Joseph W. Mickens, Sr. is running late. He just phoned to say he was on his way from Starkville and would be here in five minutes.
Not a problem.
“Here” is Ronnie Clayton’s Brother’s Keeper Barbecue where, at this moment, a long line of people are standing in line — for many of whom, myself included, this is a weekend ritual — waiting to get a ration of Ronnie’s succulent grilled meat.
The good-natured proprietor, sporting a recently acquired goatee, is shuttling ribs, chicken and beef tips from two smoking grills out back. Inside, his wife, Mona, and daughter Amber Blunt are working the window.
The aroma of smoked meat wafts across the crowded parking lot. There is not a discouraging word to be heard.
The four-term, Ward 2 Councilman, all 6’6” of him, unfurls from his low-slung, silver 700-series BMW. At 63, the former college basketball player looks fit in a red polo shirt, jeans and red sneakers.
Mickens, who is beginning his fourth term as a councilman, is a voluble and effusive talker. I ask him if he’d rather eat first and do the interview or vice versa. He wants to talk first.
We begin with the obvious, the just concluded mayor’s race.
“It’s not that the Mayor ran a bad race or Mr. Gaskin ran a great one,” Mickens said. “I just didn’t feel the energy in this race this time. It was nothing like I felt in ’06 when he (Robert Smith) came in behind Mr. Rupp.
The city was on fire to elect our first Black mayor. The energy just wasn’t there (this time).”
What is Gaskin’s biggest challenge? I said.
“Being his own man,” Mickens said. “Everybody’s gonna be tugging at him. He’s gonna have to come in and set the stage. He’s the mayor.”
On challenges facing the newly elected mayor, Mickens had more to say.
“A lot of people out here in the community and probably some people on his team think he can come in and do what he wants to do. But it’s a strong council, weak mayor (system).”
Gaskin’s biggest challenge is to connect with the council, Mickens said.
“It’s a mistake to connect with the community before you connect with the council. You need four votes. It’s all about four votes.”
What should the mayor-elect be doing right now, I asked.
“He should be talking to the council and getting his transition team together.
“Are we gonna go back with this attorney; are we gonna keep Neal Schaffer; are we gonna keep J5; are we gonna keep the judge on the bench.” That’s where I think he needs to be.
Suddenly Mickens looked up.
“Why are we talking today?” he asked.
Over the past few years I’ve admired Mickens’ independent streak, something all too rare in politics. An interview with him would be a good place to examine this pivotal moment in the life of our town, I said.
His vote last month prevented the hiring of a City Operations Officer to replace the departing David Armstrong.
“The COO is crucial. He works so close with the mayor. I’m a strong believer the mayor should make that decision.”
Earlier in the week Mickens told Dispatch reporter Isabelle Altman we’ve got to stop appointing friends to boards.
By way of clarification, Mickens said he has no problem appointing people who have “helped you,” as long as that person is qualified. He emphasizes “qualified.”
Being his own man isn’t always easy.
After a recent council meeting, Mickens’ daughter asked him, “Daddy why are they beating you up (on Facebook)?
“I’ve been called an Uncle Tom,” Mickens said. “That’s not me.
“If I need to be the scapegoat to get this administration where it needs to be, then so be it.”
For about eight years in the late 1980s and early 90s Mickens, a Noxubee County native, lived in New England to be near relatives he wanted to get to know better.
The experience was revelatory.
In the North he saw readily accepted mixed-race marriages and Blacks working in executive positions. “It helped me see things differently,” he said.
I asked him if Columbus had a race problem.
“There is a problem with race everywhere,” he said. “Race is gonna be there. We don’t respect human beings enough.”
Mickens talks in the cadence of a preacher. His conversation is laced with Biblical references. His prescription for the city sounds like a sermon.
“It’s gonna take everybody,” he said. “We all got to get in there and make this work.
The city is in a place of brokenness. There is a brokenness we got to heal, not in money, but in spirit.”
We’re finished with our barbecue. Mickens has polished off a sizable pile of ribs and me two chicken quarters.
One final question: Were you surprised by the outcome of the election?
Mickens paused for a moment. Silent, pensive, then quietly.
“I thank God for Mayor Smith. It cleared the way for me.”
“It was time. And I think deep down Robert knew that.
There is a time.”
Birney Imes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.