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Clarksdale mayoral race offers unique choices

January 6, 2013

Sid Salter

With municipal elections looming across the state in 2013, few upcoming mayoral races offers more intriguing choices than does the race for mayor of Clarksdale.

The race will pit the son of the current mayor against one of the city’s best-known entrepreneurs.

State Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, is the scion of one of Mississippi’s most influential black political families. He will face fellow Democrat Bill Luckett, a Clarksdale attorney, businessman and entrepreneur who lost a 2011 bid for the Democratic nomination for governor with Chuck Espy’s support.

Espy’s father, Henry Espy, is the longtime mayor of Clarksdale who is stepping down at the end of his current term. Second District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, defeated Henry Espy in the 1993 special congressional election that first sent him to Congress as successor to Chuck Espy’s uncle, Mike Espy, who in 1987 became the first African-American to be elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. President Bill Clinton appointed Mike Espy as the nation’s first black secretary of agriculture in 1993.

Clarksdale, with some 17,800 citizens, is a city of stark contrasts like much of the state’s Delta region. There are pockets of extreme wealth that are notable exceptions to the pervasive overlay of decay from the city’s glory days when cotton was king.

Luckett and Espy have both been part of the successes that Clarksdale has seen in revitalization, but much work remains. The city features a rather vibrant nightlife, with some of the South’s most iconic blues clubs and a handful of unique and interesting restaurants. The annual Sunflower River Blues Festival attracts visitors from around the globe.

But the city faces urban blight and decay that notable downtown restoration and reclamation efforts can’t disguise. Crime is also an issue. And the sorry state of the city’s educational system has made Clarksdale and Coahoma County part of the veritable political poster for the state’s charter school movement.

To that end, Luckett points across the Mississippi River to Helena, Ark., to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Delta Public Schools. It is one of the nation’s growing numbers of highly successful public-funded charter schools.

The KIPP Delta Public Schools are performing significantly better. The KIPP School Class of 2010, the school’s first graduating class, saw 100 percent of its students graduate and 100 percent win acceptance to colleges like Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

The demographics of the KIPP school mirrors those in Coahoma County. Over 95 percent of the KIPP students are African-American, over 90 percent qualify for free or reduced school meals under federal guidelines and the majority of students come from single-parent homes.
Likewise Chuck Espy has said it’s time that children in the Delta — the state’s poorest region — have some of the same educational options available to children in more affluent areas of the state.

Republicans in the state have long argued on behalf of charter schools. Earlier this year, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves led a legislative delegation to tour the KIPP School as part of his preparation for the 2012 legislative session.

Will an 80 percent black majority city elect a white mayor in order to give someone not named Espy a chance to change the city’s fortunes or will the Espy machine continue to operate with the precision that it has in Clarksdale for decades?

Few mayoral primaries statewide will draw the attention that this race will generate.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-3442 or

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