Most Intriguing Jacksonians 2010 | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Most Intriguing Jacksonians 2010


Barbour is calling a special legislative session to discuss economic development projects.

Every year, the JFP staff revisits the big newsmakers of the year to recap the "most intriguing" Jacksonians to make the news. Some are heroes; others are, let's face it, scoundrels, but they all made us take notice in 2010.

Most Intriguing
Haley Barbour

Gov. Haley Barbour apparently has been toying with the idea of running for president in 2012 since long before the 2008 elections. He hasn't said yes, yet, but he ain't saying no.

Barbour, involved in politics since his days at Ole Miss in the mid-1960s, presents himself as just a "fat redneck," in his own words, advancing the disingenuous good ol' boy meme of George W. Bush.

Few things are further from the truth. Born and reared in Yazoo City in a privileged family of lawyers, Barbour cut his political eyeteeth under the tutelage of Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign and Republican icons like Lee Atwater (see: Southern Strategy). He has been, in fact, credited as a co-author of the cynical race-baiting strategy of getting whites to vote for Republicans (for which the GOP recently officially apologized to the NAACP).

The governor has attempted to rewrite the story of his formative years, with the dubious claim of forging the "not so bad" Civil Rights Era, and defending the segregationist Citizens Council, just as he continues to frame his preference for Big Business and the wealthy as things good for all Mississippians. The problem with the latter is that the state had some of the nation's highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, obesity and ill health when he entered the governor's mansion in 2003, and he hasn't moved those needles one iota. We do have an expanded port on the Coast, however, and the promise of a new auto plant.

Mr. Barbour is adept in crafting and pushing an agenda, talking in conservative bumper stickers and demonizing lib'rels, especially the press, if they criticize him. He plays it like a chess master, always looking three steps ahead of his opponents. It's a skill honed from decades of being a big player in big-time Washington, D.C., politics. Whether the country will have the tolerance for his divisive brand of politics and his insider status long enough for him to make a run for the highest office is questionable. Meantime, Barbour sure is spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire. —Ronni Mott

Intriguing Runners-Up

CJ Rhodes & Stan Buckley
This year has been a whirlwind one for 28-year-old Rev. CJ Rhodes, the pastor at Mt. Helm Baptist Church. After moving back home to Mississippi upon completing his master's in divinity at Duke University, he eventually settled in as the youngest pastor and leader of the oldest black church in the city. Rhodes isn't shy about his intentions for the church to be a vanguard in social change. That may be one of the reasons he and First Baptist Church of Jackson's senior pastor Dr. Stan Buckley get along so well. Buckley, also the youngest cleric at his church, has spent his tenure managing his congregation, being involved in downtown redevelopment, and ruffling a few feathers every now and then. While they don't agree about everything, the duo is destined to help create a better Jackson. —Natalie A. Collier

Curnis Upkins III
The cyber world knows a lot more about west Jackson thanks to Curnis Upkins III. The website,, he started as a challenge by his supervisor at the Jackson State University Center for University-Based Development, has more followers than a little bit. Upkins, a regular at the Friday Forums at Koinonia Coffee House on the city's west side, is committed to de-stigmatize that side of town. West Jackson thanks him for it, too. With the WESToration Project and heavyweights like Dr. Bill Cooley championing the cause, west siders will prove Upkins right. —Natalie A. Collier

Jill Conner Browne
Last year saw an end to the long-standing relationship between Mal's St. Paddy's Parade and the Sweet Potato Queens, the devotees of author Jill Conner Browne's book series who have traditionally marched in the parade. Browne announced March 21 that the Queens' annual gathering, which raises money for Blair E. Batson Children's Hospital, would split from the parade. Browne first announced that the Queens would parade in Ridgeland, but in June she unveiled new plans for a gathering in Fondren to coincide with Sal & Mookie's Street Festival the weekend after the St. Paddy's event downtown. —Ward Schaefer

David Watkins
Quick. Think of a new development in Jackson. Now, think of a person connected to its success. Odds are, David Watkins comes to mind. As the visionary behind renovations of iconic Jackson landmarks like the King Edward Hotel and the Standard Life Building, the city celebrates Watkins' tireless advocacy of Jackson's renaissance. Look for his stamp on upcoming projects like the Farish Street entertainment district, Project Retro Metro as his company revitalizes the near-bankrupt Metrocenter Mall, and even a proposed Riverwalk project on downtown's Town Creek.

Not all of Watkins' ideas are met with overwhelming enthusiasm. His recently unveiled plans for Whitney Place in Fondren, slated to fill what is mostly an empty eight-acre lot just off State Street, has met with resistance from devotees of the 1930s-era shopping strip that fronts the lot, who are forming a group to protest. —Ronni Mott

Gwendolyn Magee
In December, the Mississippi Museum of Art selected textile artist Gwendolyn Magee as a community representative to speak at the Institute of Museum and Library Services award ceremony in Washington, D.C. The IMLS selected the museum, among several other facilities in the country, to receive a National Medal—the nation's highest honor for outstanding museums and libraries. Magee, who has exhibited her work at the Jackson museum and museums from coast-to-coast, spoke about the museum's impact on the community and Mississippi arts scene. In addition to being an art advocate, Magee tells stories about her heritage through abstract and figurative quilt pieces. She is currently working on a quilted series to illustrate slavery and a series on Hurricane Katrina titled "Katrina Narratives: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place," which she hopes to showcase next spring. —Lacey McLaughin

Bo Smith
Mortgage lender Bo Smith has carved out a niche for himself as a professional booster for responsible homeownership in Jackson. Smith's company, Cornerstone Home Lending Inc., has heavily marketed the Federal Housing Administration's 203(k) home loan program. The program offers lower interest rates to people buying houses in need of some repair or improvements. A fixture at Koinonia Coffee House's Friday Forum, Smith teamed up with Jackson State University's Center for University-Based Development to promote the program in west Jackson, where older but still high-quality houses are ripe for renovation. Smith recognizes that homeowners increasingly want to live closer to work, in the right size house for their lifestyle, and he has seized on housing in Jackson as an emerging market.
—Ward Schaefer

Ed Peters
Just when you thought former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters had disappeared from the scene—finally—here comes a scathing expose of the Richard "Dickie" Scruggs scandal that shows just how integral he has long been in what author, journalist and University of Mississippi professor Curtis Wilkie calls the "Eastland cabal," a shadowy group of powerful men who have held sway over politics in the state for years. At the very least, reading "The Fall of the House of Zeus" (Crown Publishers, 2010, $25.99) shows just how lucky Peters probably should feel that he is not behind bars, too—and reveals an underbelly of Mississippi that boggles the mind. Read it.
— Donna Ladd

Craig Noone
Young restaurateur Craig Noone burst onto the local scene in early 2010 as everyone started talking about his planned restaurant, Parlor Market, which opened on West Capitol Street in the fall. Due to Noone and his friends' social-media prowess, and his willingness to share the spotlight with other local restaurants and chefs, the hype about his restaurant was off the charts before it opened. The restaurant then lived up to the buzz, raising the standard for great food in the city. —Donna Ladd

Josh Hailey
It's hard to know whether Josh Hailey always goes to where the fun is or if he just brings the party with him in his lithe little frame. Jackson's indomitable sprite of the arts scene, Hailey's oversized spirit radiates from him like sunshine, punching out in some of the most interesting hair and couture imaginable, along with hugs and kisses for everyone, and a rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness chatter punctuated liberally with shouts of "Joos!"

Hailey is also one of Jackson's freest, most unconventional artists, unafraid to try any media or technology in furtherance of his art. Add to that his forays into music, events, teaching and his tireless promotion of Jackson as "the" place to be, and you have a man who has single-handedly crafted himself into a city icon. This month, Hailey is making his way to the left coast for greener pastures. He'll be back, he says. We hope so. We'll miss him. —Ronni Mott

Mary Hawkins Butler
Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler is revered and even feared by many of her constituents, but her efforts this year to make Madison an exclusive city struck a cord with many Jacksonians. In September, Hawkins Butler canceled her city's annual Freedom Fest, citing unexpected budget expenditures and that too many people had come from outside the city to attend the event in prior years. Hawkins Butler referenced Franklin, Tenn., as a model city for a residents-only festival next year, but Franklin officials said they had never heard of such a practice. Expect Hawkins Butler to make more headlines in 2011, if she carries through with a rumored run for state auditor in next year's elections. —Lacey McLaughlin

Taylor Hildebrand
Jackson musician Taylor Hildebrand took the city's music scene to a new level this year with the formation of his band Horse Trailer and release of his EP "Nena." Over the summer, Hildebrand held the EP's release at Jackson's War Memorial Building, providing a symbolic back drop to an album inspired by letters his grandmother wrote to his grandfather during World War II. The band is composed of local musicians Dave Hutchinson, Johnny Bertram, Jamie Weems, Tommy Bryan Ledford and Valley Gordon. Perhaps Hildebrand's most notable accomplishment is his ability to bring musicians together and strengthen Jackson's music scene. And he's a nice guy. —Lacey McLaughlin

Ronald Mason
Ronald Mason knows how to make a big exit. In January, the then-president of Jackson State University distributed a proposal to merge Mississippi's two other historically black state universities, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State, into JSU to make a single school, renamed "Jacobs State University." The plan followed calls by Gov. Haley Barbour and some legislators to consolidate the state's HBCUs, and met with widespread derision. Three months later, on April 30, he announced his resignation from JSU to become president of Louisiana's Southern University and A&M College System. The new position offered relief from the public scrutiny he endured at JSU, he told reporters May 5.
—Ward Schaefer

Ray Mabus
Former Gov. Ray Mabus has kept plenty busy since leaving his post here in the state as its commander in chief. He is now serving as the 75th United States Secretary of the Navy. President Obama asked Mabus to prepare a long-term recovery plan for the clean up and recovery of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan, "America's Gulf Coast: A Long-Term Recovery Plan after the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill," received wide support from leaders on either side of the aisle. — Natalie A. Collier

Rebecca Coleman
Jackson Police Chief Rebecca Coleman will always be one of the first people to tell you that she depends on the hard work of subordinates. The chief came on the scene soon after the election of Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who stole her from Jackson State University where she was chief of JSU's Department of Public Safety.

Coleman has presided over a relatively static report of major crime in the city, with auto burglary, business burglary, carjacking and homicide virtually identical to what it was last year. The city, for example, suffered 35 homicides by November 2009 and logged 35 this year as well. Jackson suffered 61 more business burglaries this year than last year, while rape dropped 20 percent from 2009. Coleman does not kick her team over disappointing numbers any more than she takes credit for positive weekly numbers.

Her crowning achievement, however, appears to be her ability not to turn the local media into either a blood-craving enemy or some kind of lip-kissing friend-girl. This is a big difference from the last few chiefs, who left the city under bitter circumstances, regardless of whether crime actually dropped during their regimes. —Adam Lynch

Constance McMillen
Itawamba County Agricultural High School senior Constance McMillen made national headlines last spring when school district officials canceled the school's prom because McMillen wanted to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. With pressure from the media and the ACLU, school-district officials conceded to a parent-sponsored private prom, but the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of McMillen, 18, saying the teen suffered "humiliation and harassment" after parents, students and school officials executed a plan to put on a "decoy" prom for her while the rest of her classmates were at a private prom 30 miles away. As a result of the suit, McMillen received $35,000 from the district for damages plus court costs, and the district adopted an anti-discriminatory policy on sexual preference or gender identity. The teenager finished her senior year at Murrah High School in Jackson and since then, ABC Family announced that the television station was is in the production stages of a made-for-TV movie about McMillen. Glamour magazine named her one of their Women of the Year in its November issue. —Lacey McLaughlin

Phil Bryant
As Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant gears up for a run for the governor's mansion, he is working hard to attract the hard-right vote—from speaking to tea-party rallies to calling for hardcore anti-immigrant laws. For example, he supports new legislation this session that will force state law enforcement agencies to target Latino-looking drivers for police stops or risk suit by state citizens. Similar legislation from Arizona is already under attack by the federal government. Bryant rallies powerful, aging, white voters who see the clock ticking on their demographic majority in Mississippi, with piecemeal, incomplete reports painting Latino workers as a drain upon state resources.

Above all, Bryant represents a segment of the state population that Census reports suggest is winding down in Mississippi—a voter base due to be supplanted by African American and Latino voters within the next few decades. In fact, Mississippi, with its proportionately high black population, will likely be one of the first southern states to lose whites as its voting majority. But don't worry—Bryant will still be a hit at the senior-citizens soup bar in 2040. —Adam Lynch

Ulises Hernandez
Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Community Organizer Ulises Hernandez (cover story)is the embodiment of grassroots work. He travels across the central portion of the state, from Meridian to Vicksburg, organizing and rallying the state's slowly emerging Latino population. It is a population that Hernandez describes as loosely connected, fearful and—above all—vulnerable.

Hernandez, whose mother is working to get her own visa extended, is a native-born American who, along with his younger brother, gets to see firsthand how accepting Mississippi's white population is of immigrants. He goes door to door in places like Morton and Forest—places with a high immigrant population—thrusting himself into the lives of complete strangers while promising organization, strength and a stable future. He comes back with tales of aggressive police checkpoints along immigrant work routes, police targeting of Latino-looking drivers and brutal robberies of whole immigrant families (who unfortunately tend to keep their cash in the home rather than putting it in the bank.) Hernandez has hard work ahead of him. —Adam Lynch

Jamie and Gladys Scott
Sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott became the focal point this year for outrage about Mississippi's criminal-justice system. The Scott sisters are serving double life sentences at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County for an armed robbery that allegedly netted between $11 and $200. Advocates for the sisters' release have maintained their innocence and the inherent injustice of their sentences. The sisters' alleged co-conspirators all served reduced sentences of less than three years.

Over the past five years, support for the Scott sisters' release has grown from a solo effort by their mother, Evelyn Rasco, into a widespread movement. And in 2010, the movement went mainstream, with the NAACP and other national advocacy groups chiming in, and coverage from The New York Times and USA Today. Gov. Haley Barbour is currently weighing a pardon petition submitted on their behalf, but time is running out for Jamie, who suffers from total kidney failure. (update) —Ward Schaeffer


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

comments powered by Disqus