Friday, May 22, 2009

Different strokes for different folks: Covering election of first black mayor in Philadelphia, Miss.

When a town most widely known for the murder of three civil-rights workers in 1964 elects its first African American mayor, it poses questions for the local newspaper. Play up that angle, as outside news media have? Downplay it, to avoid controversy? Neither, The Neshoba Democrat decided, in a well-measured treatment of an important and sensitive story.

The main headline was the basic fact, reflecting readers' familiarity with the players: "Young certified as winner in mayoral election, unseating incumbent Waddell." Then there was the deck, "Philadelphia elects first African-American mayor," reminding them of the larger significance of the event. The story, by Editor and Publisher Jim Prince and Managing Editor Debbie Myers, mentioned the racial angle in the third paragraph.

Several paragraphs below, winner James Young (in center foreground of photo), a former four-term county supervisor, is quoted: "Philadelphia, I think has finally begun to move into the age where we need to -- not just because I am a black man, but I have served this community well. I've been honorable. And I will continue to do that. And I want to say to everybody, as I said during my campaign, I want to do what's right. I want to prove that the office of mayor can be done with some integrity and with righteousness and fairness for everyone in this city -- red, yellow, black or white. This is the bottom line. This is the beginning of a new era in Philadelphia, Miss., and everybody is going to see that change has come to Philadelphia, Miss." (Read more)

That was the local news. A CNN feature story today by Ed Lavandera begins with Young's tearful memory of his father keeping a gun handy during the struggles for civil rights, has him calling his victory "an atomic bomb of change" and notes that Philadelphia, population 8,000, is 55 percent white. And it quotes Prince, who along with previous owner Stanley Dearman campaigned for justice and racial reconciliation: "Philadelphia will always be connected to what happened here in 1964. But the fact that Philadelphia, Mississippi, with its notorious past, could elect a black man as mayor, it might be time to quit picking on Philadelphia, Mississippi." (Read more) Prince provided The New York Times a photo of Young that ran with Robbie Brown's story.

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