Billy Davis Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 4, 2008

Misgivings about Avant often tainted by racism

The phone call to this newspaper began innocently enough, with a compliment no less.

Just last week a reader of The Panolian thanked yours truly for staying on top of the yet-to-open Rolando Curtis Foods in Crenshaw. Then the reader, an older man, botched his compliment by describing how the world has taken a turn for the worse.

Just how bad is the world?

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“I can’t even hang a noose in my front yard,” he told me.

Worse, he feels pressured to refrain from saying the “n word” in public (he didn’t say “n”), when he feels he has the right via the First Amendment to say whatever he wants.

If that reader truly carries such a low opinion of black people, he will probably be less than enthused next week if Robert Avant is re-elected president of the Panola County Board of Supervisors by his colleagues. As it stands now, Avant has a good chance of keeping that position: two other supervisor incumbents have shown little interest in the position, and two newly elected supervisors have yet to sit at the board table.

Good or bad, right or wrong, that leaves Avant.   

There may be legitimate concerns about Avant, a player in county politics who won his unprecedented sixth term in office in November. A few of my concerns are his influence over some county officials, mayors and aldermen, election officials and the North Panola School District, his generous mileage reimbursement checks, and his access to federal dollars through the Enterprise Community agency he oversees.

But some other observers of county politics have a more dubious problem with Avant, which is simply that he’s black.

As with other politicians, Avant has been the subject of complaints from our readers from time to time. The complaint may start with a legitimate concern that occasionally devolves into a rant about race.

When that happens, we just tune you out because you’ve just ruined any credibility that existed when you uttered the first word.

After hearing some legitimate complaints about Avant, and many that are not, here’s my personal message for those with a grudge against the District 2 supervisor: get over it.

The president of a board of supervisors enjoys some influence, but in reality Avant’s real power is found north of the Tallahatchie River, not at a supervisors’ meeting. It’s true that the president of the board acts as a spokesman, but don’t fault Avant because his colleagues routinely lose the ability to speak when meetings begin.   

Another reality is that Avant is only one of five board votes. Beginning next week he will sit down at the first board meeting of 2008 without a guaranteed vote from Mack Benson and an alliance with Jerry Perkins. Two new names, Kelly Morris and Gary Thompson, will enter the political picture.

You can believe that Avant knows very well that dynamics have changed. Asked in an interview what is the most important issue of 2008, his one-word answer was “unity.”

Avant knows well that voters in Districts 3 and 4 didn’t send two new supervisors to the courthouse to work for “unity,” but the savvy politician is already using a newspaper interview to extend an olive branch.

There is yet another reality about Avant that deserves respect from the public and his colleagues: he delivers for his district. Acting more like a congressman than a supervisor, Avant helped get water lines laid to homes without running water by establishing the North Panola Water District. Most recently he secured a federal grant to build a fire station in the Longtown community.

During the newspaper interview, Avant fielded a call for help from a constituent whose pipes had frozen.

When a politician helps a family get plumbing and clean drinking water to their home, do you really think that family cares if that politician gets a generous monthly mileage check?

That is the reality among some of Avant’s constituents, where “quality of life” may be measured more in the fullness of the propane tank or the kitchen pantry, rather than whether Batesville gets a Target store.

To know that your neighbor wants to hang a noose in his yard doesn’t help much either.