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Blacks-only forum for candidates must be moved’

[03/21/01] A blacks-only political forum set for April 22 at the community center of St. Mary’s Catholic Church will have to be held elsewhere because it violates church rules, and most candidates are balking anyway at the exclusion of whites.

The Rev. Michael Flannery, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, said church policy allows political meetings on church property only if open to all. He said the church could not support a forum that prohibited white candidates from participating and that he felt the Rev. Charles Boykins, St. Mary’s pastor, had been misled.

“He will stop it,” Flannery said. “He’s not going to allow the building to be used for this.”

Flannery said the diocese’s office did not learn about the political event until Monday. He said Wednesday morning that the Rev. Boykins was initially told the center would be used for voter registration and later permission was also granted for a meeting, but there was no mention of excluding people by race.

St. Mary’s Center on Main Street, formerly Baltes Gym, is used by many groups. The April 22 forum, set for nine days before primary voting, is being sponsored by a group called United Black Men. A letter written by Dennis Taylor, forum coordinator, has been sent to some church leaders around Vicksburg asking them to encourage their congregations to attend.

There are 15 candidates seeking four-year terms in Vicksburg’s three elective posts. Of the total, eight are black and seven are white.

In the letter, Taylor writes, “Please help us get out the black community on April 22, 2001, so that we can make a decision about which black candidate can provide the leadership we need.”

It goes on to say, “It is because we feel that a black candidate can provide us the best leadership. We want to insure that our brothers and sisters who seek these offices are given our support to win…” It also says Vicksburg should avoid what happened in Florida, an apparent reference to presidential voting last November.

Letters were sent to the eight black candidates seeking office in this year’s city elections inviting them to the forum and to an organizational meeting on March 14. It was at that meeting that one of three black mayoral candidates, Eric Rawlings, said he will not attend the forum.

“It’s basically a support group for Mayor Robert Walker and (Alderman) Gertrude Young,” Rawlings said Tuesday.

Walker, who is seeking his third term in office, would not answer questions from The Vicksburg Post about the forum.

“I have no comment to make about that,” Walker said.

Rawlings, 38, who is making his first run for political office, will face Walker, 56, in the May 1 Democratic primary election. The winner of that contest will advance to the June 5 general election to face three independents, one black and two whites.

“I think the forum should be open to everyone,” Rawlings said. “I want to be a mayor for the entire city, not just a black mayor or a white mayor.”

Independent Eva Marie Ford, 63, who is also black, said she will not participate because the forum excludes candidates on the basis of race.

“I believe that any forum should represent all the candidates,” Ford said. “I’d rather participate in a forum for all of the people of Vicksburg.”

Neither of the two white independent candidates for mayor, Laurence Leyens, 36, and Joe Loviza, 61, was invited.

“It’s a sad story that educated black leaders are not interested in me because of the color of my skin,” Leyens said.

Loviza, who is seeking a second term as mayor after serving from 1993 to 1997, said he does not mind being excluded from the forum.

“I support community unity,” Loviza said. “But if they feel like that is best for them, then I have no problem with it.”

Although the letter sent out to various churches asking members to attend was signed by Taylor, the letterhead bears the office address and phone number of local attorney Marshall Sanders. In 1997, Sanders contributed $500 to the campaign of North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young.

Young, 45, who is seeking her third term in office, said she will attend the forum.

“They asked me to go, so I’m going,” she said.

Young will be facing business owner Rodney E. Dillamar, 41; and retired educator Jo Pratt, 67, in the May 1 Democratic primary. The winner will advance to face Sylvester Walker, 40, in the general election.

Dillamar, who lost the Democratic primary election to Young in 1997, said that he will attend the forum, but that he has a problem with the group sponsoring the event.

“I’m attending because four years ago, they had an ulterior motive, and I want to be looking right at them this year and see what they’re up to,” Dillamar said.

Sylvester Walker, an independent candidate, said he will not attend the forum because of prior engagements, but added he does not support the black-only concept.

“I don’t believe in blacks on one side and whites on the other,” he said. “I’m an independent candidate and I’m not going to follow any groups.”

Vickie Bailey, an independent candidate in the South Ward, said she may attend the forum if her schedule allows, but that she but does not see the forum as exclusive.

“My understanding is that it is for the black community from the black point of view,” she said. “I’m not on the forum so I can’t speak to that.”

Bailey, 33, is assistant director of the city’s Department of Youth Services. She and the other independent candidate, Ashlea Mosley, will face the winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries in the June 5 general election.

Republican primary candidates are Sidney H. Beauman Jr., 52, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, and restaurant manager Sam Smith, 37.

Facing off in the Democratic primary will be Pam Johnson, 35, owner of a hair salon, and Carl Marshall Upton, 41, a self-employed electrician. Johnson, who is black, could not be reached.