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A black police chief where Mississippi burned

Benny DuBose calls himself a "shy guy." But today, as a visitor in a church of 75 white congregants, this African-American nevertheless puts his notes down on a shaky pulpit and just starts talking.

Mr. DuBose wears a blue uniform, not a cleric's collar. And the occasion is not a Sunday service but a potluck soiree to honor him as the city's first black police chief.

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DuBose is a self-acknowledged anomaly: A black man who expresses sanguine hopes on the defining issue of race relations, yet who has had to manhandle white miscreants who can't believe a black cop would dare to lay hands on them. Unlike many police chiefs who like to play their cards close to the vest DuBose has a disarming ability to lay down the truth of the matter, say friends.

One of the "truths" he attempts to lay out before the all-white audience here is that his tenure will be tough on blacks and whites alike, if they run afoul of the law.

If he offends some by sending police to watch for drunk drivers near the bars frequented by whites, he also hopes to win trust on all sides, partly by ending any perception of police nonchalance. Stolen-bicycle reports won't be just written up and filed, he tells the congregation.

To many here, the message, the audience, and the man giving it all symbolize how much this community has changed under a generation schooled by the 1960s civil rights movement. It was near here, after all, where the murders occurred that inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning." The Ku Klux Klan had a significant presence, and 25 blacks died here in some of the nation's biggest Reconstruction-era race riots.

Today, 1 in 5 officers on the police force in this city of 37,000 is black, and the current chief of detectives, an African-American woman, appears poised to become the assistant chief of police.

But, even while the "R-word" is noticeably absent from DuBose's speech on this day, and virtually all agree he has earned his way into this job on his own merits, race remains a pivotal issue here.

"There were a lot of lives spent, a lot of careers wasted, a lot of people driven out of that state, for [DuBose] to have the opportunity to become chief," says Lawrence Guyot, a civil-rights leader in Mississippi since the 1960s. "His achievement can never be separated from his blackness, and his blackness can never be separated from his achievement."

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Race 'runs beneath everything'

Indeed, for all the racial progress that paved the way for DuBose to take his post atop a now-integrated police force, race is still one of Mississippi's burning flashpoints on the streets, especially between police and African-Americans. "Race is a daily fact of life here," says Jimmie Smith, a county supervisor. "It runs beneath everything we do."

There's still a visible schism between the two cultures, as in many American cities. A sure sign: Many of the city's 200 churches are split along racial lines. And, locals say, there's still a firmly entrenched white power structure. Old money remains firmly tied up in the bankbooks of an elite that emerged when this was the South's biggest railroad nexus.

Everything from grocery stores to hair salons are self-segregated, as are the homes: black-owned shotgun-house neighborhoods to the west, white-owned brick bungalows and peeling Victorians to the north.

It's a city where black people have gotten ahead. It's also a city where interracial relationships have been scorned. As recently as 1992, a child-custody case revolved partly around the fact that the mother of two Meridian boys had taken up with a black man in California.

"Remember, in the deep South, it's all about appearances," says Lauren Hughes, a Meridian waitress. "We're the Waltons and Beverly Hillbillies, all rolled into one."

As it is, Meridian has the lowest crime rate among the handful of Mississippi cities with over 30,000 residents. But, despite the small-town feel, much of the crime is definitely big city: murder, black marketeering, drug-running, vagrancy, and loitering.

City on edge of hard times

Levelled by General Sherman in the Civil War, Meridian has grown in fits and spurts. Today there's an opera house renovation, a new railroad terminal, and, in the biggest news here in years, a perimeter mall. But the city is riding the edge of hard times.

Against this backdrop comes DuBose, talking up changes in his no-nonsense style to audiences black and white. Ironically, it is among African-Americans where DuBose may find his toughest critics. While many whites say it's "high time" the city had a black police chief, 50-year-old Slim Jones, a black man sipping a drink on his porch, says the chief has his work cut out for him. "I think he's got dedication," he says. "But he's got to show he's got the expertise."

He will be expected to show more than just job proficiency. Other blacks, in the police force and outside it, are "going to expect this chief, who came up under all that adversity, to also understand what it means to be black and live in a place like Meridian," says Ronald Hampton, director of the National Black Police Association in Washington.

One of the chief's first priorities is to deal with a morale problem in the ranks, tied to low salaries and poaching of good officers by higher-paying departments. Already, the city is some 20 cops short, partly due to National Guard callups.

What's more, DuBose's tenure, which began in January, has already been marred by a robbery spree where the criminals seemed aware of the department's staffing shortfall.

To deal with these issues, DuBose huddles at least three times a day with John Robert Smith, the city's white mayor. "I like him, because I can trust him to tell me exactly what's going on," says Mayor Smith.

Sharp student

DuBose is not just a straight talker (who concedes that, had he not taken the police exam in 1981, he may well have ended up on the other side of the law.) He notched the highest-ever score in the department on the police test. DuBose has long impressed others with his scholastic abilities.

In his schooldays, this self-described "little poor black boy from Mississippi," had a knack for acing his Shakespeare exams. Selected for a Ford Foundation scholarship, he studied in an upper-class white high school in Toledo, Ohio. "As a child, I had an ego problem. I always wanted to be the best," he says.

As a rookie officer, he had run-ins that he attributes to his race: He once found two heavy bags of marijuana sticking out of a car seat, after the vehicle had already been searched. He saw it as a test of honesty that may not have been levied against a white rookie.

Today, he comes in at 7:30 and leaves at 5, a solitary figure in a dark coat with an oversized city stamp over the heart. He often leaves at lunch to tend to his grandmother. The divorced father has pictures of his four kids scattered about his office and a TV tuned to Fox News.

Despite a daily mountain of paperwork, he ranges far and wide to garner support for his ideas.

Here at the Episcopal church, he tells the audience he wants to put two officers in every patrol car – so tough situations can be handled without calling in the backup often seen as overkill by residents. And he wants officers to patrol the same zones each day, instead of rotating.

Along with those innovations, he says the neighborhood-watch system needs reform. "The police are blaming the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods are blaming the police," he says. "So the first thing I'm going to do is sit them all down together so they can blame each other – and then hopefully come up with a new plan."

Both the black and white communities had seen him as the natural successor for the job, but he doesn't take it for granted. "I appreciate the opportunity," he says. "Don't think I will let you down."