JACKSON – Former Gov. Ray Mabus, now Secretary of Navy in the Obama cabinet, came home the other day bearing gifts, a real plum naming a new pioneer type Naval vessel for Mississippi civil rights martyr Medgar Evers.
What makes the USNS Medgar Evers particularly special is that it will mark the first ship in the nation’s fleet to be named for an African-American other than one Navy SEAL (Evers served in the Army.) Poignantly, it was named by a Secretary of Navy from Mississippi and was the first ship Mabus has named since assuming the position.
Even more poignantly, as Myrlie Evers, widow of the slain civil rights icon, pointed out at a ceremony at Jackson State University marking the Mabus visit, it fulfills a promise Mabus made to her 20 years ago as Mississippi’s governor that he would find some way to honor her late husband.
The announcement by Mabus came as a total surprise to Mrs. Evers, who remarked that “the Navy must be good at keeping secrets.” She said she and her former brother-in-law, Charles Evers, had arrived at the ceremony totally unaware of what the event was all about except for the appearance of Secretary Mabus.
Myrlie (who now lives in Oregon) said she had come after having been in Mississippi in June to undergo surgery, only because former Gov. William Winter had called and said it was important for her to be on hand. “When the Honorable William Winter calls, you come,” she declared with a grin.
The new ship, yet to be constructed at a San Diego shipyard (to be christened by Myrlie Evers) is one of a new T-AKE class vessel the Navy is building as a versatile supply ship for the fleet, carrying everything from ammunition supplies to food and medicine that will serve in a range of duties, including disaster relief around the world.
Democrat Mabus, who did a stint as a Navy officer on a cruiser in the 1970s, won the state’s governorship in 1987 after serving as state auditor, the only Harvard Law graduate ever elected Mississippi’s governor. After one term, he was defeated in 1991 in something of an upset by a rugged Republican construction contractor named Kirk Fordice.
So far, Mabus is the highest Mississippi appointee named by President Barack Obama. Early on, in June, 2007, Mabus declared his support of the young Illinois senator for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Mabus, who had been named ambassador to Saudi Arabia by President Bill Clinton, told this reporter he had broken with such fellow Mississippi Democrats as William Winter on a hunch to back the relatively unknown Obama. Winter and other Democratic associates of Mabus had supported former First Lady Hillary Clinton.
“I felt Obama was someone special, and I figured (correctly) he could capture Southern Democratic primaries and win the nomination,” Mabus said, adding: “It turned out I was right.”
He didn’t comment, however, on the low number of white Democratic votes Obama got in Mississippi and other Deep South states in the general election. Still, in winning Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, Obama was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to make deep inroads in the South.
The day before his Jackson visit, Mabus visited the Northrop Grumman Shipyard in Pascagoula and inspected the Dewey, the latest Aegis class missile-firing destroyer that will soon join the U.S. fleet.
That the Navy builds destroyers today with that kind of firepower makes the 5-in. 38 cal. main battery that I directed on the Stephen Potter, my World War II destroyer, seem like pop guns.
The Potter guns didn’t do too badly, though. On our own we bagged nine attacking Japanese planes and together with other ships in our task group, knocked down dozens more. In two years of scrapping with the Japanese, the Potter had some mighty close calls, but remarkably we came through undamaged.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.