Cartoon depicting St. Louis mayor as 'slayve' owner pushes race front and center in mayoral contest
What a difference a political cartoon makes. The city’s mayoral race had been coasting along with a few mild attacks and disagreements on issues among the three candidates. Then a cartoon surfaced depicting Mayor Francis Slay as a slave owner, his hand being kissed by a black supporter, depicted as a slave. Slay is in a primary race against President Lewis Reed and former alderman Jimmie Matthews.
The mayor’s press spokesperson, Richard Callow, was so upset that, at one point, he mentioned the cartoon in words that were unprintable. The cartoon was distributed by Terry Artis. The term "slayvery" is printed above the drawing of Slay, while the word "slayve' is printed next to the drawing of his black supporter. (The Beacon chose not to give the cartoon wider distribution.)
After he accused the Reed camp of being behind the cartoon, Callow was asked whether he meant the Reed camp was playing the race card. "No," Callow replied, “it is an example of Mr. Reed playing the hate card through surrogates.”
Callow offered no proof that Reed had anything to do with the flier. And Reed’s campaign spokesperson, Glenn Burleigh, said there was no connection. He also said that Callow himself was "exploiting" the cartoon to try to smear Reed.
"It’s a tactic to scare off voters” for Reed, Burleigh says. He added that Callow’s tactic of focusing repeatedly on the flier was an example of playing the race card. Still, Burleigh said the Reed camp felt the flier was “in poor taste."
Artis defended the flier, saying he’d distributed about 400 copies. "I think anyone who sees it has his own perspective,” Artis says. “Some black people in the churches will find it humorous, but some will feel that it depicts the reality.
"The most important thing I hope is that people will engage around it."
The flier promotes a documentary by Artis that will be shown next week at the Tivoli. It consists mainly of video clips of Slay, beginning with the controversy that erupted after Slay fired Fire Chief Sherman George over a dispute involving promotions in the Fire Department.
Playing the race card means different things to different people. To some, the term extends to raising questions about the extent to which leaders handle issues relating to poverty and the powerless. To others, talking about these issues in the context of race is what candidates and the public should be doing.
"We know that race and poverty disproportionately impact people who need government services,” says the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ, 4136 North Grand Blvd. "I think we have got to find ways to include race and poverty in all these conversation. It is not playing your race card to do that. It is recognizing the race and poverty reality in our community."
The Very Rev. Michael D. Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral, near downtown St. Louis, agreed, saying the city suffers from a "poverty of trust" symbolized largely by the public’s refusal to talk about race. He says the mayor's campaign offers an opportunity to bring race out into the open.
"There is a racial division in this city," he says. "Of course it plays itself out in politics in a lot of different way. We should talk about it and act. I think that when we let moments of opportunity pass by, bad things happen. The mayoral race isn’t going to cause racial division. It reveals racial division that’s already there. If we don’t take this moment of opportunity to address it, name and ask how we can at the grass-roots level address it, then that division is going to harden even further.”
Both ministers said they had lots of respect for the candidates. Kinman added that he is disturbed by the lack of trust that has built up in the community over the years.
“The first thing we have got to do is start listening to each other,” he says. “We don’t know each other across these racial divides. Part of it is geography. As a white person of privilege, you can live in the bubble you want to live in. I could choose my entire life and not go into north St. Louis if I didn’t want to. We need to learn to speak the truth to one another and listen to one another.”
He says churches can play a role in closing the divide. His diverse congregation is predominantly white, while Wilson’s is predominantly black. Since the mayoral campaign began, both have begun to have more dialogue and have preached at each other’s church.
Opportunities to engage
One recurring criticism of Slay among some is that he misses opportunities to engage residents of north St. Louis.
For example, part of Union Boulevard at King Drive was symbolically renamed last Saturday in honor of the Rev. Lawrence M. Wooten, pastor of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, 1500 North Union Blvd. Some who live on the north side of St. Louis were concerned about who didn’t attend the event. Reed was there; so was a representative for Sen. Claire McCaskill. But blacks say Slay was a no-show, even thought the program listed him as a speaker. Callow says Slay has visited the church before but that his office doesn’t recall seeing an invitation about the street dedication.
Even so, some blacks regarded the incident as a slight to the north side. They say the mayor should have at least sent a representative to show respect for Wooten, who is also a bishop in the nation’s largest African-American Pentecostal denomination. Thanks in part to Wooten, the church group decided in 2010 to move its convocation to St. Louis from Memphis for three years. During each of those years, the convocation brought 40,000 delegates who filled 25,000 hotel rooms and brought upward of $30 million in business to St. Louis.
Callow says that the mayor has helped to improve the quality of life in north St. Louis through housing and health, including taking a big step in easing the lead poisoning menace.
Callow added that Slay, who is white, has drawn a larger share of black political and social leadership support than the two black mayoral candidates, Reed and Matthews. Slay’s backers include U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and Frankie Muse Freeman, a prominent civil rights lawyer. But endorsements are also brought up by the Reed camp: Reed spokesperson, Glenn Burleigh, said Reed had picked up endorsements from the largely white 14th and 15th wards. These wards include the Tower Grove South and Bevo Mill neighborhoods, near Kingshighway and Chippewa Street in south St. Louis.
The criticism that Slay doesn't reach out enough to blacks also comes from white voters. One is Eric Vineyard, a sales representative and Slay supporter who says he has heard about Reed’s surrogates' constant attacks of the current administration." But he says the Slay administration "is seen as tone-deaf when it comes to primarily African-American north side neighborhoods. Some of that is perception stoked by people who never wanted him in office. Some of that is legitimate." An example of the legitimate, he says is the "Sherman George debacle" involving the mayor’s feud with the former fire chief over promotions.
Another pro-Slay supporter, Brendan Gates, who works in telecommunications, wished that the candidates would offer frank discussion about race and other issues as well.
"The city is a diverse place, so Slay has to be open to dealing with people of all races. He’s not going to get elected just based on the white vote. Race relations are important. It would be good to have a serious conversation about that instead of tossing darts at each other."
Perception and context
Beyond that, he hopes this election will help to improve what he says is a misconception among suburbanites who regard the city as a "place of horrible violent crime everywhere and you wouldn’t want to live here."
Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, argues that current racial issues need to be viewed in the larger history of race in St. Louis. Race and the current mayoral campaign "shouldn’t be taken out of the context that St. Louis has never grappled with its racial issue. I don’t think Lewis has played the racial card. I think he has had to defend himself against the racial card." Kennedy's ward includes such neighborhoods as the Central West End, Lewis Place and Fountain Park.
But mayoral candidate Matthews says Reed has played the racial card in subtle ways. According to Matthews, Reed makes appearances with his wife, Mary Entrup, who is white, in south St. Louis as a way of making inroads to white voters, but tends not to have her accompany him when visiting north St. Louis because the interracial marriage supposedly might not appeal to some black voters. Though critical of Reed, Matthews says he has always had a good relationship with Slay and doesn’t think the mayor has exploited race in this campaign. He adds that the racial issue is overblown.
"The main issue in this election isn’t about race," Matthews says. "It about economics and jobs."