Earle, Ark. Mayor Jaylen Smith: “There are great challenges to overcome in Earle…. But there are great possibilities as well. God told me to run. It must be for some purpose He wants to accomplish.” (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

What happens when a hopeful and ambitious seventh grader begins to imagine the possibilities for growth and revitalization in his small, impoverished hometown?

Eighteen-year-old Jaylen Smith answered that question on Dec. 6 when he won a mayoral runoff election for mayor in Earle, Arkansas. He was sworn in Jan. 1, becoming the youngest African-American mayor in the nation.

Earle, with a population of about 1,800 residents, is on U.S. 64 about 30 miles northwest of Memphis. Seventy-two percent of the residents are African American. The poverty rate is 25.7 percent.

His election garnered a profile published in The New York Times.

Smith came to Memphis Sunday (Jan. 8) as a special guest at The 30th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Awards Program for Outstanding Students/Community Role Models.

Smith congratulated honorees and encouraged both students and role models to continue striving for greater achievements.

“Mayor Smith was here spreading good will from the city of Earle,” said awards program founder Johnnie Mosley. “We invited him to come and give remarks to our honorees. He was so inspiring, to the students especially. But everyone was very impressed. Mayor Smith is no ordinary 18-year-old.”

Tyler Lewellen, widely recognized as a young, gifted classical pianist, received “Student of the Year” at this year’s Dr. King Commemorative Awards Program. 

Lewellen found Smith’s words especially inspiring.

Tyler Lewellen displayed his piano skills at The 30th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Awards Program for Outstanding Students/Community Role Models. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

“Mayor Smith made a lasting impression on me because of the way he spoke and the way he carried himself,” said Lewellen. “We got the feeling that although he is only 18, he knows what he is doing. He specifically told us young people to listen to our parents, even if we don’t want to sometimes because they have our best interests at heart.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is the mayor, and he still listens to his parents.’ That really gave us something to think about. As we get older, sometimes we might think our parents don’t really understand us. But Mayor Smith said parents do understand. They tell us things for our good. This made me appreciate my parents even more.”

The teen’s election turned fresh eyes on the decaying, blighted town, once thriving with lumber mills, a shoe factory, a busy railroad depot, a supermarket, and a flourishing farm industry.

Now, much of the 3.25-sq.-mile town stands a mere shadow of its former self.

But that’s all going to change, if you ask Smith.

“There is always work to do as the new mayor,” said Smith. “I have meetings, college, and so many other things that come with being the mayor. Things can change. I want to build more housing, affordable housing, and bring another grocery store. Transportation and public safety are also concerns.”

As an active member of his Earle High School Student Government Association, Smith saw firsthand what advocacy with government leaders could do. 

“We made a difference in the community by advocating for senior citizens who had no access to transportation to the doctor or grocery store,” said Smith. “We went to the city council and spoke up for better housing and public safety. The Student Government Association drove me to the place where I am now.”

By the time Smith entered his senior year, he began wearing suits to school because “you have to dress like you’re going somewhere,” he said. Otherwise, he was a typical high school senior. He attended senior prom and participated with friends in other senior activities.

Mayor Jaylen Smith of Earle, Ark. is 18 and the youngest African-American serving as mayor in the nation. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Smith said he “prayed about running for mayor,” asked friends what they thought, and sought the counsel of family members.

“They told me to go for it,” said Smith. By the time Smith graduated in May, he was running a vigorous campaign for the office of mayor.

I knocked on doors,” said Smith. “Some people encouraged me because I was young with fresh ideas. Others said I was too young. And so, I asked, ‘What if it was your child or grandchild?’ They said they would support them. I told them this was no different. Young people can change things, and we have to start somewhere.”

Smith would later say his victory was the result of working harder than your opponents. But also, there is something to be said for dreaming, too.

His hopeful outlook was contagious as he talked about bringing in a supermarket, building up the Earle Police Department into a 24-hour operation, and expanding public transportation.

In the Nov. 8 General Election, Smith faced four other candidates, but did not garner the required 51 percent majority of the vote. He handily won a Dec. 6 runoff.

There was great celebration in Earle among Smith’s family and supporters. National news outlets sought out the savvy, young mayor-elect. There were regional news interviews focusing not only on Smith’s win, but on his vision for a revitalized, thriving Earle.

Even with the significant loss of population from more than 3,000 in the 1990s, to approximately 1,800 presently, Smith still feels that the one thing Earle has is potential.

“There are great challenges to overcome in Earle,” said Smith. “But there are great possibilities as well. God told me to run. It must be for some purpose He wants to accomplish. I am excited about our future.”

Smith continues online studies at Arkansas State University Mid-South, while balancing his mayoral duties. He aspires to become a prosecutor one day.