Grassroots Groups in Mississippi Are Pushing for Representation in Local Office

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 Mississippian.

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 Dobbscase that the Supreme Court used as its ruling Roe v. Wade, came out of Mississippi,” he said.

During the 1950s, and 1960s, Black people organized all over the South to demand equality and freedom. These local campaigns led to the August 1963 national March on Washington.

Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous address “I Have a Dream” Speech delivered on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in front 250,000 people on 28 August. 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 cooling themselves off in the Reflecting pool. Much of the “I Have a Dream” part of King’s historic address was extemporaneous. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. The Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965.

That’s history. It is also true that Mississippi has not elected a Black person for statewide office.

Mississippi under Jim Crow

Mississippi had two-part elections until 2020. 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 nation that elected state officials in this manner. According to Emily Pettus from 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 electoral districts that packed Blacks into smaller districts could guarantee some electoral victories, but it also reduced Black political power overall as Black voters were diluted by white voters in more white districts. Pettus stated that Black candidates would need a higher percentage of the statewide voter to win majority House districts.

For any of these eight statewide offices, it has never happened.

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

The legislature was given an opportunity to rectify the situation by Daniel P. Jordan III, United States District Judge. It was approved by 78% of the votes in the 2020 general elections. Beginning in November 2023, the Mississippi House won’t be able to decide the winner of state-level elections. If there is no winner, run-off election will be held.

Mississippi Gerrymandered Congressional & State Electoral Maps

While a Black candidate may win the 2023 statewide office, the Republican Party controls both the offices of governor, secretary and attorney general as well as both chambers of the state legislative.

In 2021, the legislature established a redistricting panel that was dominated primarily by Republicans who made maps for the full legislature.

“That committee met three times in public for a total of 45 minutes. They convened the committee and appointed its members. They also 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. Because District 2 has more Black voters, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-District 2) will have a better chance of winning in November.

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 is the Chair of the House Committee investigating the January 6th incident Attack on the Capitol, will likely again be the only Black congressman in Mississippi. That means that 58 per cent of the population will likely have three White Congressmen and 38 per cent of the population will have Thompson.

Mississippi’s state legislative maps were also unfair. According to the 2020 Census the Mississippi state legislative maps were also unfair. Badat stated that, although both maps were adopted, legal challenges have been filed. The fight for fair representation will continue in the courts.

Mississippi’s Redistricting Battles Shift to Grassroots

Activists are fighting for fair representation on South South school boards, city councils, or county boards.

“We do see some victories in Mississippi. We know that fighting wins. 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 the Executive Director at One Voice is a statewide leadership and policy advocacy organization. She stated that while voting rights are at the heart of any social justice work in Mississippi they also play a role in education, criminal and environmental justice.

In 2021, activists successfully changed the Mississippi state flag to show a magnolia bloom instead of a 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 Harrison County school districts know that they wanted to participate in the process. The district later changed its mind and made it open 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 revealed that Clinton was a Jackson suburb where the number of Blacks voting age had significantly increased. The NAACP presented an alternative map, based on these numbers. The map was adopted and the result was that the first Black alderman was elected since 1985.

Lambright-Haynes stated that they have small victories to sustain their work and that the key to success was to keep people involved.

This article was first published in the Tennessee Tribune.