No one did more for or deeply loved the Ross Barnett Reservoir than Bobby Cleveland.
But those who knew Bobby best know something else: No one wished more that the name of Mississippi’s most prominent lake would one day change.
The longtime journalist and sportsman who passed away at age 67 in late April spent many hours deeply researching how to change the lake’s current name — an homage to former Gov. Ross Barnett, the stubborn segregationist whose racist biography from his time in office in the early 1960s reads longer than the lake is deep.
Bobby called his many close friends in high places, some of whom fished those beloved waters with him regularly. For years, they all told him the same thing: Successfully navigating the politics of changing the reservoir’s name would be nearly impossible.
It looks simple enough on paper. The name can be changed by a majority vote of the 14-member board of directors for the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, a state agency that oversees all things Ross Barnett Reservoir.
But the make-up of that board makes it anything but simple. Five board members are appointed by the Mississippi governor, including the president of the board. The boards of supervisors of five counties touching the Pearl River — Rankin, Madison, Hinds, Scott and Leake — get one appointment each. The other four are state government agency appointees.
Almost all of those 14 board members are appointed by white, conservative politicians or entities who answer mostly to white, conservative constituents. Just one member of the current board is Black.
That same board is responsible for first adopting the Barnett name in 1963, on a motion of then-board president R.M. Hederman, the segregationist publisher of the Clarion Ledger newspaper who coordinated with Barnett in 1962 to block the enrollment of University of Mississippi’s first Black student James Meredith. In naming the lake after Barnett, the board ignored a resolution that the Mississippi Legislature passed in 1961 which requested they name the lake “Mary-Lynda Lake” in honor of the state’s two Miss Americas, Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Lee Meade.
The Mississippi Legislature could change the name without the board’s approval, which rightfully feels to many like an even bigger uphill political battle.
Bobby, whose wit and humor shined perhaps brightest while blistering racist politicians over drinks with family and friends, didn’t much like hearing that the name change would be tough.
“He always said, ‘If I can’t change the name (of the reservoir), I can try to rebrand it,’” recalled Liz Cleveland, married to Bobby’s brother and longtime sportswriter Rick Cleveland.
Bobby was among the thousands of young Mississippians who, in the 1980s, partook in the notoriously rowdy nightlife at the lake — waterfront bars like The Dock, On the Rocks and Ratliff Ferry, where the booze flowed and the bands rocked late. The kids affectionately called the lake “The Rez,” and Bobby began going out of his way to refer to the lake by its nickname in his newspaper articles. The first time he published “The Rez” nickname in a Clarion Ledger headline was on April 28, 1991 — 31 years to the day before he died.
More and more, the nickname caught on. Meanwhile, Bobby served “The Rez” community well over several decades. He planned fishing tournaments and cook-offs that drew national interest, worked to raise money for a playground for kids with special needs, started a program that exposed underprivileged kids to fishing and boating, and volunteered to put on local events. He served for several years as a spokesman for the Pearl River Water Supply District board.
But Bobby, still dwelling on the lake’s name, hatched another idea.
Many Mississippi charities raise money with vanity license plate sales. Bobby wanted to help out the Barnett Reservoir Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for area projects, and he thought it would be cool to see “The Rez” on cars around the state.
State lawmakers approved his idea for the license plates in 2012, and in 2013 the first “The Rez” license plate went to Bobby Cleveland, who proudly displayed that #1 on his truck until he died. If you ever see one of the more than 2,000 “The Rez” license plates around the state, know that Bobby is responsible for those tag fees flowing annually to the reservoir foundation.
Bobby died on April 28 after a terrible car accident. He had driven early that morning to volunteer setting up for a sunset concert that evening at Lakeshore Park — right on the banks, of course, of The Rez.
A legendary chef and storyteller, Bobby lived an accomplished life and left his mark on countless people. But one thing he never quite achieved was changing the name of the lake.
Just a few hours after he died, hundreds of people began working to honor his goal in a way that even he probably wouldn’t believe. Today, an online petition to rename the lake the “R.H. Cleveland Reservoir” has hundreds of signatures. Naming the lake for Bobby would surely be a more than fitting tribute to the man who gave his adult life to The Rez.
“Bobby was the absolute heart and soul of the reservoir foundation,” reservoir resident Todd Macko told Brian Broom, a longtime outdoors writer at the Clarion Ledger. “He’s basically for the last decade served the entire community constantly. He was kind of like the gravitational pull for community service at the reservoir.”
When Bobby talked of renaming the lake, he floated naming it after other prominent Mississippians. Bobby affectionately called it the “Welty Reservoir,” referring, of course, to legendary author Eudora. He seemed supportive about pitches over the years of naming the lake after one of Mississippi’s civil rights pioneers like James Meredith, who was blocked entry as the first African American student at University of Mississippi in 1962 by none other than former Gov. Ross Barnett.
Those who were closest with Bobby say he wouldn’t care what the lake’s new name was, just so long as Barnett’s name and legacy was no longer officially associated with the place he loved most in the world.
If the lake is going to be renamed — and goodness, is it long overdue — it’d be a stretch to find a more deserving namesake than Bobby Cleveland.