James Young Makes History In Mississippi

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James Young is the African-American mayor-elect of Philadelphia, Miss. The recent election victory is especially significant because many remember Philadelphia as the location where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Young talks about his victory, his plans for the town, and healing racial strife.


I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most prominent Latin-American authors, has always been a teller of tall tales. But for his biographer, telling truth from fiction has been the toughest challenge. We'll talk to Gerald Martin about his new book, "Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life."

But first, we turn to a small town that's made big headlines. James Young made history last week as the first African-American to be elected mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was the town where three civil right workers - one black and two white - were notoriously murdered in 1964. The outrage that ensued with the inspiration for the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning." Now Mayor-elect James Young hopes build a brighter future for Philadelphia, Mississippi, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

Mayor-elect JAMES YOUNG (Philadelphia, Mississippi): It's nice of you have me today, ma'am.

NEARY: Now, understand that you were a young boy at the time of the civil rights murders. What was it like growing up in Philadelphia at that time?

Mayor-elect YOUNG: Pretty much typical, not a whole lot of tension until those young men were killed. And I remember during that time, my father being in the living room with a gun. And as a young child, you know, I was a little bit excited wondering what was going to happen. But thank God nothing violent happened. And nobody drove through and - but that was just the tension that we had at that time.

NEARY: And you were among the first students to integrate the local schools. What was that experience like?

Mayor-elect YOUNG: A little bit strange, but our parents brought us up to respect people, and I did not feel intimidated. I just felt like they was light skinned and I was dark skinned. And we played together. There was a few that maybe had some racial slurs, but the majority were very nice to me.

NEARY: Well, how is it different today, race relations?

Mayor-elect YOUNG: Progressing, just like our nation, we are changing. We are evolving. This election is just a hard, cold fact of the attitudes that are changing in our city and in our state.

NEARY: Mr. Young, on election night, you were very clear that you didn't think race played a big role in your victory. Instead, you said voters just wanted a government that embraces righteousness and fairness. But the other night, during an interview on CNN, you did become emotional when asked about the significance of winning the election, given the history that we've been talking about, this history of race relations in Philadelphia. Let's listen to that clip of tape.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Mayor-elect YOUNG: It just - beginning to sink in. The places that we were locked out, I'm going to have to keep. The places that we couldn't go, I've got to keep. But when you've been treated the way we've been treated…

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of sniffing)

Mayor-elect YOUNG: Excuse me. I guess maybe that's what's been boiling up, and it finally come to the surface.

NEARY: So this has been a really emotional time for you, it sounds like, Mr. Young.

Mayor-elect YOUNG: Absolutely. To come from where we come from, to having this opportunity today is just overwhelming. I did not think it was going to garner this much attention throughout our nation, and it's just been every broadcast, every person that I've spoken to - and I've got calls all over - they have been very, very positive for our city. And that is - if nothing else happens, and I know it will, that has been a shining light for our community. And I just appreciate the positive nature that people have responded to us.

NEARY: So none of you really saw this coming, this attention, you're saying.

Mayor-elect YOUNG: I didn't. Now, maybe I was thinking a little - just local attention. And I've been in this community all my life, working here. I was not new to anyone. And I just felt comfortable that if I presented a good program, a good platform, that I could win or be a very strong contender. And you see the results. It's not by a landslide, by no means. Forty-six votes is not a mandate. Forty-six votes says we're moving forward, and I've got to prove myself to the other people of this community. And I, with God's help, I will prove that, that this office can be managed openly with some integrity and honesty and fairness to everybody in this community.

NEARY: Why do you think it took this long for an African-American to be elected mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi?

Mayor-elect YOUNG: I really don't know. I told someone earlier that there's a lot of things that had to be in place. One, I think it was my integrity. Two, my involvement in the community. Three, my love for people. Four, I think people wanted a change. Five, I'm a good communicator. I don't pin roses on myself, but I love people. I love talking to people. Maybe it just took this long for these combinations to come together.

NEARY: That was James Young. He is the mayor-elect of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Thanks so much for talking with us, Mr. Young.

Mayor-elect YOUNG: Thank you, ma'am.

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