Philadelphia, Mississippi – Life has been good to James A.Young, the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi – a man with a humble start in life.
Many had doubted this city, with its severe racial problems, would give him a chance. Yet he is now in his second term as mayor. Personable, approachable, dedicated, he has been invited to speak at a variety groups around the county.
Several times he has been a guest at the White House, including an Obama Christmas party. Yet he is so honest he will suggest both sides in Washington have made critical mistakes.
During his own first term as mayor he learned to hold his tongue and to listen to the various points of view of the city’s five aldermen, he explains. His goal and motivation is pragmatic. He believes he must get things done. To do that people must learn to get along with one another.
Young doesn’t like to talk about it. But being a black man has created an added burden. Because of what people think he feels he has an obligation to do things even better than others have in the past whenever possible. He finds it hard to express this down deep gut feeling, but admits he knows as the first black man to become mayor he probably has some things to prove.
His early city career was as a Philadelphia paramedic, a job he performed for 16 years. Then he became the first African American to be elected to the post of county supervisor. Afterwards he became a corrections officer at the nearby Choctaw Indian Community. (It is an independent nation within our nation, he explains). In time he ran for mayor and was elected. He is now serving the city in his second term.
I suggested that indicates the voters believe he is doing a good job. He didn’t disagree. But he doesn’t believe he can begin to coast, either.
Young now works hard to convince state and federal officials that small towns deserve their fair share of the funding. In Mississippi, as in other states, large city projects get substantial amounts of money, while the small towns “get just 50 cents,” he suggests.
The population of Philadelphia was 7,477 at last count, almost equally divided between African Americans and whites. There also are substantially more women than men in the city. He needed votes from women and whites to be elected. That is one of the things that surprised so many people.
Young was just a child in elementary school, when Philadelphia made national headlines after three civil rights activists were murdered and buried by the killers in an earthen dam in 1964. It was one of the several awful events that played a significant role in the passage of the civil rights act of 1964 in Washington.
He is well aware of how 50 years later the city still has to deal with that historic reputation. But Young doesn’t think in racial terms.
One of his goals is to strengthen and improve Philadelphia so that people of all races and backgrounds that have grown tired of the urban rat face in California, New York, Michigan an other states, will consider making Philadelphia their home. But that isn’t his only hope.
As with so many other officials around the nation he would like to bring in a company in the technical field to provide jobs for local students graduating with technical degrees. But one has to wonder if that is attainable with so many communities with similar goals around America? It seems doubtful – similar to too many fishermen casting their bait in one small pond.
It appears Silicon Valley in California, Route 128 in the Boston area (near MIT), and parts of Texas do not want to give up their tight control of technical jobs. Here and there a local entrepreneur may changes the rules, but it is difficult to find that individual with the deep pockets required. If there was a GE factory nearby, or a university with a national reputation for research in the field, or if there was a critical need by an existing industry for technical help, the results might be different.
It reminds me of how two small towns in the upper peninsula of Michigan – Ishpeming and Negaunee, were in trouble when their deep iron mines ran out of taconite (iron ore) after 100 years. Rather than giving up, they created two laboratories in those small towns and found a way use the crushed stone at the bottom of the mines to produce high quality taconite that could last for another century.
In Berlin, New Hampshire, when the paper mill was owned by the Brown family, a team of chemists and others with high level technical skills invented a wide range of products. Perhaps Philadelphia, if enough money available, can do something similar.
The biggest employer in Philadelphia is the school system. Lumber producers rank fairly high on the list. There also are small companies that produce products for the automotive industry. The nearby Choctaw tribe has casinos that provide local jobs.
Young makes sure to keep in close contact with state and federal lawmakers, knowing they may be able to help his city.
“It doesn’t matter if they are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents ” he says. He keeps in touch. “We’ve got to keep the community constantly moving forward.”