Carlton Smith

Is Mississippi Ready for Its First Black Gay State Lawmaker?

Carlton Smith will test the limits of what's possible when he runs for District 10 in the Mississippi State Senate.

Growing up as a black boy in Mississippi isn’t for the faint of heart. Carlton Smith was born in 1964, exactly a decade after Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of public schools. But in defiance of the Supreme Court, Smith says many middle and high schools in Holly Springs—a town of 7,600 just a half hour’s drive from the Tennessee border—remained “100% black.” One school district in the neighboring Mississippi Delta was forced to finally desegregate two years ago.

Holly Springs should have been a respite from the pervasive racism of Mississippi in the 1960s and ‘70s. The town, which is predominantly non-white, was once home to two historically black universities: Rust College and the Mississippi Industrial College, the latter of which closed in 1982. Clifton DeBerry, the first black nominee for president, hailed from Holly Springs, as did civil rights leader Ida B. Wells.

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Clifton DeBerry (back row, left) and the five other NYC mayoral candidates on NBC, 1965.

And yet, Smith recalls the unmistakable sting of white supremacy as a tacit fact of everyday life. When he would visit the local five-and-dime store with friends, the elderly clerks often followed them around the store. Upon checking out, the old white women behind the counter had a way of dropping the change in their hands, instead of touching them. But one time, on a class field trip to a local park, the unspoken pierced the air like a gunshot in the night. After Smith gave a classmate a helpful push on the swing, the other students chanted: “Bobby touched a nigger! Bobby touched a nigger!”

“I knew what that word meant,” Smith tells NewNowNext, “but I’d never had anyone address me like that.”

That was hardly the only lesson in Smith’s early education in bigotry. Although he wouldn’t come out as a gay man until attending seminary in 1980s, he was sometimes referred to as a “faggot” or a “sissy” for gravitating toward his female classmates during recess. Smith had a “gift for rhyme,” he recalls, and preferred making up cheers and chants with the girls to pantomiming masculinity on the football field.

Although Nina Simone once sang that “everyone knows about Mississippi,” punctuating the sentiment with an expletive to underline the point, Smith says his home state shaped who he is today—both for better and worse.

“Knowing what it’s like to be marginalized from an early age has made me a stronger and a bolder person,” he explains. “It’s given me an additional level of creativity, perseverance, and belief in myself, in spite of what other people think or believe is possible for me and other LGBTQ people.”

Smith will test the limits of what is possible in November when he runs for District 10 in the Mississippi State Senate, which covers Marshall and Tate counties. If elected, he would claim a number of historic firsts: The 55-year-old would be the first LGBTQ person to be seated to the state legislature, as well as the first black representative in his district’s history. The incumbent, Neil Whaley, is a white man, as is every politician who has ever held the seat.

The milestone won’t be easy to clear. Although a majority of voters now support marriage equality in nearly every U.S. state, just 42% of Mississippians believe all couples should be allowed to wed. Only Alabama, which recently made headlines when a public television channel refused to air a “gay rat wedding” in the long-running children’s cartoon Arthur, ranks lower in the tally.

In addition to lacking a single pro-LGBTQ statewide law, Mississippi also claims the nation’s harshest legislation targeting queer and trans people: House Bill 1523, which allows businesses and private individuals to refuse goods or services on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Mississippi goddam, indeed.

But Smith believes his district is ready for something different, citing the successes of political outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Danica Roem in Virginia. Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star in Congress, was not profiled by The New York Times until her “shocking” upset of longtime U.S. House representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary. Her campaign was largely ignored, he says, because she “wasn’t supposed to win.”

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates her win against Republican Anthony Pappas.

“Through the power of her vision and her ability to organize, she was able to successfully unseat a very well-established incumbent,” Smith claims. “I take inspiration from that.”

Smith’s campaign hopes to channel the energy of another underdog, however: his own father. He is the son of Eddie L. Smith, who was elected the first African-American mayor of Holly Springs exactly 30 years ago. A former high school principal and college administrator, he died in 2001 of complications from kidney surgery before he was able to finish his third and final term in office.

When Smith’s father was elected in 1989, he was in a similar position to Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s not possible,” Smith remembers people saying. “It can’t happen.” Naysayers predicted that even if his father did win, the other side would “try to steal the election.”

“At first it looked like my father had lost the election,” says Smith, who was 25 at the time of the race, “because votes that should’ve gone to him went to the other candidate. It was only after the votes were recounted that they confirmed that he had actually won the election.”

While many politicians running for public office might brandish their automobile with a bumper sticker advertising their candidacy, a banner draped over the back of Smith’s car pays tribute to his parents. “Eddie and Luberta: The Legacy Lives On,” it reads. His mother, who died just a few weeks ago, was a schoolteacher and an organist at the Methodist church in nearby Ripley.

Smith, however, bristles as being referred to as a politician. He claims his father did, too.

“He never considered himself a politician and neither do I,” Smith says. “He described himself as a ‘public servant’ or as an ‘elected official.’ When I think of the term ‘politics,’ I think of someone who is engaged in public life often for their own benefit, whereas those of us who are committed to public service are interested in doing what’s best for the people.”

Carlton Smith
Carlton Smith (bottom right) and his family.

The people of Mississippi certainly need all the extra hands they can get. According to U.S. News and World Report, the Magnolia State is failing its citizens by nearly every measurable metric. In addition to having a poverty rate of over 20%, the nation’s poorest state ranks 44th in opportunity, 45th in infrastructure, and 46th in education. Many of the public schools in Smith’s district were built more than 100 years ago, he claims, and the buildings have since fallen into disrepair, sometimes literally crumbling around students.

Equally dire are the lack of health care options available to residents. As Mississippi Today reports, there are just 184 doctors for every 100,000 people who live in the state, the lowest ratio in the nation. According to Smith, state lawmakers have further twisted the scalpel by allowing a law to remain on the books that prevents physicians from “coming into Mississippi and providing free services.”

A proposal to strike that law was introduced recently at a legislative session, but Smith claims it “didn’t make it out of committee.” Inaction has consequences, he adds.

“We had a young woman in her 20s who died recently in Mississippi because she had an asthma attack,” Smith states. “There used to be an emergency room that was about eight minutes from her house, but it closed. These are the kind of life-and-death choices that legislators are making.”

In campaigning to represent all of those left behind by Mississippi lawmakers, Smith hopes to fulfill an incomplete promise from last year’s election cycle. Although he declared his intention to run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Smith failed to register as a candidate in Mississippi’s First Congressional District before the March 4 deadline. His Carlton for Congress website—complete with the self-authored #DareToBelieve18 hashtag—and his campaign Twitter account are still active.

This year, Smith is one of at least four other candidates who will compete to face off against Whaley in the general election. Although the primary contest is typically nonpartisan, the incumbent was the only candidate who refused to disclose his party affiliation in 2017. Whaley has since caucused with the Republicans in the state legislature. Given that the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Smith says many voters have “feelings” about the obfuscation. Whomever wins the primary, he notes, is likely to win the immediate backing of the local Democratic party offices.

Gaining his party’s official endorsement would be a profound reversal from 2018, when U.S. House candidate Michael Aycox was reportedly told by a representative for the Mississippi Democratic Party that the state would “never” have an openly gay Congressman. Aycox, who married his husband six years ago, was ultimately trounced in the primaries by a nearly 40-point margin.

But Smith maintains that North Mississippi is not only ready for someone like him. It needs people like him to “tell new stories about Mississippi,” as his obsolescent campaign site still puts it. Although he has never served in office, the second-generation public servant has been an ordained minister for 24 years, six of which were spent in his home state. As his mother’s health began declining in 2013, Smith took a job with the Unitarian Universalist Association in Holly Springs. Being a clergyman and a state lawmaker exercise many of the same skills, according to Smith.

“I’ve really learned how to listen deeply to people—their wishes, dreams, fears, and concerns,” he says. Smith claims he’s been doing that his “entire career,” but as a black gay man raised in a state not always tolerant of difference, he’s demonstrated the power of compassion his whole life. It’s not just a vocation; it’s survival.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang