Amite Co. legislator conquers Turkey

JACKSON – When Angela Cockerham stepped off a tour bus recently in Hanran, Turkey, the tall, slender African-American lawmaker from Mississippi was surrounded by chanting youngsters.

“Condelessza Rice, Condelessza Rice,” the Turkish kids enthusiastically echoed.

“No, no, I'm not Condolezza Rice,” the single, 29-year-old state representative from Magnolia insisted with a broad grin, seemingly convincing her coterie of young admirers that she was not the U.S. secretary of state.

But one young man apparently was not satisfied that this black woman from America wasn't Secretary Rice. Yelling “I protester, I protester,” he lunged toward Cockerham.

Before the man could lay a hand on the legislator, the Turkish guide for the 15-member Mississippi interfaith tour group quickly stepped between them and sent the angry man on his way.

For Cockerham, the incident was not disturbing. In fact, she says, “it underscored the whole purpose of the inter-faith trip: to reach out to other countries.”

Actually Rice would be complimented to be taken for the younger Cockerham, whose poised, svelte, long-limbed, bronze beauty stunned crusty white lawmakers who gawked when she arrived earlier this year to take the House seat given up by ailing David Green, the veteran Democrat from Gloster.

She had won the seat, which comprises all or parts of Pike, Amite, Wilkinson and Adams counties, in a special election, as a newcomer, pitted against several male political veterans.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Green endorsed her and she had the strong backing of her law partner, Wayne Dowdy, who is also Democratic State Chairman.

Cockerham, after interning in Dowdy's law office, graduated in 2001 from Loyola University law school in New Orleans, and after briefly practicing in Louisiana, she joined Dowdy. She is a member of the state bar in both Louisiana and Mississippi, and handles cases in both states.

Grew up in Gillsburg

Born in Jackson, Cockerham grew up in the tiny Amite County town of Gillsburg. She received an undergraduate degree at Jackson State before going on to Loyola on a part scholarship, rejecting a full scholarship at LSU law school much to the dismay of her father, Oscar, a longtime vo-tech education teacher.

Evidently, Turkish school children the Mississippi tour group visited saw Cockerham as some kind of a star, clustering around her wherever she went. “The kids were just adorable, so friendly, and surprisingly most of them could speak English,” she said. “One little girl insisted on giving me a gorgeous necklace even though I told her I didn't have a gift for her.”

One young man Cockerham figured to be an 8th or 9th grader excitedly said to her: “I hear you are politician, I want you to meet the president of Turkey, and I want you to tell me what to do to get there.”

Cockerham offered him a few basic political tips, but urged him to communicate with her by e-mail. Since returning home, she has, in fact, gotten e-mails from him.

The Mississippi inter-faith tour to Turkey was funded by the Houston-based Institute of Interfaith Dialogue. A broadly diverse group, it included two other state legislators (one, Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson, who chiefly organized it), and several ordained ministers, the state director of Catholic Charities, a state court of appeals judge, and a college professor.

After landing in Istanbul, the group visited several biblical places, including the ancient city of Ephesus whose archeological treasures are one of the seven wonders of the world. “Spontaneously,” Cockerham said, “we held a worship service there and others came up and joined us.”

Fascinating to me was a story in the McComb Enterprise-Journal about her speaking to the Liberty Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Amite County about her trip to Turkey with the Mississippi inter-faith group, and also legislative work in the 2006 session of the Legislature.

“They adored her,” veteran Enterprise-Journal reporter Ernest Herndon, who covered the event, told me.

Knowing Amite County to have been one of the most dangerous spots for black civil rights workers during the 1960s, the thought of a black woman being the guest speaker at a white-dominated civic group is somewhat mind-boggling.

Incidentally, I vividly recall that I was the speaker for the annual banquet of the same Amite County group in the mid-1980s, at a time the Legislature was desperately searching for revenue to fund state government.

One revenue idea I advocated was for the state to legalize casino gaming on the Gulf Coast and on the Mississippi River at Natchez (about 50 miles away). Most of my listeners rolled their eyes in disbelief.

When the state's first floating casino opened five years later at Natchez-under-the-hill, I was there. In the parking lot I noticed there were a number of cars with Amite County tags.

Times do change, I guess, even in Mississippi.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.