Black mayor brings redemption to town burdened by racist past

Tim Reid

The day the Ku Klux Klan paid a visit to this cauldron of racial hatred in Mississippi is deeply etched on James Young¶s memory. He remembers his father standing in the front room of the family home with a shotgun in his hand as Klansmen rampaged through the town, lynching blacks and firebombing their churches. That was 1964, when whites held every elected office in the town down to the local tax assessor and one of the Deep South¶s m ost infamous atrocities had just unfolded ² the murder of three civil rights workers depicted a generation later in the film Mississippi Burning. It is no surprise then that Mr Young, 53, still struggles to describe how he feels about becoming the first bl ack mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Many contend that his election was even more remarkable and unforeseen than Barack Obama¶s ascent to the White House. ³I recently met a black lady, she was about 100 years old,´ Mr Young says as he sits in the tiny mayor¶s office, two blocks from the courthouse where five years ago the Klan leader who masterminded the 1964 murders finally met justice and was convicted of manslaughter. ³She said, µI didn¶t think I¶d ever live to see a black president.¶ Her next state ment was: µAnd I sure did not ever believe a black man would be mayor of Philadelphia¶ .´ Mr Young is about to end his first year as mayor. To reach office he had to defeat the white incumbent, Rayburn Waddell, in a town with a 55 per cent white majority. He won by just 46 votes.

It was, without a doubt, one of the most astonishing election results in US history. After the 1964 murders, which prompted President Johnson to send in the FBI and built momentum for the seminal Voting Rights Act the following ye ar, Philadelphia, Mississippi became a byword for violent bigotry.

When Mr Young was a seven-year-old boy watching his father¶s nightly armed vigil, the Klan ruled the town with impunity. Many members of the local police force were Klansmen. Blacks brave enough to try to register to vote were met with qualifying questions by white officials: how many bubbles in a bar of soap? How many feathers on a chicken? ³I never could have envisaged then becoming mayor. Never. It was just not on our radar. If someone had told me there would be black mayor here and a black President I would have called them crazy.. ³I was overwhelmed by the after-effect, and how it impacted so many people who lived here before. ³I had to get somebody to answer my phone at home. I got cal ls from all over the world and from all 50 states, people just ringing to congratulate me, people crying on the phone, telling me

they couldn¶t believe it had happened in Philadelphia. I just didn¶t think Philadelphia had garnered that much attention. ³Older black men and women kept coming to the office, they started talking, they would start crying, the tears rolling down their cheeks, not believing that they had lived long enough to see this, knowing the struggles that took place in the 50s and 60s in thi s area and in the South. They would start talking about events in their life, the mistreatment, not being able to vote, being excluded from the political scene ² for me to be elected mayor of Philadelphia was to them a dream come true.´ Mr Young, a Pentecostal minister who was elected to the job of county supervisor in 1991, grew up in Philadelphia and says the change in attitude about race has been extraordinary, especially in recent years. He says there are still racists in the town who would never vote f or a black man, but his victory symbolises remarkable progress in the South in the past generation. A new generation of white and black district attorneys has aggressively pursued a belated reckoning for the Klansmen who were often acquitted of murder by a ll-white juries in the 1960s. A string of elderly men have been sent to prison, including Edgar Ray Killen, the former leader of Philadelphia¶s Ku Klux Klan, jailed in 2005 for overseeing the Mississippi Burning murders on June 21, 1964, when James Chaney, a black man, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white, were beaten, shot and buried in a dam. In that year, there was not a single elected black official in Mississippi. Now it has more African American elected officials than any other state. In 1970, there were 86. Today there are more than 800. For years numerous white residents have said how desperate they were to escape from the stench of Philadelphia¶s past. Many of those must have voted for Mr Young, who knocked on every door during his campaign, and his victory has given the town a kind of redemption. Mr Young says he was never once insulted or had a door slammed in his face. Residents say the town¶s first black mayor has been a success so far. ³He¶s doing great. He mingles with the people. He¶s got some jobs coming in, he¶s got us a new plant coming our way, he¶s trying to get more small businesses in town. Everybody I talk to likes him,´ says Wilson Hobson, the owner of Hobson Barber Shop on Philadelphia¶s Main Street>. Mr Young attributes his popularity to a desire to turn over a new leaf. ³Many whites have mentioned the town¶s history,´ he said. ³A white college student called me and said that for years he was embarrassed to tell people that he was from Philadelphia. He said that after I won the mayor¶s race, it changed how people looked at him or received him when he told them where he was from.´ Mr Young also credits Mr Obama¶s election victory, six months before his, for helping him win. ³It changed the landscape, it changed the attitude.´ Since then, Mr Young and his wife have visited the White House and met Mr Obama and his wife Michelle. ³Who woulda thought that?´ Mr Young says, a smile on his face. ³A little black country boy playing in the woods, one day shaking hands with a black president.´ Written for The Times newspaper, by Tim
Reid Accessed on line 30-4-2010