School of Journalism and New Media

The University of Mississippi

White Mayors Win On Black Votes

Posted on: December 3rd, 2014 by

Nowadays it’s about green – not black and white.

By KARSON BRANDENBURG

Dr. Clyde Glenn had lived in Clarksdale for four years. So in 2002, the 46-year-old psychiatrist had an idea: applying for membership at the Clarksdale Country Club, he reasoned, would get him more involved with his community.

But, much to his surprise, he was rejected. It wasn’t for lack of money. It wasn’t for lack of education. It was for something else: He was black.

Flash forward 12 years later. An elderly black man wearing a denim jacket and frayed jeans walks into the mayor’s office.

“Coley, come on in. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, Mr. Luckett. Some drug dealers shot up my street last night. They shot up my truck and now I can’t make it to my house-painting job. I just wondered if the police had had a chance to come by yet?” says Coley White.

Mayor Bill Luckett pivots on his chair, grabs a phone and calls the police department.

“Can you get a detective out to 1450 Choctaw?” he asks.

The mayor’s response did not go unnoticed by his visitor, who later explained how a white mayor got elected in a community 70 percent black.

“Before Mr. Luckett, we had a black mayor,” said White. “But from the people’s point of view, he was never doing anything to help the people. Whenever you wanted his help, he was never around. So a lot of us worked really hard to get Mr. Luckett elected.”

It didn’t always work that way.

In Clarksdale and throughout the Mississippi Delta, race has long been a topic of heated discussion and an intractable problem. For generations, black voters were in electoral chains and a kind of apartheid system had evolved: white mayors, boards of supervisors, school superintendents, police chiefs and sheriffs occupied the Delta’s most prominent public positions decade after decade.

Then came 1965 — and with it, passage of the federal Voting Rights Act. Empowered with full citizenship rights for the first time, the Delta’s heavily black electorate slowly began leveling the political landscape: They started electing black mayors, city councilmen, aldermen, commissioners, boards of supervisors and sheriffs.

But now, a half century after passage of the Voting Rights Act, significant change has swept across the Delta. For much of the last decade, black voters in some communities have elected white mayors.

Today, the Delta’s five largest cities — Clarksdale, Greenwood, Greenville, Indianola and Cleveland — all have white mayors. The reason: Black voters have become more color-blind, more concerned with electing people who can fix potholes, sweep up trash, take out junker cars and shore up dilapidated housing.

As black empowerment across the Delta seasoned and became reality, more voters matured in their ways of thinking and at the ballot box.

“I think some people realized that just being black is not a good qualifier for anything —nor is being white,” said Luckett. “They started looking for quality people with leadership skills, and what’s happened (in the mayoral races) in the Delta is that whites are being elected because they are the better-qualified candidates at that particular time.”

*     *     *

It’s December 2012, and the streets of downtown Greenville are awash in holiday cheer. Mayor John Cox motors along the parade route, his wife, Lynn, at his side. As they cruise toward the levee, his car reaches the peak of a hill. Cox can see all the way down Washington Avenue, can see sidewalks crammed with residents.

“Can you believe this?” he asks his wife.

It’s Greenville’s biggest Christmas parade in half a century.

A year later, Greenville’s Hot Tamale Festival morphed from a one-day event to a three-day festival with more than 8,000 people clogging the streets to celebrate the popular cuisine.

“I really think that those kinds of events started changing the attitudes of groups,” said Cox. “They help everybody feel good about themselves and about Greenville and about the fact that color and race are just no part of this.”

But that wasn’t always the case.

In the 1920s, Greenville experienced its share of tense racial history. After the historic 1927 flood, the Delta was underwater. Thousands of black people lived in tents amid squalid conditions on the Greenville levee. There were complaints of discrimination as white farmers sought to keep their sharecroppers on the levee rather than allow them to be moved someplace else. They feared they might not come back if they were moved out of the county. Those complaints eventually led to a federal investigation.

Despite these shortcomings, Greenville long has been noted for a kind of liberal progressiveness. Black residents got jobs in downtown stores, its police department integrated and the schools desegregated—all earlier than other Delta communities. The city even came to be known as the “rest stop” for weary civil rights workers throughout the 1960s.

By 2011, that progressive mindset led to a different type of change. That year, Cox was elected mayor of Greenville’s 33,000 residents. He triumphed over a black opponent, Carl McGee, winning 57.5 percent of the vote in a city where 78 percent of the voters are black.

“In the Delta, it used to be about race. Not now,” said Greenville contractor Willie Sullivan. “It’s about who can bring money to town and is the best qualified candidate. Nowadays, it’s about green—not black and white.”

Or as Cox puts it: “Black and white people can get past race if there is a trust factor that they have about the candidate. A lot of politicians think it’s all about them. This is not about me. This is about Greenville.”

*     *     *

Across the Delta, similar seeds are taking root. And in many of those places, accessibility seems linked to mayoral popularity. For example, in Greenwood, Mayor Carolyn McAdams initially had little knowledge of where the mayoral boundaries were drawn.

Then one afternoon, during her first term, a black man walked into her office.

“I could tell he was real upset, you know, very emotional,” recalled McAdams.

So she walked out and asked how she could help.

“I need to see the mayor,” he said.

“Well, that would be me,” she replied.

The man then told her how his wife had left him the night before, wringing his hands as he spoke.

“I need somebody to tell me what to do,” he finally said.

Go see a preacher or a therapist, she suggested. But the man wanted her personal advice.

“Well, you know, sir, I’ve been in your shoes before,” she told him. “And I did go to my priest, and then I went and got help from somebody who was very objective and didn’t take sides.”

Two weeks later, the man returned.

“That was the greatest advice,” he told her. “I don’t know that I’m going to get my wife back, but now I’m straightening my life out.”

McAdams said these impromptu encounters have become typical, part of her job, and she welcomes them.

But in Greenwood, like many other Delta towns, that hasn’t always been so.

Once upon a time, this Delta community of 15,000 symbolized an ugly racial history. It was the hometown of Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, who killed Medgar Evers. In 1963, the city made The New York Times’ front page after civil rights activist Bob Moses led hundreds of residents to the Leflore County Courthouse, protesting the shooting of a young activist, Jimmy Travis. They were met by politicians and snarling dogs. The Times’ headline the next day read: “Police Loose Dog on Negroes’ Group, Minister is Bitten.”

But as the decades unfolded, an air of change began to sweep across Greenwood, culminating in 2009 when McAdams got 56 percent of the mayoral votes, beating out the black incumbent, Sheriel Perkins. In 2013, that change continued as McAdams won again, this time with 52 percent.

“There’s still room for growth. There’s still room for improvement,” said Tim Kalich, publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth. “We still are too focused on race more than we should be. But it’s worlds different than it was 50 years ago.”

And looking down the road, the mayor hopes it stays that way.

“Black, white, green, yellow, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter because we’re all going to be here,” said Mayor McAdams. “I mean, I’m going to be here until I die, so I want Greenwood to sustain itself as a city. It can’t do that with just one race.”

*      *     *

Sometimes, it seems, the personal relationships mayors have formed with voters have made more of a difference in election years than race.

In Indianola, Mayor Steve Rosenthal attributes his election victory to his deep city roots. In 1913, his grandfather started a clothing store in Indianola called Ben Fried’s.

“We used to joke that we go from birth to burial. We had christening gowns, and I sold suits for the local funeral home,” said Rosenthal, who was born and raised in Indianola.

That position allowed Rosenthal to form relationships throughout Indianola, from the wealthiest in town to the most impoverished neighborhoods.

“When Indianola was 60 percent African-American, that was my business: 60-40,” he said. “When we became 75-25, that was my business. So as the population shifted, so did my business base because our store was moderate, middle-of-the-road merchandise.”

However, merely being friends with everyone wasn’t enough. After the family business burned down in 2001, he realized he had an opportunity to speak out about a troubling political climate.

“Typically, when you’re in retail, especially in a small town, you stay as politically neutral as you can,” he said. “But after I got out of the retail business, there were a lot of things I was frustrated about that I was not able to take action upon publicly.”

Those frustrations centered on financial control of the city and its failing school systems. In 2006, before Rosenthal decided to run for office, then-Mayor Arthur Marble encouraged the Board of Aldermen to approve a 60 percent pay hike for him and a 50 percent raise for the board. They did so in an executive session, and at the next board meeting, an angry crowd gathered at City Hall in an uproar over the increased salaries. Marble publicly admitted that the raise was meant to boost his retirement benefits, but that didn’t quell the town’s outrage.

Rosenthal felt the need to step up. He also believed the city’s largely black public school system was rapidly deteriorating.

“I didn’t feel, at the time, that the administration was equipped to run a system of that size,” said Rosenthal.

But the white community wasn’t interested in helping.

“They had pretty much said, ‘That’s your all’s school. We’ll do other things.’ But I felt like we needed to be involved,” Rosenthal said. “Whether their children are attending or not, the future of Indianola is dependent on a quality public school education.”

Dissatisfaction with Indianola schools has long been a community issue. In 1986, black residents boycotted Indianola’s businesses after the school board selected a white man, W.A. Grissom, as superintendent of a system in which 97 percent of the students were black. The boycott lasted 37 days until Grissom’s contract was bought out, and Robert Merritt, a principal of 16 years, became the system’s first black superintendent.

In a city that gave birth to the White Citizen’s Council — a group dedicated to enforcing segregation — Mayor Rosenthal, who is Jewish, won the 2009 election with 76 percent of the vote in a city where 80 percent of the citizens are black. Then he won again in 2013.

“People chose Mayor Rosenthal because they weren’t satisfied with the predecessor,” said Ben Gaston, general manager of the Indianola Super Valu. “It wasn’t a black-white issue. Steve is well-known throughout the community and people trust him.”

The mayor agrees – then frames the issue in a larger context.

“Now we’re seeing that race is not the deciding factor — that people are choosing people,” he said. “So we’re getting back to what democracy’s all about — freedom of choice and not choosing based on race.”

*     *     *

When the Voting Rights Act was passed, white leaders warned that black voters would only vote for black candidates. That may have been mostly true in the beginning, but the claim was undermined over the years when black support kept re-electing a handful of long-time white officials in each county.

The theory was finally and emphatically debunked again in a dramatic way in June of this year when long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, was forced into a runoff by Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. The challenger, an ultra-conservative, had been an honored speaker at gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and had railed against government spending and Obamacare, both of which are dear to the hearts of poor blacks in the Delta.

In the runoff, black Democrats by the thousands rushed to the polls to vote for Cochran, who won by a little over 8,000 votes. Both candidates’ camps agree that all those black Delta votes made the difference.

 *     *     *

Being a white mayor, of course, doesn’t guarantee you’re better than a black mayor.

And sometimes, just as black officials were occasionally hounded by claims that they ignored white constituents, white office holders are finding that they aren’t exempt from racial controversy, either.

In Greenville, Cox came under fire when he was featured in a NBC Today report highlighting academic struggles at a local middle school. He said socio-economic reasons were part of why local schools weren’t integrated. He also said he didn’t send his two daughters to public school because “it was not up to what I felt they should have.”

Black state Sen. Derrick Simmons quickly called for an apology. The senator’s twin brother, Greenville Councilman Errick Simmons, called for the mayor to resign and engineered a no-confidence vote in the council that broke down along racial lines.

Since then, Cox has said he supports public schools and will work with school officials to improve academic performance.

And in Clarksdale, race often is still stage center at city commission meetings. Commissioner Buster Moton, who is black, has made clear his animosity toward Luckett.

“The only thing that really needs to happen is that the mayor needs to be fair,” Moton said in an interview. “We made phone calls and got him elected. Then he turned right around and spit in our faces.

“The way Bill is doing things around here — it’s like he’s trying to put black people back in chains.”

Those remarks draw a sharp rebuke from the mayor, who has worked to reduce crime and remove dilapidated buildings besides using his own money to help rekindle commerce in downtown Clarksdale through blues shops and restaurants.

“He’s called me all kinds of things,” said Luckett. “He’s called me a Republican, a racist, a one-term mayor, a slave driver … It doesn’t feel good being called a racist. People can suggest it, but it’s simply not true. I look at people’s character and abilities and I try to completely overlook color. I think the best policy is to move right on past it.”

And based on the votes, Luckett has widespread support throughout the Delta community of about 18,000. In the 2013 Clarksdale election, he swept to office in a landslide, capturing 70 percent of the vote and taking all four wards.

Some days, it seems nearly impossible to grasp the dramatic changes in Clarksdale that native son Luckett has seen in his 66 years.

“When we were all kids growing up here, no white people ever crossed the tracks unless it was to buy tamales or pick up their maid,” Luckett said. “But a lot of that has changed. In many neighborhoods, blacks and whites now live next door to one another.”

And some days, it’s just as hard for Coley White to grasp those same changes.

“Nowadays,” he said, “a lot of people really aren’t into that color thing. We’ll vote for who we think can get the job done. Period.”