TCHULA, MISS. — Once he was hailed as a folk hero, the black savior of Holmes County who would bring prosperity to the Mississippi Delta. Today, he is knocking on doors in the sweltering heat, asking people to believe again in that dream.
“My name is Eddie Carthan,” he says, “and I need your help to lift our county from the bottom.”
His name never fails to ring a bell among local voters. Nearly 40 years ago, Carthan was elected mayor of Tchula, becoming the first black mayor of a Mississippi plantation town since Reconstruction, and his victory was celebrated by African Americans across the South.
But Tchula’s white power structure lashed back. Carthan was ousted from office, imprisoned on felony charges and tried for the murder of one of his political rivals in an astonishing saga chronicled nationally at the time. Carthan was acquitted of murder and avoided the electric chair, but upon his release from prison on the lesser charges, he sank from public view.
Now Carthan is trying to make a comeback. On Tuesday, he will stand for election to the board of supervisors in Holmes County, which remains one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation.
“I had hoped that others who were elected would come forth, take the baton and carry on trying to develop Tchula and Holmes County. That leadership didn’t come,” Carthan says. “There is a battery of needs for the poorest of the poor, and it’s my responsibility to let those things be known.”
Carthan says the race may be his last chance to salvage his political legacy, though many people think he is a long shot. At 65, he is no longer the lithe young orator who galvanized crowds in the 1970s. His pace has slowed, his hair is receding and he is going gray. In the past two decades, he has tried three times to revive his political career, running for state senator and Tchula mayor. Three times, he was soundly defeated.
“After this year,” he says, “I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to throw my hat in the ring.”
And in Tchula, there is much left to do. The town still looks much as it did when he was elected mayor in 1977, haunted by stray dogs and boarded-up buildings. The median income is $14,000 — a quarter of the national average — and 63 percent of residents live in poverty. Beyond the town center, cotton fields stretch to the horizon in almost every direction.
Tchula has long been overwhelmingly black, but this majority held little sway in the 1970s. Whites held power and maintained the vestiges of segregation. The town was literally divided by railroad tracks: Blacks crowded into small shacks along unpaved roads to the west, and whites lived in large modern homes to the east. Two-thirds of black households had no indoor plumbing, according to census statistics.
Carthan, a charismatic young civil rights activist, won election on a promise to change things. At the time, federal officials were eager to tackle Southern poverty, and Carthan wasted no time tapping more than 30 housing, health and community development programs. He built a public library and opened a child-care program. In his first three years as mayor, he created 80 jobs.
That progress was celebrated by black residents, but resentment grew among the white minority.
“Change was hard for Tchula back then,” recalls General Vann, 63, who served as Carthan’s administrative assistant. He wonders now whether Carthan moved too fast. “Looking back, there were some decisions he made initially that could’ve waited. Maybe . . . things would’ve turned out better.”
But the Rev. Willie Burns, a local civil rights activist, says he thinks Carthan had a target on his back from the day he entered office.
“Eddie was young, he was black, and he was elected before his time,” Burns says. “Some folks in town just wanted to get him in trouble any way they could.”
By all accounts, Carthan’s most vocal opponent was John Edgar Hayes, a wealthy white farmer who served on the town council. Hayes recruited two black aldermen, Roosevelt Granderson and Jason Gibson, to form a dissident majority.
Hayes is dead now. But Travis Clark, who once served as his attorney, says Hayes got fed up with the firebrand mayor.
“It got to the point where Eddie did whatever he wanted to do,” Clark says, noting that Hayes once won a judicial injunction against Carthan because “he simply vetoed everything.”
According to court documents filed in one of their many legal disputes with Carthan, the trio “reduced the mayor’s salary from $600 per month to $60 [and] refused to attend numerous board meetings, thereby denying the city a quorum to conduct municipal business.” They even changed the locks at City Hall, locking Carthan out of his office.
Tensions came to a head in 1980, when the police chief stepped down and Hayes engineered the appointment of a white businessman named Jim Andrews. Carthan recruited six men, including several police officers, to confront Andrews and tell him to step aside. Andrews refused and sustained minor injuries in an ensuing scuffle.
The mayor was charged with assaulting a police officer who stood with Andrews that day. The officer later told reporters Carthan had been set up. A white judge nonetheless sentenced Carthan to three years in prison, and Carthan was forced to leave office in 1981.
After that, Vann says, “the situation spun out of control.”
While in prison, Carthan was charged with new crimes. He was convicted of federal fraud charges connected to a $30,000 loan application; he claimed his signature had been forged.
Then he was charged with murder. The victim was Carthan’s old political enemy, Granderson.
Granderson had been shot execution-style in the convenience store where he worked, not long after assuming the position of mayor pro tem. Police arrested two career criminals who sat in jail for months before cutting a deal with the local prosecutor, who acknowledged reducing the charges against them in exchange for their testimony that Carthan had hired them to kill Granderson.
Carthan was put on trial for capital murder, a charge that carries the death penalty. He pleaded not guilty, insisting that he had been framed. The case attracted national attention, and actor Ossie Davis traveled to 60 cities across the nation to raise awareness.
Outside the courthouse, protesters asserting Carthan’s innocence faced off against Klansmen calling for the “removal of all black murderers from office.” Midway through the two-week trial, the state’s case began to fall apart. The jury voted to acquit after deliberating just 45 minutes.
“This is a victory for all people who want to achieve equal treatment under the law,” Carthan proclaimed from the courthouse steps. As his supporters celebrated, however, Carthan was escorted back to prison to serve his time on the earlier charges.
Then-Gov. William Winter, a Democrat who championed racial justice, took notice. In the spring of 1983, Winter suspended the rest of Carthan’s assault sentence and sent him on to federal prison. A legal team led by former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark sought Carthan’s release, and a federal judge freed him after just eight months.
Once out, Carthan opened the Tchula Hardware Co. and farmed his father’s 600 acres. He also became pastor of a local church. In 1999, he made his first foray back into politics, seeking to represent Holmes County in the state Senate.
Carthan expected voters to celebrate his return to politics, but many people were angry. Two decades after he was hailed as a hero, Carthan was excoriated as a convicted felon unfit to hold public office.
“Eddie brought a lot of good things to Tchula. But the [murder] trial and everything else cast a shadow over those things,” says former alderman Tony Mansoor. “All that people seem to remember is the bad.”
This time, Carthan is targeting younger voters for whom his appeal as a reformer is untarnished by memories of controversy. He’s got a Facebook page with a drawing of him in his young, vibrant days. It shows him with a lush head of hair, speaking into a microphone, fist raised. “NOW IS THE TIME,” it says.
Carthan won’t talk much about that time, though he admits it took its toll.
“I knew that being a black leader going into politics wasn’t popular, and that was something people had to adjust to. I have no animosity. I have no resentment,” he says.
“Not only do I forgive, I forget, too.”
Rodd is a freelance writer.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled former Mississippi governor William Winter’s name.