TUPELO – The City Council will mark a historic moment when it reconvenes in July with two black members on board.
Nettie Davis won a third term in Ward 4 and Willie Jennings won a first term in Ward 7 in Tuesday’s general election.
It’s the first time for two minorities to earn seats on the same Tupelo council, which sets policies and adopts budgets for the entire city.
And it’s a welcome sign to many black residents who fought political and legal battles to achieve it.
“It was his lifelong dream that we would have two blacks represented on the city board,” Darletha Grayson said about her late husband, Boyce Grayson, the city’s first black alderman and later a councilman in Ward 4. He died in February.
“I wish he could have lived to see that happen,” his wife said, “but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Grayson was one of three men who filed a lawsuit to change Tupelo’s council structure. The others were the Rev. Robert Jamison and the Rev. Charles Penson. The men contended the current structure allowing for at-large members diluted black voting strength.
U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills agreed. In January 2007, Mills struck down the city’s 7-2 City Council makeup – seven representatives from single-member wards and two elected at large – as being in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a result, the council will lose its two at-large seats when the current term ends next month, shrinking its members from nine to seven.
It also meant the redrawing of ward lines to give Wards 4 and 7 larger minority populations and a greater chance of electing black representatives.
Tuesday’s election was the new system’s first test.
“I would say congratulations to the voters of Tupelo for going out and supporting all the candidates. I believe right now the minority population is being represented in the City Council,” Grayson said. “I think we’re pretty close to the racial makeup in the city of Tupelo.”
More than 28 percent of the city’s roughly 36,000 residents are black – about two in every seven people, the same ratio as the next council. Seventy percent are white; the rest are Hispanic, Asian or other races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I think it will definitely make it a more diverse group and more reflective of the population of the city, which will make it a plus in the decision-making process,” said Penson, who is also a former city human resources director.
Both Grayson and Penson said the council’s dynamics will shift with the addition of another minority. Instead of one voice alone representing the black community for the city, two will be heard, they said. And more issues of concern to blacks will be heard, such as minority representation in senior-level city positions and on city boards, Penson said.
At least one African-American said he’s encouraged by this week’s historic vote, but isn’t ready to celebrate yet.
“What we’ve always been fighting for is to get the point where color just doesn’t matter,” said Tupelo attorney and 2005 at-large council candidate Brian Neely. “Filing these lawsuits and making sure we get across the board representation is just a step toward … the point where people can look at each other for who we are regardless of race, color and creed. For me, that’s what this struggle is all about.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal