Black leaders name their heroes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Today, they&8217;re helping set the standard for black leadership in the Miss-Lou.

But to mark Black History Month, The Democrat asked leaders &8212; starting with Natchez city officials &8212; who their black role models have been.

It was a question that took Mayor Phillip West aback &8212; not because of a lack of people to name, but because of the sheer volume of names that came to mind.

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On a local level, he named more than a dozen people, including well-known political figures Charles Evers, G.F. West Sr., Barney Schoby and Judge Mary Lee Toles.

But he also took care to name others whose names might not always make the spotlight, such as Sandy Neely and the Rev. W.F. Scott.

&8220;They were the first two elected officials (in Adams County), I believe,&8221; Mayor West said.

Robert Lee Williams, who was active in children&8217;s recreation programs for years, and longtime school administrator W.L. Nelson also made his list.

Nelson, he said, came along at a time when many people were afraid that if they spoke out for civil rights, they would be fired from their jobs.

&8220;But he was always involved in the (civil rights) movement,&8221; Mayor West said.

Alderman Theodore &8220;Bubber&8221; West also named Williams as a personal role model.

&8220;He took so many African-American youth under his wings,&8221; he said.

And of course, Alderman West named his father, G.F. West Sr., first, noting that &8220;he came from nothing and was a self-made man.&8221;

As one of the few black businessmen in Natchez at the time, the elder West found himself thrust into politics but always

tried to take the high road, his son said.

&8220;He always wanted to work with people,&8221; he said. &8220;He always said that if people could sit down and discuss it, they could work things out.&8221;

As a father, G.F. West Sr. encouraged his children to make up their own minds, seeing issues from different sides before making choices.

&8220;He never told me how to do something,&8221; Alderman West said. &8220;He always gave me options.&8221;

Alderman James &8220;Rickey&8221; Gray also named his father first as his highest role model.

In addition to serving as president of Natchez College, James Earl Gray was assistant director of recreation at one time.

&8220;He was instrumental in doing things in the city and out in the county for the kids, both black and white,&8221; Alderman Gray said.

&8220;As kids, we had everything we needed.&8221;

All three men picked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as their national role model for, as Gray put it, &8220;how he tried to bring everyone together.&8221;

Mayor West said he admired the sincerity and honesty King exhibited. &8220;He was not involved in the movement to help himself,&8221; West said. &8220;He set such a high standard.&8221;

King was able to calm and inspire a crowd, Alderman West said, adding that &8220;there was a peacefulness to the way he talked that made you think things are going in the right direction, no matter if there was all hell breaking loose outside.

&8220;He gave hope to hopeless people.&8221;

But Alderman West said he admires the best qualities of both King and black leader Malcolm X, despite differences in their philosophies.

&8220;Malcolm was strong in saying, &8216;We came out of slavery and we&8217;re not going back,&8217;&8221; he said.

&8220;He took a strong stand in saying that. Never again.&8221;