Changing Politics in Mississippi
By JoAnn Klein
Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 5-6
Mississippi ― fresh from legislative reapportionment designed to better reflect racial composition of voting age population – became the state with the greatest number of Black elected officials in elections November 6. Long a hotbed of racial conflict and struggle, the Deep South state took over the top spot from Louisiana by electing record numbers of Blacks to county offices and four-year legislative terms.
In addition, William Winter, a former lieutenant governor, was elected governor by a 2-to-l majority. Winter, a three time candidate for the chief executive’s slot, lost his first gubernatorial contest because he was considered too moderate on racial matters.
Seventeen Blacks won seats in the Mississippi Legislature, an increase from six in the 1979 session. In the 122-member House of Representatives, Blacks will comprise 12.2 percent of the membership. Fifteen Black candidates, all Democrats, won seats in the lower chamber. Four are from Hinds County, the state’s most populous county and the location of Jackson, the state capitol.
Black state Rep. Robert Clark of Lexington in rural Holmes County, is expected to retain his chairmanship of the House Education Committee. Two years ago, Clark became the first Black committee chairman since Reconstruction. He is also the senior Black legislator, entering his fourth term.
Black House members also include state NAACP president Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, who doubles as co-chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party; Meridian NAACP president Charles Young and Jackson NAACP president Fred Banks, a leading candidate to become Mississippi’s first Black federal judge.
A result of a 14-year fight to reapportion the legislature, the increased Black membership comes from across the state, from north to south, east to west.
Across the hall in the state Senate, two Blacks will join the 52-member body. Both are Hinds County Democrats and will become the second and third Black senators in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Doug Anderson, presently a state representative, and Henry Kirksey, principal plaintiff in the reapportionment case, will make 3.8 percent of the upper chamber Black.
However, with all the Black gains, there was at least one major setback. The state’s most famous Black senate candidate – Fayette mayor Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medger Evers – was stopped in his effort to win a senate seat in four counties along the Mississippi River.
With the legislative victories, Black elected officials in Mississippi neared the 350 mark. That figure was buoyed by the re-election of 15 incumbent Black supervisors, who run county governments in the state’s 82 counties. Blacks picked up supervisors posts in Claiborne, Holmes, Yazoo and Hinds counties.
In Hinds County, two Blacks will sit on the five-member supervisors’ board. They are the first Black members since Reconstruction. Both defeated long-time incumbents.
At the same time, Blacks won sheriff’s post previously held by Whites in Claiborne, Marshall and Holmes counties. All three counties have predominantly Black populations.
Along with local and legislative races, the 1979 gubernatorial election also reflected a change in Mississippi politics.
Winter won the Democratic nomination without the support of former U.S. Sen. James 0. Eastland, Mississippi’s chief political kingpen for three decades. In addition, Eastland’s longtime political organization didn’t back Winter until he had won the party nomination.
As a result, Winter is not expected to choose from the Eastland favorites when he makes several hundred appointments that befall a new governor.
Winter’s election also purged former supporters of George Wallace from the ranks of the Democratic Party hierarchy. Party Vice Chairman Jan Little and secretary George Winborne switched to support Republican nominee Gil Carmichael.
More moderate members of the Democratic Party had been trying to rid themselves of the Wallacites for years and believe they’ve finally driven them into the more conservative Republican ranks.
In addition, Carmichael’s nomination was also a victory for more moderate Republicans. Carmichael, who angered GOP conservatives in 1976 by supporting Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan for the party’s presidential nomination, defeated Leon Bramlett, hand-picked by the State’s Reagan following.
Mississippi’s new governor has thus far stayed out of presidential politics. However, Winter stumped the state for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Immediately after the election, Winter said his support of President Kennedy doesn’t mean he’ll endorse Sen. Edward Kennedy this year.
JoAnn Klein is a political reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.