In Forefront this week, Ingrid Norton takes an insightful look at one of the more compelling stories about an American mayorship in recent memory. Frank Melton, elected to lead Jackson, Miss. in 2005, spent his first night in office clad in black SWAT-style fatigues and strapped with a semiautomatic handgun, cruising the city streets to demonstrate his approach to fighting crime. Melton’s cowboy swagger may have raised a few eyebrows in other cities, but in Jackson — the long-troubled capital of the nation’s poorest state — residents welcomed him as a man attuned to their public safety concerns. That is, until he took things too far.
Below, we provide an introductory excerpt from Norton’s story.
It was a hot night in 2006 when Frank Melton, then mayor of Jackson, Miss., directed his bodyguards and a group of young men to sledgehammer a duplex home in a run-down section of the city he governed. With his posse, Melton, who had reportedly been drinking scotch from a 16-ounce water bottle that night, tore holes in the walls of what he would label a “crack house.” The group broke windows, destroyed furniture and a TV, and poured paint over the kitchen sink. They handcuffed Evans Welch, the unemployed, schizophrenic black man who lived there, and after a failed search for drugs charged him with possession of an illegal pipe.
Welch’s apartment lay in Virden Addition, a dilapidated residential section of West Jackson bordered by railroad tracks and defunct factories. Welch’s elderly mother paid his $160 rent. She said drug dealers sometimes took advantage of her mentally ill son. Within days of his arrest, Welch was released for lack of evidence.
The trouble, however, was just beginning for Frank Melton. The state charged the mayor with five felony counts — including burglary, directing a minor to commit a felony and malicious mischief. Federal agents began investigating him for civil rights violations.
Melton, a millionaire African-American TV executive and gun-strapped former head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, had won election the previous year by capitalizing on the deep inequalities that permeate Mississippi’s capitol, which is 80 percent African-American. The state as a whole has a higher proportion of African Americans than any other in the nation and is also America’s poorest, with a 23 percent poverty rate. By promising to take aggressive action against blight and criminals, and making bombastic promises of interracial and metropolitan cooperation, Melton was able to attract a wide gamut of support anchored by funding from the city’s entrenched white economic elite and the votes of Jackson’s black majority. His tough-cop act appealed to both whites uncomfortable with black poverty and to the poor themselves. His rhetoric also appealed to divisions within the African-American community — to members of the black middle class who associate social problems with the hip-hop generation and to inner-city residents fed up with crime.
But once elected in 2005, Melton, the city’s second black mayor, failed his supporters in every way. Grandstanding, bizarre crusades, continual lawsuits, cronyism and all-around administrative incompetence characterized his troubled term. In 2009, he lost reelection days before he was scheduled to be federally tried for charges stemming from the botched raid. As the polls closed, Melton — who had just turned 60 — suffered a fatal heart attack.
His disastrous mayorship and dramatic death proved a strange and painful detour in Jackson’s path from white majority rule to black political enfranchisement. Like many cities in the U.S. — and especially the Deep South — Jackson has struggled in its transition from a segregation-era, white-dominated power structure to a more equitable and representative system. Named after Southern, slave-owning President Andrew Jackson, the Mississippi capital lags a decade or two behind larger cities in the region like Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis. White flight and the transfer of political power to black leaders happened later in Jackson than in those peer cities, as did cycles of suburban growth and downtown reinvestment.
Jackson’s story is unusually dramatic and troubling. But cities nationwide struggle with black political and economic enfranchisement: The story of Frank Melton’s rise and fall illuminates subtle crosscurrents in America’s urban race politics that hold implications for cities from Oakland to Newark, N.J.