James A. Young, a Pentecostal minister and former county supervisor, was elected mayor of Philadelphia, Miss. on Tuesday.
May 22, 2009
First Black Mayor in City Known for Klan Killings
By ROBBIE BROWN
The city of Philadelphia, Miss., where members of the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964 in one of the era’s most infamous acts, on Tuesday elected its first black mayor.
James A. Young, a Pentecostal minister and former county supervisor, narrowly beat the incumbent, Rayburn Waddell, in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican challenger.
The results, announced Wednesday night, were a turning point for a mostly white city of 7,300 people in east-central Mississippi still haunted by the killings, which captured front-page headlines across the nation and were featured in the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning.”
“This shows a complete change of attitude and a desire to move forward,” said Mr. Young, 53, a Philadelphia native who integrated the local elementary school as the only black student in his sixth-grade class in the mid-1960s. “When I campaigned, the signs on the doors said, ‘Welcome,’ and I actually felt welcome.”
Mississippi has the largest number of black elected officials in the country, but they rarely come from majority-white electorates, said Joseph Crespino, an expert in Mississippi history at Emory University. Mr. Crespino called Mr. Young’s victory “remarkable.”
“I think this speaks well to the town of Philadelphia,” he said. “Residents there have lived with the memory and the trauma of the killings for many decades.”
The city is 56 percent white, 40 percent black and 2 percent American Indian, according to the Census Bureau.
On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers who were registering voters in Philadelphia — James Chaney, who was black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white — were murdered.
In a 1967 trial, seven of 18 defendants were convicted of conspiracy. Then in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Klansman, was convicted of manslaughter for the killings and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Like so many other Southern cities in the civil rights era, Philadelphia had its national image cemented permanently by one infamous event. But this week, residents saw an opportunity for redefinition.
“It will erase the thought that we’re just a Southern racist town,” said Dorothy Webb, 72, a white retired school principal who said she had voted for Mr. Young.
Mr. Young said that he recalled the cold stares of his all-white classmates at Neshoba Central Elementary School, but that in recent years, racial tensions had abated.
“There was no real negativism in this campaign,” he said, adding, “There was no door slammed in my face.”
Mr. Young campaigned on a shoestring budget, with a dozen workers and volunteers, no yard signs, buttons or T-shirts. His campaign staff credits the Obama campaign with increasing the registration of black and young voters in Philadelphia.
But Mr. Young said the main advantage was his willingness to campaign in all neighborhoods, white and black, adding, “I even talked to my opponent’s mother.”