Most Intriguing Jacksonians of 2009 | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Most Intriguing Jacksonians of 2009

Photo by Kristein Brenemen

Every December, the Jackson Free Press staff dips into our archives for the past year to select a handful of the year's most intriguing Jacksonians. Make no mistake: "Intriguing" is not meant as an honor; these are the people who had us talking, for better or for worse and sometimes for the tragic. Some of them are long-time Jackson residents; others live in our bedroom communities; others visit here just enough to get us talking—but none of them are dull.

This year, we decided to follow Time Magazine's lead (considering that's where we got this idea in the first place), and choose the year's most intriguing person. The first one was easy, and may go down in history as the city's most intriguing character ever.

Most Intriguing Jacksonian of 2009

Frank Melton

"Call me Frank."

How many Jacksonians have heard the former mayor utter that friendly command? Now, make no mistake, that didn't mean that Frank Melton liked you: It was one of those things he said to everyone; a habit that fit his persona, or at least one side of it. On the one hand, Melton wanted to come across as the guy next door, the one you could hang out with, tell off-color jokes with, smoke and drink Scotch with. On the other, he wanted people to think he was a superhero who could do everything he claimed no one else could do. It only counted to him when he did it. And, remarkably, he had a way of convincing many people that he could do the impossible.

That illusion, which he built for years as a loud, "Bottom Line"-drawing, private-sector celebrity, shattered virtually overnight once he took over as mayor. Practically within minutes of city council members taking off their white cowboy hats—that his sister-in-law gave out at his first council meeting—Melton started melting down.

Yes, he had folksy charm. Yes, he could talk a good game, especially to people who didn't bother to ask him how he would cure crime in 90 days. Yes, he could push selective buttons, depending on who he was trying to convince. And, yes, he could slip out of trouble, as he proved twice—once in state court and the next time with a hung federal jury. And, yes, he was damn funny when he wanted to be (and hadn't decided you were on his sh*t list of the day).

Melton was not a hero. He was deeply flawed and deeply troubled. He was surrounded by many people who wanted what he could give them—whether money, status, a roof over their head or a "get out of jail free" card.

But he was intriguing, as was a city that tended, over all, to believe what he told us. The tragedy and raucous drama that was Melton ended with his dramatic death, but with any luck their lessons live on. The biggest? One man can't save our city; we all have to. The runner-up? When a wild-eyed man starts making huge promises, ask for the evidence. And pay close attention to it.

Intriguing Runners-Up

Haley Barbour
From rejecting federal stimulus funds to comparing health-care reform to the Jonestown tragedy, Gov. Haley Barbour has adopted an increasingly vocal and national role as an opponent to President Barack Obama and national Democrats. Barbour has flexed his executive muscle in protracted budget battles with the state Legislature, drawing approval from Republicans in the state and beyond. As chairman of the political Republican Governors Association, Barbour is a natural pick for conservatives disenchanted with the Republican minority in Washington, but many commentators speculate that Barbour may also be aiming for a 2012 presidential run. Barbour has said he won't consider his political future beyond the 2010 midterm elections, but is it just us, or has the governor been looking a little slimmer recently? Just who's he losing weight for?

Wilson Carroll
Wilson Carroll is a local attorney who likes to dabble in politics. He has held an interest in municipal and county politics long since running unsuccessfully against former Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson in 2003. This year, Carroll served as the treasurer of the Better Jackson PAC, which helped fund the unsuccessful campaign of mayoral candidate Marshand Crisler. Carroll initially refused to reveal who was funding the PAC, which had submitted no record of its existence to the Mississippi secretary of state's office despite state laws requiring it. In fact, Carroll and Northside Sun columnist David Sanders did not file PAC donor reports until three hours before the polls closed in the mayoral race, even though Two Lakes supporters had deposited $6,000 into the PAC back in April. The PAC money was used to fund scary mailers to Northeast Jackson homes—citing the same flawed Morgan-Quitno crime rankings that Carroll had tried to use in his campaign for DA against Faye Peterson.

It didn't work this time, either.

Lydia Chassaniol
Last June, the Jackson Free Press was astounded to discover, and report, that state Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, a Republican from Winona, was the special "surprise" speaker at the national Council of Conservative Citizens gathering at the Cabot Lodge next to Millsaps College. The racist CofCC is an offshoot of the Citizens Council, a white-supremacist organization that formed in Mississippi in the 1950s to fight integration of the races with its national office run by former Fairview Inn proprietor Bill Simmons, now deceased. The CofCC, now headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., is still race obsessed, regularly running headlines about crime by African Americans and now immigrants on its Web site, presumably to somehow prove the superiority of white people (ironically proving just the opposite, at least about some white folks). More astounding, Chassaniol serves as the chairwoman of the Senate tourism committee and was praised by Gov. Haley Barbour for helping promote the state as the "Birthplace of America's Music," referring of course to music created here in response to white supremacy. We're happy to know that Chassaniol is only a part-time Jacksonian. Ick.

Bobby DeLaughter and Ed Peters
Very few write-ups aptly begin with the words "leaving a trail of slime wherever he goes…," but homage to former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters might well qualify. After years of people looking in the other direction, Peters had to admit to federal authorities this year that he willingly acted as a package-man between convicted former attorney Dickie Scruggs and former Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter, taking a huge wad of money from the former to convince the latter to influence a court case in Scruggs' favor. Peters admitted this, and walked away a free man thanks to the immunity federal prosecutors bestowed him in exchange for his information, even as DeLaughter is off to federal prison for 18 months for lying to the feds about the whole mess, leaving his own reputation as a civil-rights hero in the dust of the 20th century. Peters is also the district attorney, assisted then by ADA DeLaughter, who presided over the wrongful conviction of Jackson resident Cedric Willis, handing him more than a decade of prison life for a crime they should have shown he didn't convict because of DNA evidence. But what goes around does come around: The same week DeLaughter got his prison assignment, Willis learned that he is finally getting $500,000 in restitution for the wrongful conviction.

Rebecca Coleman
The arrival of Jackson Police Chief Rebecca Coleman symbolizes a new era in policing—and a dramatic change in the hiring policies of Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who took months hiring his last police chief. (Coleman, in comparison, arrived weeks after Johnson took office.) Coleman appeared on the Jackson police force in the 1970s sporting an impressive character matched only by her extraordinarily big hair. She is the second female police chief for the city of Jackson, and she shows an initial willingness to work with local media—which seems much less willing to hound the chief now that the Frank Melton-Shirlene Anderson fiasco has passed. She regularly continues weekly crime statistic meetings, and happily releases the information to the media—even when she expects the numbers to smack her occasionally on the butt. This early into her career, she's making a good impression, and not just because she isn't Shirlene Anderson—with all due respect.

Anthony Dixon
The stellar college football career wasn't to be, not at Mississippi State in these recent, er, "rebuilding" years. But Terry High School graduate Anthony Dixon was still a standout in Starkville, becoming the seventh back in MSU history and the first Bulldog sophomore to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. As a senior this year, he rushed for 1,391 yards, setting the State single-season rushing record, and becoming the seventh player in the Southeastern Conference to lead his team in rushing four times. But his crowning-glory game was the one that didn't matter a whole lot outside the state: the 2009 Egg Bowl against rivals Ole Miss, when he pranced and danced and rushed and leaped, proving he was a star, even if the team had faltered in recent years. Now, he is considered one of the top "power backs" for the 2010 NFL Draft.

Harvey Johnson Jr.
Jackson State University Harvey Johnson Jr. re-made himself as 2009's comeback kid after re-taking the Jackson mayor's office this year. Former Mayor Frank Melton used his fiery personality to wrench the office from Johnson in the 2004 Democratic primary, but voters—after a four-year roller-coaster ride with Melton and his federal and state indictments—bought into Johnson's promise of stability. Johnson remains a controversial figure in some circles, despite his efforts to portray himself as a steady leader. White residents largely flocked to Democratic candidate contender Marshand Crisler, largely thanks to the endorsement of Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin and the apparent belief that he would support the controversial Two Lakes development.

Karen Irby
On Feb. 11, 2009, Karen Irby drove her black Mercedes—reportedly traveling at around 100 mph—head on into a white pickup truck on Old Canton Road. The truck burst into flames after careening off a brick retaining wall. Both its passengers, Dr. Mark Pogue and his fiancée, Dr. Lisa Dedousis, died in the inferno. Irby and her husband, Stuart, survived. On May 11, Irby pleaded not guilty to two counts of depraved-heart murder in the deaths of the two young doctors (together for Valentine's Day the day they died) and one count of aggravated assault against her husband, who reportedly sustained severe head injuries. Her trial is scheduled for March 29, 2010.

Elizabeth Dampier
Ten-year-old Elizabeth Dampier made history in December when directors selected her as the voice of young Tiana, the first Disney African American princess, in the animated film "The Princess and The Frog." Dampier, who is a 5th grade student at St. Richards Catholic School in Jackson, gained national attention for the role. While Dampier has performed in numerous school productions and a few commercials, the voice of Tiana was her first movie role. Dampier is a bright, talented kid, and we're interested to see where she ends up.

Chokwe Lumumba
Chokwe Lumumba, the new Ward 2 Councilman, is a far cry from his professorial predecessor, Leslie McLemore. A lawyer and former member of the Republic of New Afrika, Lumumba is just as likely to rock a daishiki as a suit. He won his City Council seat in May with a campaign steeped in the rhetoric ("The People's Platform") and tactics (door-to-door canvassing, and "People's Assemblies") of grassroots activism. On the council, though, Lumumba has proven surprisingly unpredictable. Sure, he'll joust with Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. on minor points and lecture school board nominees on the dangers of a Euro-centric history curriculum, but he also talks to Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill and even smiles occasionally. And we haven't heard him once yell "Free the land!" in the middle of a council meeting.

Ceara Sturgis
Wesson high school student Ceara Sturgis willingly adopted a role as champion of gay and lesbian rights when she approached the ACLU to sue her school— the public Wesson Attendance Center— for not allowing her to pose for her yearbook photo in a tuxedo this year. Sturgis, who is only 17, finds herself the center of a growing movement for gay rights now that the national media has embraced her battle. She is making the circuit, delivering quotes to The New York Times and Oprah, and putting a pleasant face on her fight, like in her cover photo for the Jackson Free Press. Coupled with an award-winning personality and intelligent demeanor, her presence only makes fighting against gay rights all the more difficult.

John McGowan
For more than a decade, Jackson oil prospector John McGowan has been the champion of flooding the Pearl River and creating an enormous lake or two to boost property values in the city of Jackson, even if it means getting the government to invoke eminent domain on property owners who don't want to buy in. He's a fierce and determined champion, willing to ignore troublesome problems such as the overwhelming environmental issues surrounding the flooding of increasingly precious wetlands along the Pearl River; in fact, in past lives, he's relished taking on environmenalists in lawsuits over his company's dumping wastewater from oil wells into the Galveston Bay. He's also proved willing to set aside concerns of what property-value increases will mean to local taxpayers, who more than likely will have to finance the flood project through property taxes. Of course, Rome wasn't built by shambling, second-guessing jelly-foots. It was built by people with conviction—people like McGowan. Or so we hear.

David Watkins
This was a banner year for Watkins, an attorney turned downtown developer. His six-year $84 million redevelopment of the historic King Edward Hotel finished in early December, and two other projects, the Farish Street Entertainment District and Standard Life Building, are on track to open in 2010. Perhaps even more remarkable than Watkins' work ethic is his growing ambition: a week before the King Edward's reopening, he revealed his vision for a $200 million river walk and lake project that would give downtown Jackson its own waterfront housing and recreation. This latest idea thrusts Watkins into a growing debate over downtown flood control, and the plan is sure to change somewhat. No one could accuse him of thinking small, though.

Jeff Weill
Ward 1 voters elected Jeff Weill as their councilman in a 2007 special election to replace outgoing councilman Ben Allen, who left for health reasons and soon re-emerged as president of Downtown Jackson Partners. Weill is an arbitrator by trade and takes care to preserve that label while on the council. Nevertheless, the council's lone Republican is quickly becoming the self-professed watchdog on a council that is more or less happy to follow the mayor anywhere he leads, even though his attacks aren't always thought out very well. Some council members have already made known their intent to blindly tag along after the administrative branch, making Weill's healthy sense of suspicion look like knee-biting by comparison. Nevertheless, if there is a second guess needed for anything in city politics Weill will most likely be the one to guess it—and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as he can back up his questioning with hard facts.

Cedric Willis
He went to prison for 12 years for murders and rape he did not commit. He spent several of those years trying to stay alive in the rough Unit 32 at Parchman. He read the Bible, bolstered by the Book of Job, and asked the Innocence Project to help him prove his innocence. He went free in 2006 after missing his son's childhood, even though DNA could have kept him out in the first place had the Hinds County district attorney not ignored it. He walked out of prison with nothing from the state—no money to help him get back on his feet. He made the cover of the Jackson Free Press in 2006, and got help from Galloway Methodist Church, the ACLU and others. He became the poster boy for the campaign for Mississippi to pay restitution to the wrongly convicted. In December, he learned he would get $50,000 a year for 10 years because a couple of attorneys didn't do enough to keep him out of prison years ago. He will keep fighting, he says, for the rights of the innocent. He is an inspiration.

CORRECTION APPENDED ABOVE: In the write-up about John McGowan, the JFP editor mistakenly used the word "chemicals" rather than "wastewater" when discussing the discharge into Galveston Bay. It is corrected above, and she apologizes for the error. (See earlier story about the controversy here.

Previous Comments


The river walk and lake project would be truly remarkable and would give downtown Jackson incalculable benefits. Just as the King Edward and Farish Street projects have had their challenges, I've no doubt that this one will as well. I'm heartened to see that someone with both vision and ability is tackling this idea.


Which project do you mean, Tom?


David Watkins' proposal for the river walk, apartments and band shell downtown. there may bee many details which will need to be discussed and worked out, but the idea seems like an appealing one.


Interesting discussion on the Corps' levees-only plan and its impact on Jackson at


We saw that, QB, and checking out the facts. It's Ben's point of view, and he is solidly pro-Two Lakes (he has property over there, I think). But it still looks like information to pursue, and he is asking for other people to help vet it for him. We'll be happy to oblige. ;-) At this point, we need to turn the topic of levees inside out and upside down -- not, of course, as a way to slam them and try to get a return to the Two Lakes plan, but as part of the process of figuring out to do them "right," so to speak. I wish people had been doing this a long time ago instead of just lining up behind Mr. McGowan's plan of the day, but we've got to start somewhere to get beyond a one-plan strategy. And all, remember that all of our coverage to date of the Pearl River/Lakes/flooding issue is gathered at this archive: We've never had a dog in this hunt other than making sure that the city is supporting a flooding/development plan that makes sense and isn't going to get tied up in court for years and then fail because the environmental and cost concerns weren't taken seriously in the first place. And I really, really wish we were the only media outlet/blog in town willing to use the words "eminent domain" in this conversation. People need the *real* information on this thing, not just PR slant as we've seen in the past. So let's all use Ben's posts as a starting post to figure out questions to ask and answer. It's been extremely frustrating to see little or no serious attention put into how to model levees or other flooding/development plans that are not environmental quagmires.


Also, I noticed that I had characterized Mr. McGowan's Galveston Bay dumping controversy as "chemicals," when it should have been wastewater. I've corrected it above, and will run a correction in the paper this week. Click here to read Adam's original story about the issue, as well as Mr. McGowan's statements about challenging environmentalists.


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