Some parts of the country make you feel like Eyes on the Prize never went to commercial break. Some stories are so racist and over the top, you figure even Attorney General Jeff Sessions might give them a side eye.
That looks to be the case in Camilla, Ga., a town so segregated, the cemetery has a black and a white section. A town so segregated, 99 percent of the black children and 99 percent of the white children attend separate schools. A town so segregated, the City Council refused to give the newly elected black mayor keys to City Hall …. for two years.
Now Mayor Rufus Davis is boycotting his own City Council meetings until changes are made, and has hired civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump to bring the story of Camilla to a national audience.
“The problems in the city are obvious,” Davis, who was elected mayor of Camilla in 2015, told The Root. Davis, a University of Michigan- and Rutgers-educated lawyer with Wall Street and global experience, is passionate and eloquent on the phone, describing what drove him to run for mayor and what has led to his current boycott:
The city is 70 percent African American, but there are no black police officers. There are only three black employees out of about 35 in City Hall, and one of them is the janitor. The highest-ranking black man on the city payroll is a meter reader. About 99 percent of white students in the town attend a small private school that I believe has maybe three or four black students in athletics now.
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Bennett Adams, who is white, is the outgoing city manager after serving for six years. He disputes most of Davis’ claims, but according to Davis, Adams is part of the city’s pattern of discrimination. Davis contends that after being elected just the second African-American mayor of Camilla, Adams began discriminating against him and the larger black community that got him elected:
The city manager said he would not provide me with keys to City Hall unless the City Council said so. Essentially, although he reports to the council, he pretty much dictates to them, and they take direction from him. If I made a request for a paper clip, he would say I need a majority of the council’s approval, and they would say no.
But the battle over Camilla isn’t entirely a black-and-white issue. Black City Council members, clearly representing the sunken place, voted along with white council members to deny Davis keys to City Hall. They have also done little or nothing about the lack of black officers or the segregated schools or cemetery.
How does this happen? Although the city is 70 percent African American, Camilla’s voting districts are drawn in a way that guarantees the white minority at least three seats on the six-seat City Council. According to Davis, those black council members who have been elected would be traded in the first round of the racial draft.
“Historically, black City Council members are hardly engaged,” Davis said. “They never make proposals, they never ask questions, they vote consistently with the white members. I looked at the minutes of our [black] City Council members over the last 10 years, and there has never been a situation where they said anything on a substantive issue, and that’s just how far I went back.”
Inspired by Davis’ ongoing battle with the City Council, black residents pushed for a recall election this year and managed to remove one black council member and elect Venterra Pollard, who has vowed to boycott the City Council along with Davis until changes are made. Annie Doris Willingham, the other black council member recalled, managed to disqualify her opponent at the last minute and keep her seat.
The final straw for Davis and Pollard is that outgoing City Manager Adams pushed through a new charter that would strip the mayor of all powers of appointment for city employees and hand those powers to the city manager. Not only would this reduce Camilla’s mayor to a powerless figurehead, but it would also guarantee that management of the city would likely stay in white hands. (Camilla’s City Council has summarily rejected all black applicants for the city-manager job.)
“If you have this kind of record of invidious discrimination ... if this kind of power was given, it would damage the community for years to come,” Davis said.
Consequently, he has hired Crump to bring the plight of Camilla to a national audience and highlight this fight.
“This is nothing more than the work of crafty individuals who are trying to turn back the clock of time to a deeply flawed period in our history,” Crump said in a press release. “I will use every legal resource available to assist Mayor Davis in desegregating Oakview Cemetery, and to ensure that all the residents of Camilla are treated with the dignity, equality and respect they deserve.”
Does it seem likely that Camilla will see any changes? Will the city’s own black leadership finally address endemic discrimination or sit by the wayside? The Root reached out to Council Member Willingham by phone for an answer.
“You gon’ have to ask the mayor,” she responded. “Cuz ain’t nothing going on to me. It’s FINE!”
And she hung up the phone.
Looks like Davis and Crump are in for a long fight.