Family-business owner and former Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman, Jon Levingston began developing his concept of democracy at a young age.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Mississippi, he was surrounded by the traditional, though evolving political and social ideas of the Delta.
As a child in the 1960s, Levingston vividly recalled the historical events happening in the country.
“I recollect hearing of President Kennedy’s assassination as it was reported live on CBS news around 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of November 22, 1963,” he said. “I recollect the U.S. mission to land a man on the moon and have him return safely to Earth.
“I remember when President Kennedy’s brother Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York, travelled to the Delta to study poverty and that he had been murdered as well. I recall the assassination of Martin Luther King.”
Levingston’s father informed his sense of patriotism and duty, Douglas Levingston, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. “There was a tradition in my family of participating in the wellbeing of our community,” recalled Levingston.
“In fact, it was considered a responsibility of each member in our family to volunteer or participate in something that would benefit our community, including educating ourselves about the issues of the day.”
Throughout his life, Levingston’s family has made sure he and his brother, Bruce Levingston, the University of Mississippi Sally McDonald Barksdale Honors College Chancellor’s Artist-In-Residence, were aware of their family’s history.
Strong in their Jewish faith, all but one of his family members who choose to stay in Europe were persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.
“I could never understand why it was necessary to discriminate against anyone because of the color of their skin or for their religion,” Levingston said.
This family history played an important role in the evolution of his thinking and need for participating in civic life.
“All these events combined to make me aware of the complexity of life in our nation,” he explained, referring to our cultural divisions and racial polarity.
“I cannot say I thoroughly understood these issues but, I was aware of them, and I tried to learn more about the issues and the people who influenced their outcome.”
At 15, Levingston left Mississippi to attend the Darlington School, a college preparatory institution in Rome, Georgia, with dreams of being a doctor. Showing a bright academic future, Levingston then graduated from the University of Georgia at age 20.
Although impressive, Levingston said he often wishes he could have told his younger self to slow down, and that those school years were ones he would never get back.
After college, Levingston went on to fulfill his dream of living in New York City, and after a few years there, he moved back to Clarksdale to care for his sick father.
As the oldest son, Levingston took over the family furniture business, working alongside his mother, Barbara. He married, had three daughters. Three decades quickly passed.
Levingston’s longing to participate in civic life never stopped though.
He became more involved in not only Clarksdale’s politics – its school board, its community service – but in Mississippi as a whole.
And the state took notice. In 2002, he was asked by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to pursue being Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party’s evolution fascinated Levingston, and he agreed to run. “The racial tensions early on continued to exist within the party leadership when I was elected chair,” Levingston said.
By 2000, it was clear that support for the Democratic Party among white voters was dwindling, he recalled. Statewide, three of Mississippi’s five congressmen were Republican, along with the two senators.
Levingston’s goal as the chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party was to help it become more friendly and appealing to a broader constituent group.
His hope was that if more conservative, moderate, and liberal Democrats were understood, it would give the party the chance to enjoy a plurality in statewide elections.
However, this idea proved not popular among several party leaders as division throughout our country spread further.
In 2001, one year after Levingston was elected Chairman, he grew frustrated because members of the executive board were unwilling to agree on a strategy to increase the base of the party.
He resigned, predicting that if the party continued on its present course, it would eventually lose all statewide offices.
In 2003, Governor Musgrove lost to Republican Haley Barbour. Today, all statewide elected officials in the major offices in the executive branch are Republican and there is a supermajority in both houses of the legislature.
Levingston said, “The lesson to anyone interested in assuming a political leadership role is not to narrow the appeal of the party – rather appeal to the largest constituent group in order to get elected. If one can’t get elected, one will not be in a position to govern.”
Levingston believes that democracy is what connects our country. We are divided over regional interests, social issues, financial interests, even matters of war and peace, but somehow, we overcome these divisions, he said.
“Ignorance of our form of government and a lack of understanding of the efficacy of our institutions is the greatest threat to our democracy,” he said. The willingness to follow any leader blindly is equally dangerous, he added.
Levingston has been inspired by many political leaders in his life, each for a different reason. “I admired Robert Kennedy because he tried to shine light on certain injustices such as racial discrimination and poverty. I admired Martin Luther King for his eloquence, leadership, diligence, and courage.”
More than any other figure, Levingston has learned from Abraham Lincoln’s selfless and successful leadership skills. As Levingston grew older, he began to understand Lincoln’s complexity.
Born into humble circumstances, coping with what now might be called clinical depression, and a leader who suffered several political defeats, Lincoln prevailed, eventually winning the nation’s highest office.
Levingston tries to emulate Lincoln’s leadership approach, Lincoln’s sense of justice and mercy. He keeps a quote from Lincoln’s inaugural address in the back of his mind, “With malice toward none and charity for all.”
Democracy is a fragile thing, he lamented, and a mistrust of political processes began with then President Nixon and continues with America’s own citizens storming the Capitol.
With every misstep the government makes, mistrust from the people grows, and public trust in the government is slowly chipped away, Levingston complained.
“Somehow, we have overcome our divisions for the past 245 years, even surviving a civil war. However, that is no guarantee that our nation will survive in the future,” he said. “Preserving our republic will take great vigilance and discipline, as well as no small amount of courage.”
Sykes Connell is a sophomore from Clarksdale. She is a member of the Lott Leadership Institute and is majoring in Public Policy Leadership and Journalism with hopes of moving to Washington D.C. to become a lobbyist.