IN ALL the discussion of race in local politics, one fact that usually goes unmentioned is that our current Mayor and City Council majority largely represent the first generation of African American leadership in Savannah.
While our first black City Alderman was elected in the ‘70s, we didn’t see black political power really coalesce here until long after many other U.S. cities.
In keeping with our perennial behind-the-curve nature, Savannah was over 20 years behind Atlanta in getting our own first African American mayor, Floyd Adams Jr. in 1995.
Every black Savannah mayor—Adams, Otis Johnson, and incumbent Edna Jackson—represents the older generation which fought the original battles for civil rights back in the day.
But time has passed.
Most of the young men now being shot dead on the streets of Savannah—such as 19-year-old Javon Wilson and Jayquan Turner, murdered this past Saturday on the Westside—were born during the Adams administration.
First-generation black elected officials like Mayor Jackson grew up seeing segregation up close and personal.
Many new young black leaders grew up with a different kind of trauma: Friends and family members gunned down in the streets, in their own often drug-ravaged neighborhoods.
While certainly no one is suggesting that segregated water fountains are preferable to the challenges of life on the street today, the most significant development of this year’s City elections is this is the first time Savannah is seeing a new generation of African American candidates and activists aggressively challenge older black leadership.
They both respect the accomplishments of their elders while at the same time saying to them.... maybe it’s time for you to step aside.
Maybe long past time.
Whatever happens this November, this dynamic new perspective signals a determined break with the status quo—a status quo whose main “achievement” thus far has been retaining the same stunningly high poverty rate for the last 30 or so years.
It also signals a welcome break from another tired old dynamic: The apparent need for every local election to boil down to black vs. white.
In a solidly majority African American city, the healthiest development is for the black community to foster and nurture young leaders able and willing to step up and challenge not only the white establishment, but the black establishment as well.
With City Council challengers like Detric Leggett, taking on Osborne in District 2, and Shaundra Smith McKeithen, taking on Estella Shabazz in District 5, we are seeing this new look take shape in real time.
(Making the generational divide even more stark: Mrs. Shabazz is married to an honest to goodness Black Panther, County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz. Talk about outdated old-school rhetoric from the past.)
Key to the challenge from these new black leaders—and I simply cannot stress enough what a huge development this is —they are now calling out the age-old corruption involving local black pastors selling political influence.
The involvement of black churches in politics is not a new story by any means, nor is it one exclusive to Savannah. But it usually seems a bit distasteful and not a little hypocritical for white people to point it out.
As the recent case of the homophobic gay marriage-denying Kim Davis in Kentucky shows, white people are in no position to point fingers about situations where church and state collide.
Both Leggett and McKeithen point out particularly egregious, longstanding practices such as local black pastors accepting “contributions”—contributions which in turn seem to translate into political endorsements to their congregations.
McKeithen posted on her Facebook page an endorsement slate from a consulting firm called the Trigon Group, which is run by Pastor Clarence “Teddy” Williams.
Lo and behold, pastor and “consultant” Williams endorses every single City Council incumbent.
He even uses the official City of Savannah government logo on his printed material!
The only non-incumbent Williams’s group endorses is Brian Foster, who’s running for the open Alderman at Large seat vacated by Tom Bordeaux.
Significantly, however, Mr. Foster is closely associated with the Chamber of Commerce and the Savannah Economic Development Authority—two organizations most allied with Savannah’s old-guard white business establishment.
In other words, these allegedly pay-to-play endorsements—in effect, laundered through holding companies so as not to jeopardize the church’s tax-exempt status —seem to have the primary purpose of maintaining the status quo above all.
We have a word for that: Corruption.
To be fair, many disenfranchised groups throughout history have vectored politics through the church because often that’s the only available avenue.
For example, my own Greek heritage shows me that during the centuries-long Turkish occupation of Greece – during which Greek citizens had little to no voice in their own country– the Greek Orthodox Church became the de facto power in the Greek community, with priests being politicians in all but name. (Greeks today often joke that nothing has changed in that regard.)
So this is not to point the finger at churches, nor at African Americans.
It’s pointing the finger at corruption.
Selling endorsements is the very definition of corruption, and it’s never wrong to point that out. And it’s never too late to try and change things for the better.
The deciding factor, as always, is will people show up to vote for change? A new generation is betting that you will.
In any case, their time is here.