By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
CLARKSDALE, Miss. (AP) — Bill Luckett still vividly remembers his first work in helping renovate buildings. He was a ninth grader, and he sanded walls for house painters in his hometown of Clarksdale.
“That whole summer, I had no fingerprints. I had sanded them off,” the 63-year-old recalled as he drove through a comfortable subdivision in Clarksdale, pointing out houses where he did prep work, painted walls or hung wallpaper.
Now an attorney and businessman, Luckett is running this year as a Democrat for Mississippi governor. He says wants to help revitalize the state’s economy just as he has helped pump new life into the economy of Clarksdale, a city of about 18,000 in the northern Mississippi Delta.
Luckett has renovated several commercial and residential buildings in and around Clarksdale over the past two decades. He and his business partner, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, run two establishments that have brought untold thousands to Clarksdale in the past 10 years — a blues club called Ground Zero and an upscale restaurant called Madidi.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour couldn’t seek a third term this year. Five Republicans and four Democrats face off Aug. 2 in their respective party primaries and runoffs, if needed, will be Aug. 23.
Luckett has raised the most money in the Democratic field, followed by Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. Meridian High School history teacher William Bond Compton and retired Yalobusha County tax assessor Guy Dale Shaw of Coffeeville are running low-budget campaigns as Democrats.
During a driving tour of Clarksdale, Luckett kept up a steady banter as he pointed out landmarks, including one of the city’s most-photographed sites — a large metal sculpture of guitars, marking the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where, according to blues lore, Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in the 1920s or 1930s in exchange for the ability to play guitar.
“That very often photographed three-guitar crossroads — actually my design when I was on the city beautification committee— does not mark the actual crossroads,” Luckett said. “The actual crossroads could not have been there at the time because the highway was not there at the time Robert Johnson was alive.”
The real site of the 61/49 crossroads during Johnson’s lifetime is a few blocks away, Luckett said.
Luckett was born in Fort Worth, Texas, where his mother grew up. His parents were married and his father was at the University of Mississippi law school when his mother was pregnant, and her parents persuaded her to come home to Texas to give birth. Luckett said he was about six weeks old when he and his mother moved back to Clarksdale, where his father established a law practice.
Luckett grew up in a comfortable brick home in Clarksdale that had once been owned by Earl Brewer, before the Democrat became Mississippi governor from 1912 to 1916. (When Brewer returned to Clarksdale after his term ended, he built new, larger home that resembled the Governor’s Mansion.)
Luckett is a 1966 graduate of Clarksdale High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of Mississippi. He has been an attorney since 1973, and has had law offices in Clarksdale and Sumner, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. From 1971 to 1979, he was an officer in the Mississippi National Guard.
Luckett said that after law school, he returned to Clarksdale in December 1973 and he co-chaired the local Democratic Party for about a decade with civil rights activist Aaron Henry. Luckett and his wife, Francine, have been married 27 years — the second marriage for each. They have four children and seven grandchildren.
He is receiving support from several prominent Mississippi Democrats, including former state party chairwoman Gloria Williamson of Philadelphia. Williamson said this week that she likes DuPree, too, but she believes Luckett has a better chance of winning the general election.
“I think he’s very qualified,” Williamson said of Luckett. “He’s not a career politician. He brings some fresh, new ideas. I believe anyone who’s helped the Delta the way he and Morgan Freeman have can help the entire state.”
Luckett has faced questions this election cycle about whether he meets the requirement of being a Mississippi resident for the five years leading into a governor’s election. The Associated Press obtained election commission records in March from Shelby County, Tenn., which show Luckett voted in Memphis on Nov. 7, 2006. That’s five years and one day before Mississippi’s 2011 general election, which is Nov. 8. A person registering to vote in Tennessee must sign a statement that he’s a resident of that state.
Luckett told AP that he has lived in Mississippi “over 61 years straight” and has owned multiple homes, including several in Tennessee. The day after AP reported on the Tennessee voting documents, the Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee voted to allow Luckett on the primary ballot. There was no debate, and some Luckett supporters on the committee said later that no formal complaint had been filed.
Since then, Compton has asked Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to rule on the residency issue. Hosemann’s office said the state Board of Election Commissioners does not vet candidates’ qualifications until after the parties choose their nominees.
During the tour of Clarksdale, Luckett left his Toyota Land Cruiser’s engine running and the doors unlocked as he hopped out and popped into Ground Zero. He waved and chatted with kitchen employees who were rolling out biscuit dough for lunch. Then, knocking to make sure the men’s bathroom was empty, Luckett beckoned a visitor to follow him inside so he could point out graffiti — a poem that, by now, is mostly covered by other black-marker scrawls.
“‘The MS Delta, where cotton is king, corn liquor is queen,’” Luckett read aloud. “‘Every night is Saturday night. Every day is pay day. Two vacations a year, six months of peace. The richest land and the poorest people.’”
He said he often quotes the poem in speeches about the Delta: “I change that to say ‘the greatest people.’”