Is bridging the racial gap a lost art locally?

Published 12:45 am Wednesday, May 7, 2008

On city Election Day four years ago Phillip West was one of seven candidates vying for the title of Natchez mayor.

Three elections later, and by only a 100-vote difference, West had the title and an entry in the Natchez history books.

He was the first black mayor in Natchez since Reconstruction.

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And a month later, at his inaugural ceremony, the political world appeared in force.

Then-U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering spoke.

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said a few words.

Natchez greats Tony Byrne and Larry L. “Butch” Brown were present.

And more than 500 local residents attended to welcome their new mayor.

West had done a great job gathering the white vote. Many — this newspaper’s then-editorial board included — felt he would be the one to pull the races together in Natchez.

On the night West won he was quoted saying, “By the time I finish my term, I want to show that there was nobody better to lead (Natchez.)”

This page of the newspaper will go to press before Tuesday’s final election tallies are in. By the time you read this page, you’ll know who unofficially won the Democratic primary.

West may still be in the running, or his term may be over.

One way or the other, West has made history. It’s impossible to say whether he was the best person to lead Natchez over the last four years. We’ll never know what another leader would have done.

West made some good decisions, and some downright ugly ones.

But — as voters headed to the polls — it seemed as if West may have lost his unspoken calling card — race.

Can he still bridge the racial gap?

According to talks with voters, campaign signs and the general feeling in the political world, West no longer has as much support across racial lines.

But could that be because the lines are fading?

According to most of the men and women running for office this time, the racial vote just isn’t what it used to be in Natchez.

And that’s a good thing.

Whites don’t just vote for the white guy. Blacks don’t just vote for the black candidate.

Sure, race still has a hold for some voters, quite a few, I’m sure, but perhaps not as many as it has in the past.

So, maybe, there is less of a gap to bridge.

West may take credit for the gap shrinkage. And maybe he should.

In the 80s, West was a polarizing racial figure, leading boycotts and filing a lawsuit against the public schools.

In 2004 he was a unifying face that happened to be black.

Now, maybe he’s just a politician seeking office.

One way or the other, history won’t be made with this year’s mayoral election.

We probably won’t have great state leaders in town in July for the mayor’s swearing in ceremony.

The next mayor — West or someone else — will have streets to pave, houses to tear down, budgets to balance, departments to run, and it seems he may be graded on his performance on all of the above, and not on racial lines.

That, in my mind, is progress. Whether West deserves the credit, or whether the process has been gradual over many years, Natchez is moving forward. And we’ll all be better for it.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or