One Natchez: My motto going forward

Published 8:39 pm Saturday, October 21, 2023

“The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this state, except perhaps in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated, were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past, and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office, and its emoluments, to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.”

The great Hiram Revels wrote these timeless words of concern to then President Ulysses S. Grant in November 1875, at a time when this first Pastor of Zion Chapel in Natchez, first black US Senator, and first President of Alcorn, was working to unite a divided Mississippi in the aftermath of the Civil War. His letter might as well have been written yesterday.

Since childhood, blessed with parents who taught me to love rather than hate, peace between all people has been my passion. Growing up in an integrated school system from first grade, I never fully experienced segregation – and as I grew older, the sadness of stories shared, news reels watched, and injustices experienced, made me want to be a difference maker in the world around me. As a 1983 graduate of Murrah High School, and an entering freshman at Mississippi State University, I set out to be that difference. It has slowly become my life’s mission. And it is why I ran for mayor of Natchez.

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That first year in college, I was amazed at the talent of a young man serving as a student senator for the MSU Student Association. His name was Frederick “Chic” Parker. When Frederick began his campaign to become MSU’s first African American Student Body Vice President in 1984, I volunteered to be his right arm. We worked tirelessly, making a valiant effort but falling short. I didn’t support Frederick because of his skin color. I supported him because of “the content of his character.” Even though we lost, and not realizing it at the time, Frederick’s campaign would end up becoming a trailblazer for historic things to come.

In 1986, I was successfully elected Student Body President at Mississippi State and immediately began making appointments of the most qualified students I could find to be student government cabinet members and campus leaders. I cared not what color they were but how qualified they were.

One of these students was a young man named Steven Lamar Cooper. Steven was extremely talented and passionate about public service – and he happened to be black. Three years later, in 1989, Steven, along with another outstanding young man named Kelvin Covington, successfully broke historic racial barriers. Steven was elected the first black MSU Student Body President and Kelvin the first black Vice President. And both served exceptionally well.

Many years later, in November of 2016, Steven passed away of cancer. I was broken hearted, sharing my grief with my dear friend and pastor, Kevin Deason, not knowing that just three years later, in November of 2019, Kevin would also succumb to cancer. During that time, I told Kevin Steven’s amazing story – and I will never forget how Kevin marveled at how Steven and I had worked together at Mississippi State three decades earlier to bring people together and move beyond race. He said these words that still ring in my heart: “Dan, I wish we could do that here in Natchez.”

In 2019 when I was being asked to run for mayor, Kevin encouraged me. And in our last conversation in his hospital room, before he passed, he urged me to listen to God. And to follow my heart. Kevin would no longer be working beside me, but his encouragement, “you got this,” lives on in me to this day.

In our current time, both at every level from local to federal, I have witnessed the very actions Senator Revels warned of almost 150 years ago – unprincipled men, playing the race card, keeping alive the bitterness of the past and inculcating a hatred between the races, so they can get what they want for themselves. Just as Senator Revels condemned these practices then, I condemn them now. To invoke the words of Dr. King, the day has come for all Americans to be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I condemn racism – I always have. And I condemn those who use it as a weapon to further divide our people. We are better than that.

I love Natchez. I am so grateful God planted me here for such a time as this. And I am so grateful for friends like Frederick, Steven and Kevin who helped prepare me, and for the countless citizens, white and black, who daily encourage me in my efforts to be the best leader I can be.

My friend Tony Fields, another great inspiration in my life, used the slogan “One Natchez” in his 2020 campaign for mayor – the campaign that brought us together as friends. I think now is a great time to focus on those two words that together inspire us to be one – One Natchez.

Going forward this will be my motto. Because Natchez Deserves More.

Dan M. Gibson is mayor of Natchez.