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Race relations in fore at 2 mayoral forums

Mayoral candidates from left, Laurence Leyens, incumbent Robert Walker, former mayor Joe Loviza and Eva Marie Ford listen as a question is posed to the panel at the NAACP political forum Tuesday night at the Warren County Courthouse. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[05/30/01] The four candidates for mayor met twice Tuesday at forums with questions on race relations in Vicksburg taking prominence at both.

Eva Marie Ford, 63, received spontaneous applause from 100 people at a Vicksburg Kiwanis luncheon and forum and later at an NAACP-sponsored forum after she said outside forces can’t solve internal problems.

“We need to start from within and work together for the betterment of this community and as mayor of this city that is what I will do,” Ford said.

Incumbent Mayor Robert Walker, 57, who won the Democratic nomination in the May 1 primary election, said he has begun work on his campaign promise to create a Mayor’s Commission on Race and Human Relations. The first step, he said, was a meeting last month with ministers, business and community leaders to talk about racial reconciliation to discuss racial problems in Vicksburg.

“Not all of the problems are blacks and whites, but there are problems among people, which is very evident from some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen in the media of late,” Walker said. “I think it is pretty obvious that there is a divide in our community.”

Walker said racial problems in the community have kept the city from making progress because people have been unable to work together. He called on churches, community groups and schools to make improving race relations a priority for the city.

The Kiwanis forum was a round-robin format. Each candidate was asked a question by a mediator and then the other three were given an opportunity to give their responses.

“I’m not interested in getting somebody from South America or the Gulf of Mexico or Mendenhall who hasn’t solved their own problems,” Ford said. “If we want Vicksburg to resolve the racial tensions, then we all; black, white, red, green, yellow or whatever; we need to start from within and work together.”

Former mayor Joe Loviza, 61, who is seeking a second term, said that the basis for good race relations begins at home and that self-respect is the key for respecting others. He offered up his career as an educator and administrator working with people of different races and said that he would continue to try to bring people together.

“The mayor’s job is to unify the community, and I intend to do that,” Loviza said.

While the candidates mostly focused on black and white race relations, Laurence Leyens, 37, said that he has a slightly different view on racial issues in Vicksburg.

“Being a Jewish member of the City of Vicksburg, I understand racism from a little different perspective,” Leyens said. “But I had not experienced any direct racism until this campaign.”

Later, at the forum sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Leyens was called on to explain comments he made about the United Black Men. The charge was led by Dennis Taylor, the organizer of that group’s forum on April 22, which was closed to the press, white candidates and voters but attended by Mayor Walker and North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young. Most other black candidates did not attend the forum.

“Mr. Leyens, you called me a racist,” Taylor said.

Leyens said he had never met Taylor or called him anything, but did want an opportunity to be heard. “I’ve been trying for eight months to get in front of that organization to hear the issues of the black community,” Leyens said.

Leyens, Ford and others spoke out against the exclusion of candidates based on race. Former Warren County Supervisor John Ferguson and Brady Tonth, also members of the United Black Men, asked Leyens to explain any past party affiliations and what he has done for the community since returning to Vicksburg. Leyens said he has never been a member of any political party and the decision to run as an independent was strategic.