"Donna, you know what? I run Jackson," declared Mayor Frank Melton, scrunching his face up into one of his trademark snickers that are cute and creepy at the same time. "I do it in a weird way, but I run Jackson." It was the night of April 2, 2006, and we had just walked out of a convenience store with his two bodyguards where he had yucked it up with the manager and some patrons, and told one young man to pull his britches up on his butt and give his earrings back to his sister.
We were headed back to the Mobile Command Center, parked in the middle of the street, where then-Jackson Police Chief Shirlene Anderson waited, looking like a mother who couldn't quite control her boys.
My photographer and I were about four hours into a bizarre epic of an adventure with Melton, first in his home, then through much of Jackson. An earlier crisisthe murder of a young man near the Jackson Medical Mallhad passed by this point, and Melton had decided to stop traffic near Bailey Avenue and start randomly searching cars, which seemed a bit more like posturing for the camera from my vantage point. But the driversof all ages, but of only one racestuck in the long lines of traffic did not look like they were having as much fun as Melton and his bodyguards. Neither did the police officers.
Melton didn't miss a beat after informing me who runs Jackson. He turned to one of the bodyguards: "We just stopped that car over there, didn't we? Abby, don't get run over."
Abby was Melton's rottweiler "police dog," who acted more like a sweet, aging pet who liked attention. Melton liked to take her along on "stops" he made to people's homes, to search cars, to walk around neighborhoods talking to whomever was out after dark. The next Sunday night, she would help scare the daylights out of Albert Donelson's mother when an armed Melton and bodyguards walked on her porch, yelling at her.
But this night, as I scratched Abby, and grabbed her leash when others were too preoccupied to help keep her out of the street, she didn't seem to scare anyone, certainly not me.
Melton did, though. His swaggering actionscapped off with him and his two bodyguards barging into a house because they had heard the occupants sold potcertainly scared me, especially being that he reeked of liquor. (He didn't a week later when we did another "raid.") Through the night, as we would enter some new spot, I would duck behind Recio and follow him.
My bizarre personal rollercoaster ride with Frank Melton had begun in early 2005 when I heard that the outspoken WLBT executive was running for mayor. Unlike many Jacksonians, having moved back to Jackson in 2001 after 18 years out of the state, I had no history with Melton and no preconceived notions. I had briefly attended his first campaign announcement in late 2004, which was mischievously timed against then-Mayor Harvey Johnson's state of the city address. At the time, Melton had struck me as an odd cat who clearly promised ridiculously more than he could deliverpresenting himself as an immediate cure for crime and some sort of heroic "thug"-basherbut he was a politician, and politicians make empty claims.
As the campaign unfolded, and I and my staff started following him around and reporting his crazy promises that varied wildly depending on who he was talking to, I was befuddled to see how many people bought his schtick. I learned, of course, that he had become somewhat of a folk hero from all his years of whining about crime and city government on WLBT, but watching old, blathering episodes of "The Bottom Line" and reading transcripts just reinforced my skepticism.
He didn't make a lick of sense.
From the beginning, Melton and his sister-in-law Carolyn Redd tried to shut me and my paper out. They belittled us, he threatened to run us out of business, and they refused to grant us interviews for 14 months. This motivated us to cover him harder, especially considering that no other media outlet in town was doing real journalism about him, and most were tucked firmly up his ... well, you know.
The rest is history. Fourteen months into our hard-hitting coverage of Melton, he suddenly agreed to do talk to me. I had circled him, and followed up on things he told me, and that had seemed to make him angrier. But suddenly he wanted to talk.
I went into those interviews as open as I could be. Over multiple interviews in City Hall and his home, we started out talking about his family and eventually wound through his various obsessions, most of which came back to (a) his relationships with young men throughout Jackson and (b) the rumors about them. He was determined to talk about those issues and, it seemed, to convince me to be his friend and supportera Stepford reporter perhaps, joining the other editors and reporters in town who had propped up and enabled "Frank" for so long.
No doubt, I had a big adventure on my encounters with Meltonbut he did not win me over to his way of doing things. In fact, I came out of those encounters afraid for the city. I had seen him strap on weapons while reeking of liquor; I had watched police chiefs and officers do nothing to stop him from what seemed blatantly illegal activities.
Worse, I felt like I had met a real demagogue for the first time in my life. He was charming, he knew how to push people's buttons, he knew how to get what he wanted at whatever cost, and he had strong connections. I knew he had to be stopped before his actions led to his own others' deaths, or destroy the city financially (which he may have managed to do); for a while there, my staff and I devoted ourselves almost entirely to exposing the real Melton to the city he had fooled.
I also came out of my Melton Erahe stopped talking to me again once I didn't fall in linedetermined to get people to think about how he got here. There will always be charlatans ready to take advantage of the gullible; the question is, will we let them?
Frank Melton played to the fears of city residents, black and white, with his "thug" talk, using it in a dangerous game of pitting troubled young men against each other. He did it on the backs of certain weak black men, like Evans Welch, who became the pawns. He convinced this city that anything goes when it comes to young blacks they feared, and their fear allowed him to run amok.
Melton needs to pay for that, and this city must never let it happen again.
you are truly a brave woman donna!
my hat goes off and stays off on this one-
I'm just glad Frank doesn't have his own religion. He could give other cult leaders a run for their money.
- golden eagle