Credit: Facebook

CLARKSDALE — In what could be described as a coming of age moment for this community, the most prominent political tool that helped one mayoral candidate win and stopped another from getting re-elected was the power of social media.

On May 16, former state representative Chuck Espy won the the Democratic runoff election against Bill Luckett, mayor since 2013, by a vote of 2,356 to 1,674.

From debates in the comment sections on Facebook to forums broadcast on Facebook Live, social media gave voters access to information about each candidates’ plans for the future — and at times led to negative posts about the candidates themselves.

A look at historical civil rights and voter activism will be the subject of a production this weekend in Clarksdale presented by Reveal of The Center for Investigative Reporting and co-hosted by Mississippi Today.

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Both Espy and Luckett exchanged words with each other through Facebook statuses, creating a virtual conversation between the candidates. But Espy took it a step further by uploading videos, memes and images throughout the entire campaign process.

“Social media attention is very important in this day and age. You cannot go through traditional sources of media anymore,” said Espy. “In fact, that structure is very slow and antiquated, so structurally we were able to see that in real-time we could put out information to thousands of people and target a particular audience.”

For example, on April 22, Espy posted a 30-second video titled Clarksdale Deserves Better, which racked up almost 10,000 views, 325 reactions, and 98 shares. In the video, Espy stood in front of flooded streets in a Clarksdale neighborhood and said, “There was an AARP meeting where Mayor Luckett tells the people they need to contact Congressman (Bennie) Thompson,” he said.

“I’m saying to the mayor right now, we won’t need you after May 2 to fix this problem.”

On Jan. 13, Espy posted another 30-second video calling out Luckett by saying he’s a part-time mayor who spends time on various businesses and Clarksdale deserves a full-time mayor. This video received almost 5,000 views, 234 reactions, and 62 shares.

Rick Ross, a renowned rapper and entrepreneur, even endorsed Espy during the election. Espy posted a video on his Facebook page the day before voting began on May 16 that said, “Big thanks to ‘The Boss Rick Ross’ for your support! Vote tomorrow/ #TogetherWeStand #May16.” This video had 12,000 views, 475 reactions, and 300 shares.

On the other hand, Luckett didn’t post videos or photos, just statuses on his Bill Luckett for Mayor 2017 page that is now deleted. He said the page was taken down because it was no longer needed.

He said there were outright lies told about him during this election on social media and people flocked to the lies.

“With all of my history in this community of taking a hard stand on racial issues like I’ve done and tried to better this community and being painted as some white racist is very irresponsible and it’s slander, frankly,”  Luckett noted in a telephone interview with Mississippi Today.

“In the public eye, you have to take that kind of abuse, but having these social media platforms now are used for people to just to spew out venom, true or not,” he added.

Pushing the Millenial Vote 

To get more people out to vote, Dave Houston, owner of Dooney’s Barbershop and a campaigner for Luckett, held a “Get Out and Vote” drive, getting people to register to vote at his barbershop. Luckett’s team also went door-to-door to talk with voters.

To target millennials, Espy’s team created a young voter task force that consisted of 14 young people between the ages of 18 and 26, said Dwan Brown, Espy’s campaign manager. He said they used a marketing approach dubbed “the spear of influence.”

Dwan Brown and daughter, Venai Brown Credit: Facebook

“With the voter task force, what it focused on was them really targeting their spear of influence … reaching out to their immediate circle then working their way out,” said Brown. “We tried to utilize young people who were connected to a lot of other young people.”

He said their job was to get as many as their peers out to vote while also empowering themselves.

Kadeijah Hawkins, 23, was a leading recruiter for the task force. She said Brown, who she has known for a long time, recruited her.

“I decided to do it because I felt like Espy was the perfect fit for mayor,” she said. The job was fairly easy, she said. “All we had to do was get our peers our to the polls. We even picked up people who didn’t have rides.”

Venai Brown, 23, Dwan Brown’s daugther, was another leading recruiter for the task force. She said they promoted heavily on Facebook and got out in the community.

“The day of election we gathered youth and we were sent out as a task force to different neighborhoods through Clarksdale,” said Venai Brown. “We went door to door to knock, asking millennials to get out and vote.”

Brown said other techniques the task force used during the process included posting on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook; convincing peers to commit to going to the polls, and calling people to urge them to get out to vote.

Ben Baltimore, Jr. Credit: Facebook

Ben Baltimore, Jr., 18, said he wasn’t a part of the task force and didn’t have any involvement during the election process. He said he was skeptical of the candidates.

“I actually told Mr. Espy before this that I don’t trust politicians like that because everybody say what they’re going to do and they’ll never do it,” said Baltimore. “I was on nobody’s team, and I’m just being honest, but now I’m a part of this movement because I see it’s going in a positive direction.”

Espy said he developed a platform that spoke to the millennial crowd while simply asking them to engage. He said other candidates used social media, but it flopped because they didn’t have a real message that resonated with people.

“They were using them to just say vote for me. Millennials saw through that just like any other demographic of people,” said Espy. “I really believe they felt like the message was genuine and that’s why they felt like they wanted to join the (Espy) campaign.”

Espy’s “Peoples Plan” promised to bring employment opportunities and recreational activities to the area including a bowling alley and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Those proposals resonated with the community by giving them hope that the town can improve, although Luckett supporters said the promises cannot be fulfilled on the city’s current budget.

Community reaction to social media in the campaign

Community members  said that social media played a vital role in how people received information and engaged with the candidates.

Dave “Dooney” Houston Credit: Leah Mahan

Houston, the Luckett backer, said he told Luckett that he had to use social media, but Luckett’s lack of use cost him the election. “He don’t even know how to use social media. That’s the crazy part about it,” said Houston.

“(Espy) didn’t even utilize the Clarksdale Press Register,” said Houston. “He only used social media. All those videos? He did that.”

The majority of the Facebook posts from Luckett’s page came from people involved with his campaign, and Houston said he doesn’t remember Luckettposting anything directly.

Some weren’t fans of Facebook being the main avenue for getting information.

Hayden Hall Credit: Facebook

“The most unfortunate aspect of this recent election for me was that Facebook was the primary platform for most candidates,” said Hayden Hall, former owner of Oxbow Restaurant & Catering. “This can be dangerous because social media has no filter and more importantly no fact-checker.”

Luckett said social media is playing an ever-increasing role across the nation and in local elections and its undermining good journalism.

“In the local election, some of the undesirable side of social media came out when candidates started announcing publicly that you can’t trust the traditional media and you can’t trust the newspaper and you need to get all of your information off Facebook and a large number of people believe that,” said Luckett.

“Social media is undermining good journalism, unfortunately,” he said. “I think you journalists will find yourselves having to defend yourselves more and more than you’ve ever had. There’s no accountability on social media.”

Lekitha Hill Credit: Facebook

Lekitha Hill, a Clarksdale native and founder of the Daye 5 Foundation, said the election was a disappointment to her.

“They got distracted with personal feelings and vendettas,” said Hill. “It went sideways and social media played a big role.”

She said the campaign went sideways because the community and candidates lost focus of what was important as far as what’s best for the city.

“How can we make it better? It became more personal instead of what really mattered,” said Hill.

Clarksdale native P.J. Walker said he thought the candidates were unprofessional, but the debates were needed.  Walker said this election showed the cry for help from the community because voters are ready for change and don’t usually voice their opinion.

Live video brought debate to many

To get a clearer understanding of each candidates’ plans, Real Faith Christian Church (also known as The City of Truth) hosted the first ever mayoral political forum for all candidates to answer questions and give the audience a chance to ask questions, said Pastor Zedric Clayton. The event streamed on Facebook Live for those who couldn’t attend.

Since things were heating up on social media, Hill said she attended the political forum to hear what the candidates had to say. She said she gained some insight, but she said most of the candidates didn’t have a plan and couldn’t answer the questions.

PJ Walker Credit: Facebook

Walker said he watched the forum on Facebook Live, and he said it was long overdue for a forum to be held. He said it was good to have the option of watching the debate on Facebook Live for those who couldn’t attend.

From the beginning of the election to the end, the community, especially millennials, campaigned harder than ever for their candidate on Facebook before and on election day.

Bill Luckett Credit: Luckett Tyner Law Firm

Historically, millennials, especially the ones in college, are low turnout voters, said Luckett, but he said i’ts good to see young people taking an interest.

“But the young people ought to do what any other responsible citizen would do and that’s check the facts and not taking what’s thrown at them at face value,” he said.

Any politician will tell you directly that Millenials don’t vote, said Espy, “but at the end of the day through the partnerships that were made out there, Mr. Brown was instrumental in talking with (Millenial) groups” and this is the first campaign they’ve seen their numbers emerge.

To be effective in any race, you have to go after young adults because their vote is the most overlooked, Clayton said.

“The election was not won on the streets. The election was won on social media,” he said.

Voter turnout in 2017 primary vs 2013 primary Credit: Mississippi Today

Clayton noted that there were a few first factors that sparked the rise of community activism such as having the first question and answer debate, using Facebook Live, and being centered around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Espy, 42, is one of few younger mayoral candidates that have won in municipal elections around the state. Others include: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, 34, mayor of Jackson; Toby Barker,  35, mayor of Hattiesburg; and Jason Shelton, 37, mayor of Tupelo.

“If that group (younger voters) has something to be motivated about they will go harder than any other group you could possibly come in contact with, so I think that is one of the things and that concept was understood on both sides particularly in the runoff election,” said Clayton.

Bradford Fair, Sr. Credit: Bradford Fair

Bradford Fair, Sr, owner of Royal Funeral Home, said the youth’s activism could have been steered by financial gain. “I’m not going to say the votes were bought, but its all politics … saying the right thing at the right time to attract voters,” he said.

“I noticed Espy captured the African American community and that was a big factor in the election because people want change and a lot of folks in the African American community feel like with the town being 85 to 90 percent black, we should have black leaders,” Fair said.

He expressed doubt that social media can help unite this community.

“It’s going to take more than social media to get Clarksdale together,” said Fair. “Social media is a beacon to attract listeners. When someone dies, or something happens, in 10 or 15 minutes, it’ll be on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. It’s good for awareness, but as far as change, it’ll take the community and action.”

Hill said social media is a great tool for bringing the town together. “You have more people that doesn’t read the paper, but have social media accounts.”

Espy said he’s not sure if social media can bring a town together because its only a tool.

“I just believe you have a city over the years that has been a broken city and I’m not saying broke financially. I just feel like from a spiritual perspective, we all have to figure out a way to stay in our lane,” said Espy.

“If we do that, I think that good Lord is charged in doing the rest … I just know through that hard work Clarksdale will flourish and that’s with or without social media.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.