Fair Policies through Effective Redistricting

By Mike Sayer

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 p. 20

In 1992, a three-judge federal court in Mississippi approved a legislative redistricting plan that, in the court's words, created the "maximum number of electable black districts." As it approved the plan, the court denounced its creation in response to the demands of an organized black effort. The black population (37 percent of the state's total) was represented by the Mississippi Redistricting Coalition. The court made it clear that it accepted the plan only because the Coalition, comprised of statewide and local redistricting organizing groups and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, had convinced the legislature and both political parties that this was the only way to settle the case.

ter the plan was approved, Mississippi black voters turned out in record numbers in 1992 and doubled the number of black legislators from twenty-one to forty-two, a total of 24 percent of the state's 174 legislators.

Black voters also elected 30 percent of the state's county supervisors. The control of public policy and the expenditure of public funds by county supervisors is considered second only to that of the state legislature. The record black voter turnout was the result of the involvement of the black population in workshops and meetings to learn how redistricting works, in the work to draw the redistricting plans, in the efforts to push for the adoption of fair plans at public hearings and in legislative committee meetings, in the education of the public, the news media, and individual legislators as to what constitutes a fair redistricting plan, and in pushing for fair plans at the county and municipal levels.

In the 1995 regular legislative election, African Americans retained all of the forty-two seats they won in 1992 and added three more, to increase the size of the black caucus to forty-five, 26 percent of the legislative body. The black caucus held the balance of power on appropriations bills and other legislation, whenever it was unified.

Prior to the 1992 special election, the only success the Legislative Black Caucus achieved through unity around a public policy issue was a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. But in 1995 the caucus led the state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery. Although seemingly a symbolic victory, in Mississippi symbolism is also substance.

Beginning in 1995, the Caucus, pushed and supported by grassroots community organizations, consistently defeated efforts by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats to reverse the increase in black representation. It blocked moves to eliminate partisan political primaries, to create non-partisan primaries for all political offices, and to permit voters to vote in partisan political primaries regardless of party affliation. It also stopped efforts to reduce the size of the state legislature and the county boards of supervisors, a move that would have forced new redistricting and possibly undone the success in the 1991-1992 process.

The presence of this strong minority representation has had a great impact on public policy. In 1997, the state legislature, for the first time, injected $650 million over five years into public education. In 2000, the state legislature, under pressure from the grassroots Mississippi Education Working Group adopted provisions in the education accountability plan that requires parents and students to be actively involved in the formation, adoption, and implementation.

The involvement of grassroots black activists and groups in redistricting was the key to enabling the black population to elect accountable representatives in sufficient numbers to have an effect upon the formation of public policy at the state, county, and local levels.