Checking the Teeth of Change

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, p. 6

The obvious changes in Southern politics usually deserve our most intense suspicions, and Mississippi's recent democratic primary election for the state legislature is only the most recent reminder of this truism.

After fifteen years of litigation, the Mississippi legislature was forced by federal court order to redistrict in 1979. The redistricting plan created twenty-nine house districts and sixteen senate districts of more than fifty percent black population. Compared to the four blacks who were then sitting with a hundred and seventy white colleagues in the state legislature, the redistricting change prompted one black newspaper in the state to proclaim "a political revolution not witnessed in over a century."

In 1979 a total of seventeen blacks were elected to the Mississippi legislature. Earlier this year twenty-one were nominated in democratic primaries and will probably be elected in early November. But in 1984 there will still be twice as many majority black districts as there will be black legislators in Mississippi. While these changes are meaningful, Mississippi appears to have witnessed only half a political revolution.

"Not so," I was told, during my last trip to Mississippi, by a young white lawyer who considers himself both politically sophisticated and color blind. Commenting after three years spent away from the state in an East coast law school, he said: "We have had a revolution. Racial politics is almost dead in this state. Blacks don't need to vote for a black face every time. They will vote for whites who represent them and that's a real political change ...."

Some, however, see it differently. Robert Jackson, a young black with the Quitman County Development Organization, said, "we should have the right to select our own leaders but are being hampered by not having a fair chance at the ballot box. We are sick and tired of whites choosing our leaders for us."

While the interpretation of what has happened in Mississippi elections is not at all obvious, the plain fact is that black candidates ran and lost in more than forty-five majority black legislative districts in the Democratic primary this summer. Some black candidates lost because some blacks did vote for white candidates such as Speaker of the House Buddie Newman. Yet Newman's victory is not simon-pure evidence of the end of racial politics in Mississippi (see Bill Minor's article in this issue). In addition, several tainted factors continue to deny black people equal footing at the ballot box.

Some Mississippi counties have dual sites for registration. The places of registration still remain distant to most voters and are open at infrequent times. In the rural Delta of Mississippi, for example, the average black citizen must lose part of a day's work and travel an average of thirty-nine miles to register to vote. These problems are faced by both blacks and whites, but blacks more often than whites have difficulty in leaving their work to register and, because substantially fewer have automobiles, blacks find it more difficult to travel long distances to the polls and to registration sites.

The election-day turnout is also a factor in Mississippi election results. Blacks continue to turn out for elections in smaller percentages than whites. Lack of transportation is one reason. Another important reason, often overlooked, is historical: the average black Mississippian was permitted to vote so recently that he has had an opportunity to vote in only three or four presidential elections. Blacks in Mississippi thus have only a short tradition of political participation to help them overcome real or remembered acts of intimidation for voting.

These explanations prompt an almost universal response from white rural legislators from Virginia to Mississippi: "What more do they want? The courts have given blacks majority of the population in the districts."

Here lies the common misunderstanding and misrepresentation about redistricting in the South. In Mississippi, what appears to be a majority black district often is not. Blacks have a majority of the total population in the Mississippi senate district that includes Quitman County. Yet in rural Mississippi, and in much of the rural South, the black population is very old or very young. Hence, a fifty-four percent black district is reduced by about seven percentage points because of the difference between the percentage of the general population of voting age and the percentage of blacks who are of voting age. Hence a fifty-four percent black district is in fact a forty-seven percent black district of voting age population.

Black voting strength may be further reduced by another seven percentage points because of the difference in registration between blacks and whites. Here, the problem of dual registration, distance, and a short history of political participation take their toll. Thus a candidate in this Mississippi district of fifty-five percent black population can expect that forty-one percent of those voting will be black. When all the subtracting is done, the number of legislative districts in Mississippi where black voters are in the actual majority is probably no more than twenty. This difference of almost fifteen percentage points is why civil rights lawyers active in voting cases often assume that a legislative district that is less than sixty-five percent black is not a district where the black population has a majority of those voting.

Misunderstanding the nature of change in the region's politics is one of the ancient temptations. With peculiar legalisms and political shorthand, the nature of political change is also easily manipulated in the public understanding. The folk wisdom, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," is worth remembering in these days of changing Southern politics.

Steve Suitts is the executive director of the Southern Regional Council.