The Virginian-Pilot, July 11, 2010
Op-Ed by Nathan McCall
FOR MANY people considering the fate of Portsmouth’s mayor, the easy solution is to get rid of the man. But if you are black and grew up in P-Town, as I did some years ago, the question of whether Mayor James Holley should stay or go is not so simple.
Sure, there’s ample evidence of Holley’s arrogance and clumsiness, splayed in the open for the world to see. But African Americans’ decisions in Tuesday’s recall vote may be based on more than Holley’s missteps in recent years. Their judgment will likely be steeped in complex dynamics, largely rooted in
When my family moved to Portsmouth in 1964, during the fractious years of the civil rights struggle, race was the defining force driving many decisions about city affairs. As with places all across America, blacks in Portsmouth were deeply oppressed and treated with open contempt.
Growing up, I was aware that whites controlled virtually everything, from the location and quality of our neighborhoods, to the opportunities blacks got — or were denied — to improve their lives. The only institutions African Americans in Portsmouth could truly claim as theirs were black churches and I.C. Norcom High.
This was the toxic landscape that led a prominent dentist named James Holley to step forward and fight on behalf of blacks who lacked the strength or autonomy to fend for themselves. In the ‘60s, he was one of the first blacks to win a seat on the City Council. Two decades later, he became Portsmouth’s first black mayor.
“Before Holley became mayor, only one segment of our population (whites) was represented at City Hall,” said Joe Wright, a community activist who has lived in Portsmouth for most of his 73 years. “Now blacks feel like we are part of what Holley calls the ‘Portsmouth family.’ ”
The city’s institutions today don’t reflect the flagrant racism of the past. Nevertheless, racial tensions remain a real part of life.
Yet for all those fumbles, blacks also remember this: during the darkest days of overt racism, Holley fought hard on their behalf. Among other things, he helped integrate the city’s segregated golf course and made it possible for blacks to gain full access to the city’s public library system. Young black leaders in Portsmouth today ride the shoulders of people like him.
It is within this context that African Americans’ mixed emotions about the Holley recall vote must be understood. Forget naked vengeance. This is about memory — what Portsmouth used to be and this man’s pivotal role in helping make the city what it is today.
Additionally, there is a larger context into which the Holley controversy fits. History has shown that athletes and politicians are notorious for hanging around far too long. In that regard, black elected officials are no different from whites or others.
What is dissimilar, however, is the unyielding loyalty African American constituents often show black leaders, even when those politicians commit dreadful sins.
That, too, is about memory. In the past and present, there have been many glaring instances of whites undermining or destroying black leadership. As a result, blacks now routinely factor race and memory into their assessments when African American officials come under fire. Whether guilty or innocent, embattled black politicians usually get the benefit of the doubt.
Exhibit A: former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Black voters in Washington have repeatedly returned him to office, although he served time for smoking crack. The prevailing belief among many blacks there is that, at his worst Barry has done more for them than any white politician functioning at his best.
Or consider former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Blacks in that city supported him in the face of ethical breaches that sent him to jail.
In each case, many white residents and officials in those cities were hell-bent on punishing the black politicians. That determination only served to encourage blacks to rally, just as African Americans in Portsmouth are doing now.
Why? Race and memory. Forget Obama. Nationwide, many blacks still harbor lingering suspicions about whites’ motives, and they question the double standards often applied to African Americans.
The truth be told, Holley is not the first — or worst — official to mess up badly in Portsmouth. It’s strange that nobody here voted to recall all those white politicians who brazenly defied federal desegregation laws. And nobody here took action against those white officials who openly discriminated against black city employees for years on end.
Part of the tragedy of the Holley case is the mayor’s own stubborn-mindedness. It has made it hard for people, including well intentioned white supporters, to let him bow out gracefully. Holley has placed blacks particularly in an awkward position. Many African Americans privately acknowledge that, eventually, he needs to go.
The question is when, and how.
Holley’s tenure ends in 18 months. Let the mayor serve out his term.
It’s worth considering for several reasons: First, in light of Portsmouth’s spotty racial record, symbolically it is essential that the city’s first black mayor be permitted to leave with dignity.
Second, Holley’s job is mostly ceremonial. He can do but so much harm at ribbon-cuttings between now and the time his term expires.
Is 18 months too long to wait? I say no. Voters throughout America do it all the time.
Look at the people of West Virginia. Surely they tolerated many blunders by a frail, ailing Robert Byrd, who at 92 was the longest surviving member in the history of the U.S. Senate. Because of all he had done for them, citizens permitted Byrd to hold onto his office until the day he died.
And what about voters in New York’s Harlem? Their congressman, Charlie Rangel, faces damning ethics violations. Yet voters overwhelmingly express a willingness to look past his misdeeds — long enough to permit the 80-year-old Rangel to complete his term and step aside in dignified fashion.
Clearly, some voters grasp the bigger picture. Some understand the long-term significance in acknowledging the contributions of a once-solid elected official, even if he is a shell of his former self.
And so it is with Holley. It benefits no one to see a legacy built with decades of public service undone by the missteps of a man who, as Joe Wright said, “has lost a step or two.”
Finally, given Portsmouth’s fragile race relations, it may be in everybody’s best interest to cool emotions and take the high road this time. If Holley is publicly humiliated and shoved aside, it could complicate race relations for years to come.
The recall vote actually presents a chance for Portsmouth citizens to prove they can rise above resentments and stride toward a cooperative future. Imagine if whites and blacks alike went to the polls and voted against the recall, with the understanding, of course, that Holley would not run for reelection.
P-Town residents would not only be making a bold statement about their determination to uplift the city. It might also help save James Holley from himself.
Nathan McCall was raised in Portsmouth and is the author of the memoir “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.” He is a former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot and The Washington Post and is now a professor at Emory University in Atlanta.