Ponto Ronnie Downing is a man of many words. The 68-year-old self-proclaimed "Jesus freak" who is running for the Ward 3 City Council seat is quick to tell you he is "praying for the f*ggots" as he stands outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization protesting abortion.
Downing is running on the Republican ticket against LaRita Cooper-Stokes, even though he admits he knows he can't win. But it's election season, and being on the ticket gives him a soapbox.
On Thursday, he was outside JWHO wearing a blue shirt with dead fetuses on it. JFP photographer Trip Burns and I approached him on the street to conduct the interview. After arguing briefly with Burns over whether the Jackson Woolworth sit-in, which took place 50 years ago last week, was a sham or an iconic moment in civil-rights history, we talked about a few issues.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Back when my relatives ran this part of town, and they put their name on the courthouse, there were no homicides in Jackson. It was a nice, clean and safe place, and there certainly weren't any abortion clinics. It wasn't so nice and safe and clean if you were black. Segregation was a bad thing. Black folks were terrorized by their own government--tax-paying black folks. I don't agree with that. By the grace of God, I guess, I had the intelligence to see (that it was wrong) 60 years ago. I just picked this up (points to the May 22 edition of the Jackson Free Press he holds in his hand) "The Woolworth Sit-in, 50 Years Later." I was there, and I haven't read the story yet but I guarantee you, you got it wrong.
I want to ask you about some of the issues if you ...
Make this quote: I have all the answers, but nobody is asking the questions.
Well, I'm going to ask you a few then. First of all, one of the biggest problems Jackson has is that the public-education system, which drives many families to the suburbs who would otherwise stay here and raise families and grow the middle class. What would you do to fix public education in Jackson?
Well, you're incorrect. That's not why people left, but I support public education. I went to Jackson public schools for 12 years. George School, where I went my first six years, is still there. It looks a lot like it did 60 years ago. I believe George School is one of the handful of STAR, or whatever the terminology is, that proves that basically poor black folks can be educated. It's a STAR school, and I celebrate and commend that. We need to spend money on George School, we need to spend money on Lanier High School. It needs to be turned into a showcase. My ex-wife of 30 years worked in public schools. We divorced in 1995, and she retired a few years ago from human resources. ... But I believe what's happened to the schools now is they are not first class. I'm not sure about charter schools or whatever, but public education is not the main problem in Jackson.
The main problem in Jackson is crime. There's no question. Public schools probably (contribute) to that, and I'm not sure who would correct that. Before we do anything else in Jackson, we have to stop the drugs and the crime and clean up this town. It's a cesspool. Fondren isn't a cesspool, but the rest of Jackson is, and they don't seem to care. Harvey (Johnson) used to tout the $26 million Union Station right across the street from the old cesspool, the King Edward Hotel. David Watkins is now my hero, because they finally got it open.
But we don't need to stop with Union Station and $26 million and the King Edward's $108 million, we need to clean up Road Remembrance, Eminence Road. The 'hood, where I still live. Fifty years later, I'm still by the zoo on Beech Street. There are no beaches on Beech Street. I want to make one, one day. But it's the drugs and the crime. I want to spend money on schools, but my first part would be, "Hey, let's spend some money, let's make them look nice." Even if they aren't getting an education, let's make them look nice--particularly Lanier, because it has gotten the shaft.
In 1963, I worked for the (Jackson) Daily News. I was still in high school, covering my own events when I was playing football, basketball or whatever. We were the city champions that year, and everybody was all excited, but I made the statement, and I may have wrote it somewhere, but I can't find it--we aren't the city champs, Lanier is. They were 43-0. If we would have played Lanier, we would have gotten killed. But back in the days of segregation, the black schools weren't even recognized. It's like they didn't exist. So what we need to do, we can't make up for the past. We can't repent. We just need to spend some money on Lanier High School, and make it a showcase. Even if the basketball is not what it was. We need to spend some money on Murrah and Provine, too, and clean them up. Then maybe you begin to make a change. Maybe you can make a positive change my doing that.
Jackson doesn't have the money, and I don't know why they say that. The problem is obvious: All the white folks left. They took the jobs and the money with them. I made this speech in 1999 when I first ran for city council. The district where I was running was 99 percent white. I've been for black folks a long time. I covered the SWAC when nobody else would. The paper let me and Lee Baker cover the SWAC. They didn't mess with us. I'm related to the Hedermans (who once owned The Clarion-Ledger). You began to see an exodus (of white people), especially after Harvey (Johnson's) election as the first black mayor. It should be obvious when you look how nice everything is down Lakeland and out at Highland Colony and even in Pearl with the Bass Pro Shop and the Mississippi Braves. They don't want to be down here and deal with this, and it looks like racism.
At the same time, I don't want to blame them because they want better schools, and they want to feel safe. It's frustrating. You think: Well, wait a minute. I'm sorry about what happened in the past. I'm not so sure black people don't deserve some type of reparations, 40 acres and a mule or whatever--particularly old black guys who have been screwed forever. I just had my 50th high-school reunion. It's not the same town, obviously. I saw some of my old friends from high school who can't believe I still live in Jackson. Am I black? Do I look black? I don't know. I'm Hebrew by blood, but obviously a Jesus freak.
I think with the election of Chokwe Lumumba, we finally have some justice. I went down there when (the Republic of New Afrika had a shootout with the Jackson Police Department). I was a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. Now, I didn't see what happened but I went by there, so I have known who Chokwe Lumumba is for a long time. I believe he's for the people, I believe he's honest, and I am glad he's the mayor-elect. I think black folks showed for the first time in years some intelligence with their voting.
(Editor's note: The King Edward Hotel cost $90 million, not $108 million, to renovate and reopen. Lanier High School finished 43-0 during the 1964-65 season, not 1963. The JFP cannot immediately confirm that the Amtrak station cost the city $26 million.)
Crime is obviously important to you. What can be done to slow the crime rate and clean up the streets?
The Jackson Police Department. (Since I've protested the abortion clinic) I've had loaded guns pointed at my head by Jackson police officers and been in court. With the police it's not what you know, it's what you can prove. I've been debating about dropping some names, because I know a lot of names. I'm talking about murders perpetrated by Jackson police officers. There was a triple murder over here in 1994 that was done by Kenneth Tornes, the fireman. JPD said he did it. He killed an 18-year-old girl, Victoria Minor, her two-week old baby and her boyfriend right out in the middle of the street. There were witnesses. Nothing today, 20 years later. JPD said bullets matched the gun Kenneth Tornes used. I went down there to the police station, and I said, "Fellows, I used to be a police reporter, and I'm not buying this."
They told me, "Listen, you little son of a bitch: You talk too much, and we'll get you some day."
I finally got one of the family members to talk to me about that years ago. She wasn't dating a fireman, she was dating a cop. That's all I know, but I'm still asking questions about that. There was a double homicide down here at the Hall of Fame Club. There's triple homicides everywhere. There's not even a cold-case unit in Jackson.
Everyone gets all uptight when you start asking questions, like you are now. They don't care. They is the powers to be. Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, State of Mississippi, FBI--none of them care. It's drug related, and to them it's like death by natural causes. Now we have people coming along committing armed robberies in broad daylight, and we need to stop that.
How do you do it? With security. If we can't afford security, we need to put somebody there. Somebody walks into a business with a loaded gun, essentially they ought to be dead. ... That's the way you stop crime. ... It's like a black person's life is not as valuable as a white person's. We don't collar criminals. We need security in every store. The police have been part of the problem for years because they take drug payoffs. It should be obvious to everybody. The criminal in Jackson is not black; he's an old white man that looks like Ponto. The drugs probably come in at Hawkins Field. I don't know this for sure. But I play golf at that golf course over there, and they get nervous when they see me. Mr. Hawkins is my uncle. That's one of my kinfolks. The zoo (was started by) my relatives, where I still live.
America as a whole is like this, but I like to think that Hinds County and Jackson can be different. We need to go back to 1952, without the segregation, without the terrorization of black folks. Of course there's no white folks left (to terrorize them).
(Editor's note: JPD arrested fireman Kenneth Tornes on April 26, 1996, the same day he allegedly shot and killed his wife and three high-ranking members of the Jackson Fire Department. He was sentenced to death on April 3, 1998, and died in prison on April 9, 2000.)