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Grassroots Groups in Mississippi Are Pushing for Representation in Local Office

Mississippi has never elected a Black person to statewide office to this day.

Tonja Murphy, community volunteer, holds the retired state flag outside the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi, on July 1, 2020.

Nashville, Tennessee — The modern Civil Rights Movement began when Rosa Parks refused to ride in the back of the bus which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955; in 1957 the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School in Arkansas; the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter boycott started in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spread to other places like Nashville, Tennessee; after their bus was bombed in Alabama, 13 Freedom Riders reached Jackson, Mississippi in May, 1961.

“Mississippi has historically been almost a predictor of what happens in other parts of the country,” said Amir Badat, Voting Special Counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. He is a native of Meridian, Mississippi.

Badat said during the Reconstruction Period, the Mississippi Plan and later, the state’s 1890 constitution, were used by other states to suppress Black civic participation and Black progress across the country.

“And we’re seeing the same things happening today. Look at the fight that we’re having with abortion. The Dobbs case that the Supreme Court used to overrule Roe v. Wade, came out of Mississippi,” he said.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Black people organized in different places all over the South for freedom and equality. Those local campaigns led to the national March on Washington in August, 1963.

Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 250,000 people on August 28. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it was muggy and the packed crowd increased the temperature in front of the memorial. People were soaking their feet in the Reflecting Pool to cool off. Much of the “I Have a Dream” part of King’s historic address was extemporaneous. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

That much is history. What is also true: Mississippi has never elected a Black person to statewide office to this day.

How Jim Crow Ruled Mississippi

Until 2020 Mississippi had a two-part process for statewide elections. Candidates for eight offices­ — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, insurance commissioner, and agriculture commissioner — had to win both the popular vote and the electoral vote by getting the most votes in a majority of the 122 House districts.

Mississippi was the only state in the country that chose state officials this way. According to Emily Pettus of the Associated Press, “If no candidate won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, the race was decided by the state House. Because representatives were not obligated to vote as their districts did, an election could be decided by deal-making or even by the whim of a lawmaker who disagreed with the majority of voters in his or her own district.”

Gerrymandered election districts which packed Blacks into fewer districts guaranteed some electoral victories for Black candidates but reduced Black political power overall because Black voters were diluted in majority white districts. Pettus said that Black candidates needed a higher share of the statewide vote to win a majority of House districts.

That has never happened for any of those eight statewide offices in Mississippi.

In 2019, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a federal lawsuit for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The NAACP, One Voice, and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute joined the lawsuit. Their complaint was that the Mississippi method for electing officials violated the “one man one vote” principle of the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III gave the legislature a chance to remedy the situation by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It passed with 78% of the vote in the 2020 general election. Beginning November 2023, the Mississippi House will have no role in deciding the winner in statewide state-level elections. If there is no clear winner, run-off elections will be held.

Gerrymandered Congressional and State Electoral Maps in Mississippi

While a Black candidate may win a statewide office in 2023 for the first time, the Republican Party controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and both chambers of the state legislature.

In 2021 the legislature put together a redistricting committee dominated by Republicans who proposed maps to the full legislature.

“That committee met three times in public for a total of 45 minutes. They convened the committee, appointed its members, adopted criteria, and adopted maps. So almost all of the work that went into producing these maps happened behind closed doors without the involvement of Mississippi’s Black legislators,” Badat said.

Those maps gerrymandered all four of Mississippi’s congressional districts. Congressman Bennie Thompson (D, District 2) will have an easier time winning in November because more Black voters have been included in District 2.

But those voters will no longer be in District 3 and that decreases the chances of it becoming a minority-majority district even though Blacks make up 38 percent of the state’s population, the largest percentage of African Americans in any state.

Thompson, who chairs the House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol, will likely be the only Black congressman from Mississippi again. And that means 58 percent of the population that is white will likely have three white Congressmen and 38 percent of the population that is Black will have Thompson.

Mississippi’s state legislative maps were also unfair. According to the 2020 Census, although the percentage of the Black population increased in Mississippi, it did not gain Black majority districts in the state legislative maps. Badat said that although both maps have been adopted, legal challenges have been filed and the fight for fair representation will continue to be fought in the courts.

Mississippi’s Redistricting Battles Shift to Grassroots

Meanwhile, activists are pushing for fair representation on school boards, city councils, and county boards across the South.

“We do see some victories in Mississippi. We know that when we fight we win. And we started based on the premise that when we get people active and we make sure they have the tools and skills to participate, they can effectively impact social policy,” said Nsombi Lambright-Haynes.

She is Executive Director of One Voice, a statewide leadership development and policy advocacy organization. She said that voting rights is at the core of any kind of social justice work in Mississippi but they are also involved with education, criminal justice, and environmental issues.

Activists successfully changed the Mississippi state flag in 2021 that now shows a magnolia flower instead of a confederate cross.

“Harrison County has been one of those places where citizens have continued to stay engaged,” said Lambright-Haynes. It is in the southernmost part of the state along the Gulf Coast and includes Gulfport, the state’s second largest city.

“The school district said there was not going to be an open process. It was really a fight about transparency and making sure community folks understood,” Lambright-Haynes said.

People let the Harrison County school district know they wanted to be involved in the process and the district changed its mind and opened it up to the public. In addition, Gulfport’s minority population had increased in the 2020 Census and activists worked to get a third minority member on the city council.

The 2010 census showed that in Clinton, a Jackson suburb, the number of voting age Blacks had increased significantly. The NAACP submitted an alternative map based on those numbers, the map was adopted, and the result was the election of first Black city alderman since 1985.

With such small victories to sustain them, Lambright-Haynes said that their work never stops and the key to success is to keep people engaged.

This article first appeared in the Tennessee Tribune.

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