Dixie Chicken

Racial appeals of last week's primary are reminders of St. Louis' Southern streak

This town has a "Southern thing" it doesn't like to talk about that turns mightily on the axis of race and politics.

Part myth and part reality, combining an imperfect blend of history and the present, it is a strong streak of Dixie that St. Louis tries to deny, preferring to think of itself as progressive and far above all the raw racial passions of the Deep South.

In truth, though, St. Louis shares some of the South's maddening contradictions and more than a trace of the region's racial sins.

Slaves were once sold on the steps of the Old Court House. And Jim Crow once reigned supreme here, even though black aldermen represented wards through the early decades of the last century, elected for political service in a town where they couldn't eat, shop or be hospitalized with white people.

Today St. Louis is blessed with racially mixed neighborhoods that truly deserve the clichéd tagline of diversity. But the city is still afflicted with a fragmented political system, often fueled by casually raw racial appeals by both black and white politicians that smack of the color-bound politics of the Old South.

"We have the worst of both the South and the North," says former deputy mayor Mike Jones. "We have the alienation and lack of community of the North without its energy and productiveness. We have the conservatism and slowness of the South without the sense of community. If you think about New York and a large Southern city and take the worst aspects of both of them -- that's the cultural fulcrum of St. Louis."

Nowhere is this more true than in the intertwined issues of race and politics. St. Louis' ongoing racial dilemma is a subtler and more nuanced problem than the Old South edition, lacking the searing fire that branded the national consciousness with the violence of Mississippi or Alabama. But a palpable animosity between blacks and whites -- between North Side and South Side -- is still an everyday fact of life in St. Louis, particularly in politics.

"When it comes to race, St. Louis is like a dry drunk," says Jones. "It might never take another drink, but it has never kicked that addiction."

This homegrown animus -- soft-spoken, rarely shouted -- was on full display in the days leading up to last Tuesday's primary election, with candidates white and black throwing down the race card in an unvarnished fashion that is customary to politics here.

In a retail sort of way, St. Louis pols often play a more blatant racial game than the codified appeal George Corley Wallace of Alabama used in one of his early-'70s gubernatorial campaigns, during which he continually railed against "the bloc vote." Their actions rank right up there with former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms' infamous campaign ads that stirred up white anger about affirmative action during the North Carolina senator's 1990 race against Harvey Gantt, Charlotte's first black mayor.

On one side of the city's racial divide, Collector of Revenue Ronald Leggett, a South Sider who was once a valued member of Slay's posse, bought himself some backyard insurance by running an ad in the South Side Journal that featured a picture of himself and his black challenger, Howard Hayes, who lost to the long-time incumbent.

The ad didn't even deign to list Hayes' name. Beneath Hayes' photo stood the simple word "Opponent." In the copy, there was an accusation that Hayes' campaign headquarters was located in a building that owed back taxes. Not much else was said in this ad. Not a lot needed to be said -- the pictures underscored the racial context.

More was said in one of the most striking examples of St. Louis' version of racial card flipping -- the full-page ad unsuccessful 4th District state Senate challenger O.L. Shelton ran in the August 1 edition of the St. Louis American, the city's premier African-American weekly.

Featuring pictures of prominent black civic leaders from the past and present, such as former city assessor Gwen Giles, former comptroller and 4th District state Senator John Bass and U.S. Representative William "Lacy" Clay, son of the city's most prominent black politician, Shelton's ad also sported a picture of his opponent, incumbent state Senator Pat Dougherty, with a big white 'X' superimposed over his smiling face.

"These leaders shed their blood, sweat and tears over the last 40 years to win ... hold ... and represent our interests in the 4th State Senatorial District," reads the copy in Shelton's ad, clearly referring to everybody but Dougherty. "Let's take our district back."

As the American's Political Eye column of the same edition notes, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, attempting to show some independence from her South Side base and carve some North Side inroads by walking the streets of crime-plagued neighborhoods and making frequent appearances before civic organizations to talk about crime [Jim Nesbitt, "North Side Pitch," July 31], cut a radio spot for Shelton.

But the South Side Shark's picture doesn't appear in Shelton's ad on the preceding page. There you have it, though -- the Southern-style contradiction within St. Louis' version of racial politics, Shelton's purely racial appeal in print counterpointed by the support of the Shark with her solid-gold South Side pedigree.

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