Blacks take reins of power in rural South

Johnny Weaver told a friend 21 years ago that one day he'd run for mayor in West Helena, Ark., a small Mississippi River town that still rests on its Old South - mainly white - conventions. Last month, Mr. Weaver became the town's first African-American mayor.

"I think the community is ready for change," he says.

Weaver's victory is emblematic of a growing number of blacks taking over leadership positions in small towns across the South.

While African-Americans have been making inroads for years, their election to offices in rural areas long dominated by whites represents an incremental but important shift in the politics and culture of the region.

It is giving blacks a growing voice in local affairs and a pool of talent from which to choose candidates for higher offices in the future.

"More blacks in city hall means the South is slowly but surely changing," says Susan Glison, assistant director of the Center for the Study for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Blacks are taking voting seriously, and when they do, they are voting for blacks."

The Arkansas Delta, an impoverished area that hugs the Mississippi, typifies the change. In recent elections, an unprecedented five African-Americans captured mayoral seats in the area for the first time.

In West Helena, blacks also grabbed the city attorney and city clerk posts. Many African-Americans have long served as mayors on the Mississippi River's eastern side. Power has been harder to grasp in Arkansas.

"It takes a while for the power of the ballot to work its way up from simply voting to running for office," says Marvin Overby, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. "You can't legislate racism out of existence."

Black activism at the ballot box

One dynamic that helped blacks in the last election was voter participation. While more whites stayed away from the polls in November than during the 1994 mid-term elections, African-Americans participation remained steady, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Before those elections, 428 African-Americans were mayors in the United States. The majority hold office in the South, says Michelle Kourouma, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Anita Blackwell became Mississippi's first African-American female mayor in 1976 when she won the seat in Meyersville, which she still holds. "It's taken a long time, and of course black mayors in small towns have been around for years," she says. "But we are seeing more small Delta towns losing their grip on white power."

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated barriers to voting such as literacy tests and poll taxes. But blacks in the rural South have long hesitated to exercise their voting power because of enduring white control.

In West Helena, the transition has been particularly difficult. When Weaver was elected in November, the all-white county Election Commission certified longstanding mayor Riley Porter as the winner by four votes.

Weaver sued, charging that the commissioners illegally discarded 134 absentee ballots. Mr. Porter challenged the votes, contending ballot applications were not filled out properly.

On March 1, a special judge ruled in Weaver's favor and ordered the commission to certify Weaver as mayor.Still, Porter now says: "I want Johnny to succeed because I want the community to move forward."

Black mayors realize that communities often remain polarized after such victories. Whites are usually apprehensive, while blacks, who feel they've been excluded from power too long, harbor high expectations.

Political scientists say it is still rare in the South to see African-Americans elected in towns that aren't primarily African-American.

"All sorts of run-offs and absentee ballots can cause an election to swing for a white candidate even in those towns," says Mr. Overby.

Difficult to govern

Whites in West Helena and other Delta towns are reluctant to go on the record about African-American mayors. They will only say that change isn't always a bad thing.

"People have a hard time accepting it," says Weaver. "If I spend too much time talking to the whites, I am accused of being all for the whites. If I spend too much time talking to the blacks, it's the same thing."

The glory days of West Helena and its sister city, Helena, the home of seven Civil War confederate generals and the international King Biscuit Blues Festival, have faded. The town needs new drainage systems, street repairs, and an economic boost.

Amid the division and destitution, Weaver's goals are modest: "Most of all, I want to see people go back to work and know that I did a good job in four years."

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