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At least 3 candidates show up for blacks-only forum

Invited guests of the United Black Men’s Forum gather outside the Straughter Baptist Memorial Center Sunday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[04/23/01] A blacks-only political forum Sunday drew fewer than 100 men and women, and five of the eight black candidates for Vicksburg offices were not seen at the event.

Representatives of The Vicksburg Post were not allowed in the Straughter Baptist Memorial Center on Openwood Street for the United Black Men’s Forum although a news release from U.S. Rep. Bennie C. Thompson, identifying him as the speaker, did not say the forum was closed.

The Rev. James Bowman, wearing a button that identified him as a member of the United Black Men, turned away a reporter and a photographer as they attempted to enter.

“This is a private affair,” Bowman said. “And you were not invited.”

Fifteen people are seeking office in Vicksburg in municipal elections that start with party primaries in eight days. White candidates said they did not receive invitations, but black candidates said they did. Several of the invited candidates, including mayoral candidates Eric Rawlings and Eva Marie Ford, said they would not attend because the group excluded people based on race.

Other black candidates had said they had not planned to attend because of prior engagements or other reasons.

Seen entering the building were Mayor Robert Walker, who faces Rawlings May 1, North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young and one of her two opponents on next week’s ballot, Rodney Dillamar. The third person in that contest, Jo Pratt, is white.

When asked about Thompson’s press release, Bowman said that Thompson was not sponsoring the event.

“Thank you, but no thank you,” he said. “And God bless you.”

Dillamar said Monday morning that the candidates were asked questions by the invited guests and given an opportunity to present their platforms.

“It was nice,” he said.

The blacks-only forum had originally been planned at the community center at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, but was moved after church officials learned the group had excluded candidates on the basis of race.

Walker, seeking a third elective term as the city’s chief executive, initially declined to answer questions about the event, but then wrote in a guest column that as a man of God, he can maintain his support of racial unity at one-race events. He also has said that if re-elected he will create a commission on race relations in Vicksburg.