Then there is his good buddy growing up, Roy Wilson. Wilson became the Fire Chief of the city of Yazoo -- the county seat. The idea of a black sheriff or fire chief in Yazoo in the Sixties and Seventies was as foreign as imagining someone named Barack Obama as POTUS one day. Though unlike Obama, Sheriff is not a first. He's the second black sheriff of Yazoo, narrowly defeating his white Republican opponent two years ago.
In 1975, Sheriff, Wilson, and two other good friends were restless 18-year-olds. They had graduated from Yazoo High School and were students at Mary Holmes Junior College, 113 miles away from Yazoo. Sheriff and Wilson missed the sweethearts they left behind at home. So the boys decided to drop out of college and go home to the girls of their dreams. They would get married, start families and find jobs. "I told Wilson, 'Man, I'm going back home to get married.' He said, 'Me too.'"
Though the plans didn't quite work out as they expected. "Well, long story short, he got married and I didn't. He said, 'Man, I thought you was going to get married.' I said, 'Man, you go ahead and do your thing, I got something else I want to do.' We have a little issue about that. Wilson now says, 'Man, you tricked me into getting married.' I say, 'I didn't trick you, man. Mine just didn't work out.'"
So before the "trick" and back to Mary Holmes Junior College, Sheriff, Wilson and two other friends boarded a Greyhound on a Saturday night, both professing marriage plans. There was a layover in Houston, Mississippi (coincidentally in Chickasaw, another Bush-Obama county). How would a group of 18-year-old buddies spend a layover? In the bus station? No way! They decided to stroll the streets of Houston.
"We are young and enthused, wanting to get out and sightsee. That's what we did in our own neighborhood. As we were walking, a law enforcement officer, a white officer, he pulls up behind us and he asks, 'What are ya'll doing? What are you doing in this neighborhood?' And I said, 'We just walking.' He kept going on and on, 'Did you do this? Were you at this place? Didn't I see you doing this? Yes you were?' I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' So I'm like, 'Man, is he accusing us of robbing something or burglarizing something?' And we all looked at each other. Long story short, he told us the best thing for you to do is to get out of this community. We went back to the bus station. I said, if I ever become a police officer, I don't want to have that mentality that he had. I want to treat people the way I would want to be treated."
Does Sheriff live in a new Mississippi -- one that is closer to the dreams of those Freedom Riders featured in the Stanley Nelson documentary that tells the story of the brave young people who gave up comforts to fight for social justice in Mississippi? We examined that question and others in the state's Bush-Obama counties, which include Yazoo. Of course, the state was all over the news last week with the Republican runoff election between Senator Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel, a challenger from the Tea Party movement. Cochran defeated McDaniel with the help of black voters, also carrying the state's five Bush-Obama Counties. (see results and demographics of counties) Yet don't call it a victory if you are in earshot of the Tea Party members still refusing to concede defeat. Many who have conceded are considering giving up on the GOP, entertaining ideas floated by Sarah Palin and others. They suggest the Tea Party should lead a conservative exodus out of the GOP for a new third party. The drama continues with the apparent suicide of the McDaniel aide. Now, McDaniel blames the Republican Party for the suicide. What next?
Zack Huffman was shaking his head as he watched the Republican Party drama of the week. In high school, he was "a radical no, make that passionate" conservative. At 19, he was so devoted to the GOP that he was elected chair of the party in Chickasaw, his home county, while living as a student at Ole Miss. That was the same county where Sheriff and his friends encountered the mean cops. Huffman grew up in Houston, Mississippi. As the state's youngest GOP county chair, he was a Republican star, campaigning across the state for Mitt Romney in 2012. Now he says he wishes he had voted for Barack Obama. Blame the university -- Ole Miss -- for transforming Huffman's view of the world. "It would be in the latter part of my college career and I attribute developing the thought that this is not what I can stand by anymore.
"I applied for the Marshall and Truman scholarships and my professor did a good job of saying 'Is this really what you believe?' In fact, I was being interviewed for the Truman scholarship and ... a committee nitpicked every belief I had and asked me to justify it ... and a lot of these things, the certain platforms and policies of the Republican Party I realized I couldn't justify this."
"I think gay marriage being number one. It just baffles me the kind of hate that is present in some of these candidate statements, or politicians' statements. In this article I wrote, you know pursuit of happiness, to put such a -- so we have gay marriage. Some of the things I do agree on with the Republican party is fiscal restraint. But defund education! That's stupid. And leading into the McDaniel thing, he says the U.S. Department of Education or the Mississippi Department of Education should be done away with, that makes no sense."
Huffman remains enthusiastic about politics. In fact, he has switched parties and is running as a Democrat for the state legislature with a proud comparison to Hillary Clinton. "It's almost like the situation is comparable to Hillary Clinton, you know, the Goldwater girl and then, you know, boom."
Seth Howe, 26, another Mississippi Millennial, purchased Bob's Gun and Pawn in Chickasaw County a few months ago. Like Huffman, Howe is a graduate of Ole Miss, where he was surprised to discover Mississippi's reputation on race. "Until I went to college, I had no idea that the rest of the world thought Mississippi was the most racist place on earth. Really had no idea. I mean, I work in a town that's predominantly black, it doesn't bother me," says Huffman, a member of the National Guard. "Half my friends in the army are black. ... I try not to be around people who have those kind of racist ideals. It is still here though, and to say it's not would be a lie. But it's on both sides. ... There's a lot of white racism as much as there's black racism against white people. ... Oh, I see, I've got two or three old black men who hate other black people. Then I got a bunch of young black guys who come in here -- they use words like 'cracker' and other stuff like that. Of course, nobody cares because we don't really -- I guess white people really just don't care about being called 'cracker' or 'jellybean' or anything else."
Howe went against the county in the last two elections, voting for McCain and Romney, largely because of their strong support of the Second Amendment. Unlike Huffman, he does not regret any vote against Obama -- though his views of the president are less harsh than many others in his party. "It's not fair to say he's done a terrible job, I don't agree with the health care laws that have been passed. But as far as anything else, I feel as if its a terrible position for anybody to be in -- I don't know why anyone would want to do it. ... I think people give him a harder time than maybe he probably deserves, but I don't agree with his policies per se. Especially not gun control policies. I think that if you take guns away from the people that just gives the government more power and I'm much more for small government than large government."
Howe voted for Cochran, but now wonders if he should have gone with McDaniel. While he aligns ideologically with the Tea Party, he rejects the notion raised by Palin and others, that the Tea Party wing of the GOP start a new party. "I think Palin is an excellent politician as far as politicians go and I like a lot of what she stands for, but I'm thinking a three-party system with anybody that's conservative is going to get trounced. Your representation is gonna go to crap. Three-party systems only favor the ones who don't split."
Sheriff Sheriff was not among the black voters who cast ballots in the Republican runoff because he had already voted in the Democratic Primary. "In my honest opinion, I would have voted for Thad Cochran. ... Chris McDaniel had one issue that I really didn't approve, when he was talking about closing the Head Start centers and stuff like that."
Sheriff disagrees with Howe's view that race is no longer a big issue in the state. He says too many in the state are still too consumed with racial differences and being separate and not considering the bigger economic picture. When he visits other cities across the country and sees gentrification and economic development in formerly depressed areas, he wonders why it can't happen in Yazoo. "If I had to have a title to make a movie, it would be: 'Hard Times in Mississippi'. Racism is established everywhere, ... what we need is ... somebody with an economic mindset that can bring some industries in here. ... If not, we're going to all suffer."