frigid day in Washington.

Nearly eight years later and 1,000 miles away in this Mississippi Delta town, Burks, a 57-year-old native seemed to swell with pride when she talked about her president, who would not be president much longer.
"I was so proud. I think I jumped and hollered and cried and prayed and said, 'Ooh, we have finally made it,' she told me in a recent interview in her living room after she got off work from her nursing job, still dressed in her scrubs. "It's a day I never thought I would see."
Clemie Burks, 57, lives in Cleveland, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. She says "[For Donald] Trump to come behind Obama is a total disaster."
    For Burks and many other African Americans, Obama's legacy is more than political -- it is personal, and gave them the ability to see themselves in places they never had before. That was especially true here in the Delta, where the DNA of this town reflects some of Mississippi's fraught history.
    Old railroad tracks divide the city in two, separating the predominantly black east side of the city from the more affluent, whiter west side. Last year, six decades after the US Supreme Court declared that "separate but equal" had no place in the nation's public schools, a federal judge ruled that Cleveland's schools must desegregate and that the town's middle and high schools must consolidate.
      Still, people here are proud of their history. Sen. Robert Kennedy traveled here in 1967 to measure the effectiveness of the so-called War on Poverty. A nearby park is named for Amzie Moore, a local son turned civil rights leader. Dockery Plantation, just outside of Cleveland city limits, is the home of the famed singer Charley Patton and known around here as the birthplace of the blues.
      Over lunches and dinners, on the streets during a parade honoring the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in churches and in classrooms, black residents of Cleveland counted down the final days of Obama's presidency with admiration and looked skeptically toward a future under President Trump.

      'He's my giant'

      "The problem with Obama was he had so many challenges and they expected so much from him and he couldn't achieve everything they wanted him to achieve," Burks said. "Even in his trying -- and he failed in some of the things -- he's my giant."
      She is not alone. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 62% of African Americans ranked Obama's election as the most significant historical event in their lifetime.
      Blacks from across the country flocked to DC in 2009 to see the nation's first black president sworn in. Willie Simmons, a Democratic state senator who owns a local homestyle restaurant was one of them.
        "It seemed like everybody in America either was there or wanted to be there," Simmons told me in an interview at The Senator's Place, the restaurant he's owned for more than two decades.
        The Senators Place in Cleveland, Mississippi is owned by state sen. WIllie Simmons and serves southern soul food.
        Simmons described the change he felt happen when Obama was inaugurated; where there were once institutional barriers, there was now possibility.
        "Although the founding fathers basically said all men are created equal and indicated that we could become President of the United States if we wanted to, many of us never felt that we could," he said. "So to be able to be part of that celebration and watch Obama be sworn in as president is [a feeling] that you will never forget."
        Simmons wasn't always on team Obama though. During the 2008 primary, he supported Hillary Clinton because she believed she stood a better chance at winning, a decision that caused him to "lose a lot of friends" and be "jumped on by many."
          "One threatened to put me out of the family," he said with a laugh, alluding to a political rift between him and an older brother.
          "President Obama proved to us that a young community worker out of Chicago Illinois...could become president of the United States. In the future, we'll see another President Obama and we'll see a female become president of the United States also."
          Mississippi state sen. Willie Simmons.
          The president himself sounded the same notes at his final presidential press conference this week. He was asked by April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network, whether he expected the country to see another black president.
          His answer? Not just black presidents, but all kinds of presidents.
            "I think we're going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country. Because that's America's strength," he responded. "When we have everybody getting a chance and everybody's on the field, we end up being better."
            Later in the afternoon, The Senator's Place was filled with a throng of hungry black families, many in their Sunday finery after attending the day's Martin Luther King Day celebrations. A serpentine line of hungry folks wrapped around the perimeter of the restaurant as others chowed down from plates heaped high with fried chicken, turnip greens, candied yams and rice and gravy -- all for $8.
            One of them was Sassy Smith-Taylor, a 20-year old mass communications student at Mississippi Valley State University, a historically black college situated nearly 40 miles away in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Smith-Taylor grew up in Dallas but told me she was drawn to the small campus because of its tight-knit feel, something she said is emblematic of the entire Delta.
            Sassy Smith-Taylor was 12 years old when President Obama was elected.
            "There is only one word that I think can describe the Mississippi Delta to the fullest extent and that's love," she said. "Every street...that you walk on has history to it. The college is about 15 miles down the highway from where Emmett Till was murdered, so there's a lot of hard history, but through all that, they still have the most positive people and the most loving people. You never meet a stranger."
            Smith-Taylor was just 12 years old when Obama was sworn into office and said she didn't initially realize the gravity of the moment.
            "I don't think it hit me, the impact he would have on our community as an African-American woman, and especially for our country as a whole," she recalled. "Being a kid, it let me know that not only can I have white friends and friends of different nationalities, but I'm also able to have the opportunity to become a president one day if I choose to."
            She described Obama's legacy of one of "hope, change and opportunity," but also said that the outgoing president faced unprecedented challenges while in office because he was a black man.
            She remembered when Rep. Joe Wilson, a white lawmaker, shouted "you lie!" during an address before a joint session of Congress. She recalled social media posts that referred to Obama's 2009 swearing-in as the "inniggeration," and political opponents who she believes have opposed Obama's policies simply because he is black.
            "The way he handled that with such class....he never fired back with mean or ugly jabs," she said. "He just continued...to strive to make this country as best as it could be."

            From 'hope and change' to no expectations

            Obama gave many here in the Mississippi Delta a freedom to dream. But at the same time, the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Trump -- a man who at times seemed to run on a platform of that energized open racists -- seemed to replace the eight-year-old promise of "hope and change" with a mix of mistrust, anger and fear.
            "Expectations? I don't have any," Arlene Sanders, a professor at Delta State University said of Trump.
            "President-elect Trump says he's going to create jobs, improve the infrastructure. That was one of President Obama's goals...and Republicans didn't agree. Here, President-elect Trump says the same thing and everybody thinks it's such a bold new idea."
            She paused and pursed her lips. "Not expecting much, here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta."
            A scene outside of Cleveland, Mississippi in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
            Smith-Taylor, the college student, wouldn't openly trash the incoming president, but suggested that some of his rhetoric surrounding blacks, Muslims and other people of color was troubling. She wanted to look forward.
            "The only way that you can go against some of the things that [Trump] has said and some of the things that he is done is to continue to show the world that, as Americans, we are not ugly. We do not hate one another," she said. "That's not what we do. America is love."
            Leroy Byars coached the football team at Cleveland's East Side High School for more than a decade before serving as the school's principal from 1988 to 1997. He's so revered that the school's football field bears his name. Now retired, Byars still lives in Cleveland, a place he says that has its "battles" but is still "one of the most opportune places to live."
            Byars predicted that under President-elect Trump, the country is in for a "rocky time."
            "Being a leader of a nation is a lot different from being a multi-millionaire and running your own business," he told me. "You're representing all the people of the United States of America. You have to act accordingly."
            I asked him if he thought Trump could represent people of color.
            "Some of the statements that he's made? I don't know," Byars said before pausing. "I have my doubts."
            Burks, the 57-year-old nurse, put it more bluntly: "[For] Trump to come behind Obama is a total disaster," she said flatly. "Trump is a fool."
            Trump, she said, sold voters in some parts of the country a false bill of goods.
            "We've just got a road ahead of us, a long road ahead of us. I'm hoping that we can change some things," she added later. "Sometimes, after 50 years and things haven't changed, sometimes you give up hope. But being a Christian, being a lady from the South, that's all we have...is Jesus."