District 5 Supervisor Alleges Political Motives Used to Block Juneteenth Festival
By Jeff Clark
Less than 24 hours after the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors removed a discussion on funding the Juneteenth Festival from its agenda, festival organizer and District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks said the festival will continue. Brooks, on Tuesday, held a press a conference in front of the CVB building to discuss the future of the event and to chastise some members of the board for allegedly using politics to try and stifle the decades-old festival.
“The Juneteenth Festival will go on as planned,” Brooks said.
Brooks has been at odds with the CVB after the board voted to implement new festival grant guidelines he deemed “unacceptable.” Brooks expressed his frustration with the board and turned down a $15,000 festival grant in December, stating the money would not be enough to cover his entertainment costs. Under the new grant guidelines, festivals can be funded up to $15,000 and only 25 percent of the grant money can be used towards entertainment. Quality of life events can be funded up to $8,000, all of which can be used for entertainment. Juneteenth organizers also applied for a quality of life grant, but the request was voted down during a specially called meeting March 25. Board member Bernard Buckhalter had added another discussion on the funding of Juneteenth to Monday’s agenda. The board voted 5-4 to remove the item from the agenda. Board members Mark Castleberry, Rissa Lawrence, Leon Ellis, Harvey Myrick and Bart Wise voted for the removal of the agenda item.
“I’m not taking this lying down,” Brooks said. “We’re pressing on. We are going to go out to the community and solicit donations for the festival. This board has been stacked by people who want to try and hurt Juneteenth. The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors have always replaced black board member with a black board member until George Swales retired and they replaced him with Leon Ellis who votes against everything — including Market Street Festival. This all started when the (Golden Triangle Development) Link wasn’t getting enough money and (District 1 Supervisor and board President Harry Sanders) started appointing his people. We’re encouraging people to take their money out of Trustmark Bank because of (bank president) Bart Wise. They discussed Grilling On The River several times and then they decided to fund it. It’s still Harvey Myrick’s festival — I don’t care what he says.”
“Mark Castleberry needs to go back to Tennessee. He needs to resign from this board.”
– Leroy Brooks
Brooks also accused the CVB of bringing politics into festival funding. During a heated discussion after the agenda item was removed, Castleberry suggested Juneteenth could go on with Ward 5 councilman candidate Kenny McFarland at its helm. Castleberry also said he had issues not with the festival itself but with some of the book keeping practices of its organizers and with Brooks’ tactics.
“The CVB has brought politics in this,” Brooks said. “Why is the CVB venturing into the political arena? I don’t like Kenny McFarland and he needs to stay the hell away from me. Mark Castleberry needs to go back to Tennessee. He needs to resign from this board. He has something against me personally and it’s a conflict of interest when he votes. He needs to go. He needs to leave me alone.”
McFarland said he had talked to Castleberry and other members of the community about keeping Juneteenth going.
“The community is very displeased that Juneteenth may not be held this year,” MacFarland said. “My position as a candidate and a possible elected official is to give the community what it needs. I have spoken to many people in the community about this. I will be glad to serve on a committee to help with Juneteenth.”
When asked if he would be willing to serve on Brooks’ committee and that festival organizers are planning to move forward with Juneteenth, MacFarland said, ” I don’t know anything about (the festival continuing) and you already know the answer about me serving on Brooks’ committee.”
Castleberry would not comment on Brooks’ demands for him to resign. When asked if he had contributed financially to McFarland’s campaign, Castleberry said yes.
“He is my candidate in the ward in which I live,” Castleberry said. “He is who I am supporting.”
Brooks was supported by Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem and his brother and local NAACP representative Kamal Karriem during the press conference.
“I think it’s incumbent for the mayor and council to look at the actions of this board,” said Kabir Karriem, who was present during Monday’s Juneteenth discussion.. “The mayor and council should investigate the actions of this board. We can’t have people with personal agendas making decisions on this board. Columbus right now is suffering from tax falls. Anyone that spends money with us is a plus. These festivals generate tax money. We can’t marginalize events in Columbus. We can’t continue to have this divisiveness in the community.
Kamal Karriem also accused the CVB board of dividing the community by suggesting Juneteenth be taken away from Brooks.
“We are very concerned about the CVB board creating divisiveness in the community,” Kamal Karriem said. “To say someone else should do Juneteenth is like us saying we’re going to take over Pilgrimage or Grilling on the River.”