Three Days in a Georgia City Where It's Not Segregation, It's 'Just The South'


Rufus Davis, the second black mayor of Camilla, Georgia, lives with his mother in a white ranch-style home nestled a few blocks east of the heart of the city. On a brisk, damp day he greeted me outside, sporting a black V-neck t-shirt, black slacks, and black socks.

Inside the house, it’s dark and cluttered, but in a curiously organized kind of way—the way you might expect someone to decorate their house without discarding memories of bygone loved ones. A TV hangs on the wall in the living room. Above it, a portrait of the Obamas. And by the fireplace, a yellow, worn-out paper sign that reads, “THIS IS MADDOX COUNTRY.”

Davis, 53, moved back to Camilla, his hometown, four years ago to take care of his mother, Priscilla. When he came back, after more than two decades spent away at college, law school, and making his mark on Wall Street, he found that sign in his mother’s attic. It’s a relic of Georgia’s Lester Maddox regime, an era in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when Maddox was governor, and well-known for campaigning via violent, racist means.

“A day in Camilla is just another day on the plantation.”

Maddox was a menace of a political hopeful and a staunch segregationist as governor. A restaurateur who refused to serve people of color and a candidate backed by the Ku Klux Klan, he made a name for himself by handing out ax handles to supporters, urging them to intimidate black voters. That bludgeon became a daunting symbol of his campaign.

Maddox died in 2003, less than 15 years before Davis was elected and made national headlines for calling attention to what he called “segregationist practices” that had survived in Camilla after the ex-governor was long gone.

Davis is best-known for boycotting his own City Council meetings in “non-violent protest” last year, and for a vote in which the same council refused him keys to City Hall. “A day in Camilla is just another day on the plantation,” he told me. In the weeks after I visited Camilla, residents kicked off a campaign to officially remove the mayor from office.

Camilla is a quaint farming community tucked between Albany, Georgia and the Florida border. It’s a six-square mile settlement with just over 5,000 people, the bulk of whom are African-American. The center of town hosts a smattering of Victorian houses, Gone with the Wind-style plantations, and more churches than you can count on both hands. Surrounding all that, factories and farmland where the locals produce, among other crops, cotton, peanuts, pecans, and livestock.

I decided to spend three days in Camilla because of Davis: Since he was elected two years ago, his term has been marred by resistance to his integration efforts. Camilla, Davis told me, is “a city trapped in a time warp,” mired in controversy, grappling with antiquated problems unheard of in most progressive circles. In far too many ways, Davis’ city is still racially segregated, and he’s dead set on changing that.

But, to a city that colors itself in touch with the rest of modern America, Davis’ aggressive pursuit of equality has been seen by colleagues and constituents as an attention grab and a publicity stunt.

There are no longer “whites” and “coloreds” signs posted on water fountains and restrooms in Camilla. The Confederate battle flag doesn’t loom over government buildings or intown shops. But the “NO SAGGY PANTS” signs still seen in multiple city offices might raise eyebrows.

Camilla’s black community comprises more than 70 percent of its population. The city government, however, is a far cry from representative of its constituency. The six-person city council is half black, half white. The mayor says a gerrymandered voting map all but guarantees Caucasians at least three seats. Not so, say other municipal leaders, most of whom are white and consider Davis—and his crusade for integration—a nuisance.

Although much of Camilla’s populi maintains that the local culture is just a product of place and time, the facts of its city systems are sobering: The police force is the racial antithesis of the local population—there were no black cops on the force at the time that I visited—although Camilla’s former city manager, a white guy called Bennett Adams, will tell you the Caribbean islander the department had recently hired could easily be confused for black. And, of the few dozen employees of City Hall, just seven are people of color, according to the city manager’s office.

The intown schools are severely racially divided, too: Most black kids attend Mitchell County public schools; white kids tend to enroll in the private school, Westwood. And only in January, after Davis hired a law firm to back his anti-segregation endeavor—the same group representing the family of Stephon Clark, the black man just shot dead by police in Sacramento—did the city remove a fence that for decades separated the burial plots of blacks and whites in its cemetery.

Roughly a third of Camilla’s people live in poverty. More than 90 percent of its impoverished residents are black. Nearly a quarter of the black community is unemployed—more than five times higher than the national average (4.1 percent). About 8 percent of white people are jobless.

Some people say Davis is only fighting these issues to earn celebrity. But the numbers don’t lie.

During my time in Camilla, I paid a visit to Mayor Davis’ white predecessor, Vernon Twitty, at his bait shop, Twitty Feed & Seed. Over the buzz of chirping crickets, we discussed local politics. I did my best to concentrate on what he was saying, while a smell I didn’t recognize—worms, maybe—racked my nostrils.

Mary Jo Haywood, the first black person to helm the city, was elected in 2007. The council during Haywood’s term didn’t much care for her leadership style, either. (Camilla’s charter mandates a “weak-mayor” power structure, meaning Hizzoner isn’t a de facto boss, but rather plays a supportive role.)

Twitty said he didn’t recall any animosity with Mayor Haywood, even though he was a councilman when his cohorts pressured her to resign. He also said Davis’ misgivings with Camilla’s governing structure, namely his beef with supposed gerrymandering, are “a bunch of hooey.”

“The race card seems to be a modus operandi to a certain population. You know, Democrats.”

“He seems to be trying to divide the town,” Twitty said. (During Twitty’s term, there was no spotlight shone on issues of racial inequity.)

“Even on the south side of town, which is quote-unquote ‘the white side,’ there’s more blacks that live there than do whites,” he said, later adding, “The race card seems to be a modus operandi to a certain population. You know, Democrats.”

With the exception of one newly-elected councilman, a black man named Venterra Pollard, Davis has no allies on the council. Since swearing in, he’s caused such a rift that a former city councilwoman—who is black—is now lobbying with some charged-up constituents to push him out of office.

Georgia state Representative Jay Powell, a Republican, told me Davis hasn’t been making friends at City Hall because “he went into office thinking he’d been elected king, not elected mayor.”

“If there is segregation, it is a choice issue,” Powell said on the phone, adding to the oft-cited defense that government officials can’t dictate where parents send their kids or force their black citizens to be cops.

At the February 12 City Council meeting, a few dozen citizens squeezed into Camilla’s cramped chambers. The mood among its politicos was awkward, at best. Davis welcomed the new city manager, Steve Sykes, who will succeed Bennett Adams for six months, while officials seek a permanent hire who, like some job prospects, isn’t put off by the tensions between the council and its mayor.

The council meets but once a month, and during its February convention, there was no mention of Black History Month: Only perfunctory discussion of some clerical matters and a few position appointments. When the council announced the names of people tapped to join the city’s housing authority, Davis chimed in, saying he’d be opposing the choices. Councilmembers exchanged frustrated glances.

The Police Chief told me city departments simply hire the most qualified candidates; they don’t see race.

Ex-Councilwoman Vivian Smith, the elderly black woman who was ousted by Pollard and who is now leading the drive to boot Davis, raised some mild-mannered hell during public comment time, complaining about Davis’ rabble-rousing. “We have teachers, lawyers, doctors; all of these are black people you can find in Camilla,” she said. “Only quality, intelligent persons in leadership roles can lead us toward tomorrow,” she jabbed at the mayor, who was shooting me uncertain glances.

Immediately after the meeting, I met Councilman W.D. Palmer III, one of three older white men holding council office there. He fidgeted and whispered, occasionally looking over his shoulder to see if Davis could hear him chatting with me. “He’s trying to make something out of nothing,” he said of Davis’ qualms with Camilla’s racial disparities.

Palmer—much like other defenders of “the way things are”—and later, Police Chief Johnny Hendricks, told me city departments simply hire the most qualified candidates; they don’t see race.

Armed only with an allegation lodged by Davis that the local airport, Camilla-Mitchell County Airport, exists solely to chauffer the city’s white and powerful and their cronies, I found myself winding down a beaten country road, through seemingly endless pecan orchards, en route for a firsthand inspection.

At first, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. It was unlike any airport I’d flown out of Camilla’s airstrip abuts just seven small facility buildings. It’s small enough not to need an air traffic control tower or TSA agents.

A Latino helicopter pilot, Edgar Carrillo, greeted me in a small gravel parking lot. His eyebrows jumped when I told him what I was doing in town. A white man, working on a chopper behind Carrillo, looked at me askance while he unloaded tools from his SUV. Carrillo pointed me in the direction of the airport administrator, Randy.

It’s never comfortable asking someone if they think their home is racist.

A few paces further down the cracked asphalt, I entered an office that shares a wall with one of the hangers. A white-haired white man poked his head out from the repair shop. He wiped grease from his palms with a rag as I offered a handshake. “Randy?” I asked. Nope. But as I introduced myself, a pickup truck rumbled to a stop just outside.

Randy Poole, a middle-aged white guy, strolled into the office. He rolled his eyes and scoffed as I explained my pursuit of clarity about the mayor’s claims. He didn’t want to be quoted directly in the story, but he told me what I expected: Camilla’s airport is predominantly used by white people, but not by law. It just so happens that the people who fly in and out—for hunting season, or to do business, or to cart parts for the local factories—tend not to be people of color. Of course, the emergency responders don’t discriminate should the need for a medical airlift arise nearby, Poole told me.

Regardless of their ethnicity, it’s never comfortable asking someone if they think their home is racist.

At Camilla’s library, De Soto Trails Regional Library, the trio of clerks seemed taken aback, even cagey, when I explained my mission. None of them wanted to go on record, but one ushered me toward a regular, another black woman.

As I approached, she looked down her glasses at a neighbor at the computer desk, telegraphing reservations with speaking to me. Her friend, also black, stood up and walked away when I asked for their names. The woman seated identified herself only as Sarah. She was older, had lived in Camilla her entire life, and she told me she’d been a classmate of Mayor Davis.

Like the few other people I’d spoken to since I got to town, Sarah spoke only in whispers about the rhetoric spewing from Davis’ office. She acknowledged there were problems, but she wasn’t keen on speaking out, at least not to me.

Sarah did, however, lament the plight of black people seeking jobs at City Hall—a popular talking point for Davis. Some of her friends, she said, had applied to work for the utilities department. None got jobs there. Most never even received a call after applying. She also talked about the friction Davis has encountered since his term began. “A lot of things he’s talked about bringing into the city have been shot down by the city council,” she said, noting his ambitions to build a movie theater and a public pool.

At the police station, the walls are mostly blank, some administrative notices and that “NO SAGGY PANTS” sign notwithstanding. Police Chief Hendricks told me he’s determined to recruit more cops of color—one black person was undergoing training when we spoke in February—but he’s not sure how to best engage communities of color. Some black people, he said, are reluctant to “sell out” and become cops. Recent national unrest over racial profiling and police misconduct hasn’t helped his cause, he said.

That sense of futility and complacence shines strong in Camilla. Mayor Davis told me long before I came there that I wouldn’t find any biracial couples, nor would I encounter black and white children playing together. He was right.

Eddie Williamson, founder of the local Boys and Girls Club chapter, a white guy who markets himself as Camilla’s “token liberal,” told me at the city council meeting that the mayor is probably right about the lack of interracial relationships and playdates, although he wouldn’t call it segregation. “That’s just the South,” he said.

Mayor Davis might have imposed a sense of urgency that his community and his council were unprepared to address, and Camilla doesn’t strike me as willing to effect affirmative action-type policies to diversify its schools or its police force or its local government. But it’s also not an anomaly in south Georgia; it is but a microcosm of a widespread problem left unaddressed by many ex-Confederate cities.

En route to town one is sure to pass the Evangelical billboards preaching the hellishness of abortion or the evils of illegal immigration. The South’s’ mentality surely survives strong in those rural towns, like Camilla. Griffin, Georgia, a city less than an hour south of Atlanta, recently declared—during a public meeting where a white former elected official frivolously tossed around the n-word—April would become Confederate History Month and April 26 Confederate Memorial Day, according to the Washington Post. Georgia, after all, didn’t join the Union until 1870, years after the Civil War ended. It was the last state to do so.

On my last day in Camilla, just before I left town, I ate at a homestyle buffet called “Diggity Dogs.” It was there that I first witnessed white people unapologetically shooting the breeze with friends of color. In a small sea of white people—dozens of tables—I finally spied two interracial groups howling with laughter. The theme of the restaurant was, ironically, “Back to the ‘50s.”

Sean Keenan is an Atlanta-based freelance reporter focused on politics and crime. He’s reported for myriad publications, including The New York Times, Atlanta Magazine, Creative Loafing, and more. He’s also much too excited that he’s been cited as a reference on Wikipedia.

This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.

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