There have been many times in my life when circumstances for my success weren’t exactly ideal. I suppose I could have let that determine where I ended up, but something kept pushing me to challenge the system.
I was born in Charity Hospital in a segregated South, one of five children growing up in a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing and a hog pen in the backyard. My dad worked at a chemical plant from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then waited tables at a local restaurant at night. He had an eighth-grade education, but he was a remarkable man with an unbelievable work ethic and went the extra mile for his family.
He knew that an education was our ticket out of poverty. My mom worked until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. most nights at our family-owned bar, so you could say I grew up there. Patrons of the bar would give me spelling, geography and math problems to solve. People to whom few would give credit for their educational skills taught me some of the most important lessons.
Opening the bar for deliveries in the morning so my mom could get a few hours’ sleep kept pushing me to challenge the system. Fast-forward to my college days when I ended up a single parent raising two small children, one with asthma, when I couldn’t afford medical insurance. I was the guy who watched his car get towed after it was repossessed. But something kept telling me to challenge the system, not to give up my dreams, to refuse to fail.
I should stop at this point and tell you that while I hope this story has a happy ending, it’s definitely having an incredible middle. Just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was sworn in as mayor-president of Louisiana’s capital city. Our city-parish, with a registered voter population that is only 38 percent African-American, gave George Bush 54 percent of the vote, then moved down the ballot to give me the same percentage over the incumbent Republican mayor. Most people discounted my ability to build a coalition of support that crossed all racial and party lines, but that was the key to my success.
It would be an understatement for me to say that, true to my parents’ words, education helped to level the playing field for me. I graduated from both of Baton Rouge’s universities, earning a degree in journalism from Louisiana State University, then a master’s degree and a juris doctorate from Southern University. I didn’t start out wanting to be an attorney, but working six days a week and raising two children, I began to see law school as an opportunity to achieve economic independence, so I earned a law degree. After serving 20 years as a member of our city council and state legislature, I have a chance now to roll up my sleeves and work with some very good people in building America’s next great city.
Baton Rouge, located along the Mississippi River, is home to two great universities, oil refineries, petrochemical plants and a growing class of creative musicians, artists, chefs and actors who are finding new opportunities through Louisiana’s lucrative movie tax credits. Those credits are behind our “Hollywood South” moniker.
In my first six months in office, I hired a new police chief; I also assembled a bipartisan lobbying team consisting of former Republican Congressman Bob Livingston and former Democratic Senator John Breaux and sent them to Washington to fight for federal funds that have been left on the table. We purchased the city’s first environmentally clean fleet cars for use by the Department of Public Works, launched a manager training program with the local community college to improve professionalism in government, began allowing city employees to volunteer in their kids’ schools, visited cities to look at light rail and mass transit options, expanded our plans for developing our Riverfront and completed a trade mission to Taiwan. Get the picture?
Obstacles and doubt have been placed between me and my goals at certain times in my life. Circumstances have repeatedly caused me to challenge the system, to choose my own destiny rather than the one that seemed the likely course. I never gave up on my dream, and now I’m living it. Keep your eye on Baton Rouge, La. We’re doing some great things.
Melvin “Kip” Holden is the first Black mayor of the city of Baton Rouge, La.
By Melvin “Kip” Holden