Delta Politics and the Almost Possible

By Rims Barber

Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 4-7

During the recent redistricting process, black leaders felt that it would be impossible for a black candidate to


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win Mississippi's Second Congressional District as it ultimately came to be drawn. The narrow black population majority makes victory a very long shot for even the exceptional campaign conducted with careful consideration of racial relationships. Yet when Delta Congressman David Bowen chose not to seek re-election in the newly drawn district, black state representative Robert Clark ran and almost won.

Robert Clark was an ideal candidate for the campaign. In 1967 he became the first black elected to the Mississippi legislature since Reconstruction. He has served with distinction as Chairman of the House Education Committee. Clark has name recognition. He brought to the campaign political experience that had earned trust, solid relations with education and labor organizations and a claim on the white Democratic leadership that few could match. The closeness of the race (twelve hundred votes out of 145,000) was in large part attributable to the qualities of the candidate himself.

The District is 53.4% black in overall population. Black voting age population is forty-eight percent. Estimates of registered voters show black strength at forty-four percent. This means that it will take a solid black vote, at or near record proportions, and a high white crossover vote for a black Democratic candidate to win. In Mississippi, black candidates under most circumstances may expect to garner only two to three percent of the white vote. Clark received twelve to thirteen percent of the white vote.

Considering the closeness of the race, almost any shift of counties during reapportionment would have made a significant difference. Had the district not been gerrymandered to preserve the incumbency of First District Congressman Jamie Whitten, Tallahatchie County could have been traded for the two whitest counties (Choctaw and Webster) and Clark could have won. He lost these two small counties by more than the difference between himself and the winner, Republican Webb Franklin. In similar fashion, Franklin won Warren County by more than the final difference


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between the candidates. A split of Warren, similar to that made for state legislative districts would have shifted enough votes, as would a trade that put a small portion of northern Hinds into the Second District.

Victory in the spring, 1982, Democratic primary was crucial. Clark won without a runoff although he had little more than one thousand white votes. A runoff would have been disastrous: there would have been little time to mobilize additional black voters, white support that appeared in the general election would not have materialized for the runoff, and further racial polarization within the party would have occurred. There is a high probability that Clark would have lost a runoff and that blacks would have bolted the Democratic party.

The November general election attracted the second best black voter turnout ever; the highest occurred in the 1980 Presidential election. This time the vote was approximately ninety percent of that record turnout, with between 65,000 and 67,000 black voters. It was thirty percent higher than the turnout for the last off-year election, in which Charles Evers was the drawing card for the black electorate. Approximately forty-two percent of the voting age population of blacks turned out while in 1980 it was forty-five percent. Anything over sixty thousand is exceptional in this geographical area.

The black vote went overwhelmingly for Robert Clark by a margin of ninety-four percent, slightly less than the ninety-six percent bloc vote that Jimmy Carter received in 1980.

There were however, some areas of black weakness. Five counties, historically low in turnout, had less than forty percent of their black voting age population to vote: Coahoma, Sunflower, Tunica, Warren and Washington. Sunflower had the lowest at twenty-eight percent. These five counties contain about forty 'percept of the black voting age population in the District. Clearly, there is need for voter registration work.

There was a strong white turnout, about ten thousand more voters than had been predicted. As a percentage of the white voting age population, the turnout was about forty-eight percent (compared with fifty-seven percent in the 1980 Presidential race). Approximately 81,000 whites voted (compared to 95,000 in 1980 and seventy thousand in 1978). Doubtless, racial overtones helped the white turnout.

Robert Clark received about twelve to thirteen percent of the white vote. This varied from over twenty percent in counties like Attala and Webster to five and six percent in Coahoma, Leflore and Tunica. In the Hill counties, it appears that Clark received a better white vote in rural areas than in the towns. In the Delta, Clark did better in towns than in rural areas. The work of education and labor groups and the Democratic party paid off with significant numbers of whites voting for the candidate regardless of race. This was a brave first step for several thousand white voters.

The white vote in the District, however, has become increasingly Republican over the past few years. This has been most pronounced when there has been a high white turnout; almost all of the added turnout has been Republican. Historically, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among white voters has been one to two.

Over the last half dozen years, this has shifted to one Democrat for every three Republican whites. And in 1982, half of this diminished number of Democrats voted Republican.

A close contest is painful to lose and prompts a lot o. second guessing. But the challenge in the Second District of Mississippi is to build the coalition that can bring victory and adequate representation for the District's people. Certainly, some factors would have made the difference in November's outcome:

  • Had the District been constituted with a slightly higher percentage of black voters.
  • Had the black voter turnout matched the record of two years ago (and it might in 1984 if Reagan runs for reelection).
  • Had the black bloc vote been just two percentage points more consistent.
  • Had the white vote not been stirred by the opponent and voted in such strong numbers.
  • Had a greater number of whites been able to leap the racial barrier and vote their usual Democratic pattern.

Other factors, not so demonstrable, could also have made a difference: had there been a stronger Democratic party structure across the District; had the coalition across racial lines been built more solidly; had there been less fragmentation in the campaign; clearer lines of communication, less conflict over strategies; had there been more clear Democratic programmatic alternatives consistently put before the voter; had more effort been targeted at the weak black turnout areas.

The fact is that the election was so close that almost any favorable change in reapportionment, registration turnout or Democratic party loyalty could have altered. the results. Of particular importance, however, is a strengthened and deepened partnership with blacks and whites in the campaign. There are questions to answer about campaign strategies: How can white and black staff be better coordinated so that both races feel a participation and ownership in the cause? Can campaign appeals be made to one racial community without agitating the other--would a traditional black rally to increase voter turnout scare off potential white voters? How should time be budgeted to produce the best results--how much time ought to be spent on the ten to fifteen percent of the white vote that a black candidate might get?

Across the lines of race there is, at present, a growing sense of interdependence in Mississippi's Second District. Both blacks and whites are understanding that the kind of education provided their children makes a difference to everybody; that health care, from Medicare to the building of hospitals, makes a difference to everybody; that economic development and the survival of farming make a difference to everybody.

Out of Holmes County in the Second District in 1982 came both the Eddie Garthan trial and congressional candidate Robert Clark. Carthan's case stood for recent black attempts to gain local political power in the face of the long history of white supremacy (see "Black Political Participation and the Challenge of Conservatism," in Southern Changes, August/September 1982). Clark's. candidacy gave hope for a new future of inter-racial


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politics. For a while, past and future came together in Holmes County. In a room of the county courthouse, the Carthan case was suspended one day so the election could be conducted. As things turned out, Carthan was acquitted and Robert Clark lost by one percent of the total vote. Clark says he is "inclined to try again."

Rims Barber is project director for the Childrens' Defense Fund in Mississippi. He is a member of the Southern Regional Council and has been active in civil rights issue in Mississippi for eighteen years.