White Politics in a Black Land
By Bill Minor
Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 1-5, 7-9
It was the sort of affair which a few years ago would have been unthinkable in Mississippi: an NAACP fundraising luncheon in Vicksburg, the Civil War “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” and almost half the crowd consisted of white politicians, eager to make points with local black leaders and pay their respects to Dr. Benjamin Hooks, the NAACP national director.
Among the white politicians on hand was State Representative Clarence Benton “Buddie” Newman, the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, the man whom many regard as the most powerful figure in Mississippi government. Newman’s legislative district has been altered as a result of recent reapportionment to include a section of the suburbs of Vicksburg (embracing several north Warren (County white residential areas), as well as his longtime political base–the two tiny cotton and soybean plantation counties of Sharkey and Issaquena–tucked in a bend of the Mississippi River.
For most of the thirty-six years that the stubby, bespectacled Newman has served in the legislature he has been one of the most influential lawmakers in suppressing civil rights for blacks. His role as a close advisor to Governor Ross Barnett during the 1962 James Meredith crisis at the University of Mississippi has never been widely known, but insiders to that sad episode of state history say that Newman advocated the most extreme of the measures taken by Barnett to defy federal authority.
By trading some of their influence for black support, old time segregationist politicians in Mississippi such as Newman have displayed an amazing agility in adapting to an integrated political milieu without losing any of the power they had back in the days of segregation. Even in a number of legislative districts with decided black majorities, black candidates have found that it is often
impossible to win against seasoned white politicians who can shrewdly maneuver the black vote.
Now, at age sixty-two, the raspy-voiced erstwhile soybean farmer from Valley Park is at the top of a political system in Mississippi in which the legislative branch dominates state government, virtually holding governors hostage in their ceremonial office in the magnificent eighty-year-old capitol building in Jackson.
At the Vicksburg NAACP luncheon, Newman was seated at the head table close to Dr. Hooks. The affair came just a few days before the August 2 Democratic primary in Mississippi, wherein Newman had drawn surprisingly stiff opposition from a thirty-six year old white woman accountant named Phyllis Farragut.
Ms. Farragut, known for her activity in the League of Women Voters and the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, is highly regarded in the Vicksburg black community for her demonstrated social concerns. She had come to the luncheon at the invitation of several local NAACP leaders who privately had given her assurances of support in her race with Newman.
Longtime Mississippi civil rights leader Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, state president of the NAACP, and for the past three years a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, was asked to say a few words at the Vicksburg luncheon. To the amazement of the local NAACP leaders, Henry turned his remarks into a virtual endorsement of Buddie Newman for reelection.
“This is MY speaker,” said the sixty-year-old Henry, “through the years we’ve developed a wonderful working relationship.” The bitter irony is that in years past, Henry had picketed outside the State Capitol against many of the repressive laws which Newman helped to pass to keep blacks out of the political process.
Capping off the event, the evangelistic Hooks stirred the two hundred blacks present to shore up the NAACP as a civil rights force in Mississippi and challenged everybody, including the white politicians, to match his twenty dollar contribution to the Vicksburg chapter. Among the first to come forward and plank down his twenty dollar bill was Buddie Newman.
Perhaps the episode at the Vicksburg luncheon was a precursor of what would happen in Farragut’s campaign to unseat Newman with the help of the black vote in Sharkey and Issaquena Counties. The 1980 population census showed Sharkey with 65.7 percent black population and Issaquena with 55.7 percent.
“We really worked hard trying to get black votes in Sharkey and Issaquena counties. A lot of black persons there were very nice to me and seemed to be sympathetic to my campaign,” Ms. Farragut said later, “But a week before the election, I realized we hadn’t gotten to first base.”
Every time she spoke with some influential black in the two counties, Newman would come along behind her and find out what problems the black person might be having. . . with the PIK program or Social Security, and the like. “Then Newman would pull his strings and get the person’s problem taken care of,” said Farragut. “I couldn’t do anything like that.”
When the votes were counted on the night of August 2, Farragut and Newman had run almost a deadheat in Warren County, only twelve votes separating them. But in the two black-majority counties of Sharkey and Issaquena, Newman piled up his winning margin of nineteen hundred votes, getting almost ninety percent of,` the black vote.
“What was so discouraging is that my candidacy offered a choice for the first time between the old ways and a new way,” she related. “It was the old way that had given them a thirty-two percent illiteracy rate in those two counties and held back the state. We offered them a change.”
Farragut also came out of the election experience disenchanted with black leader Aaron Henry, whom she said had given her strong indications at the beginning of her candidacy that he would use his influence to help her. “He is one person I will always be wary of,” she declared.
Newman considers himself a “farmer” because of the several hundred acre soybean and cotton farm he has lived on and operated for a number of years in the tiny village of Valley Park. But for at least twenty-five years he has been on the payroll of Southern Natural Gas Company, a gas transmission line based in Birmingham, which maintains a pumping station in Valley Park. Variously, Newman has described his connection with Southern Natural as that ,of “public relations” or “industrial development” representative.
Because Newman has only rarely performed any visible function for Southern Natural (once or twice he has gone before the state tax commission seeking to hold down the company’s tax assessment in Mississippi), it is widely assumed that he must be one of the “friends” that Southern Natural’s president, Peter G. Smith, referred to
in remarks before the Alaska Public Service Commission several years ago. At the time, Southern Natural Gas was seeking rights to the trans-Alaskan pipeline. and Smith bragged about the influential buddies the company had in Southern legislatures, specifically referring to Mississippi.
When Ms. Farragut raised the issue of Newman’s questionable relationship with the natural gas utility company during the election campaign, Newman explained it away by saying “everyone knows I give my salary (from Southern Natural) to charity during the months the legislature is in session.” The Mississippi legislature raised the salary of the Speaker of the House to $34,500 in 1980, on the premise that the job was fulltime.
Newman’s formal education consists of high school and a year and a half at a junior college before he went into the Army in World War II. After the war, he was elected to the Mississippi State Senate from Issaquena County, becoming part of the. “Class of 1948” which is looked upon as one of the brightest group of freshman legislators ever to sit in Jackson. Newman, however, was not one of those who showed signs of providing a more moderate, intellectual leadership for the future.
He began his climb to political power when he moved over to the Mississippi House in 1952 and became one of the young lieutenants in the Old Guard of then Speaker Walter Sillers, a courtly Delta plantation statesman-lawyer. With Sillers in mind, William Winter, the current governor and another member of the Class of ’48, had written in A History of Mississippi, compiled in 1973: “Although the office of speaker is less glamorous than that of governor, the real power in Mississippi lies with the legislature.” Sillers is still regarded as the most powerful single legislative figure of this century, in a career that spanned fifty years in the Mississippi House.
In the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948, when Mississippi Democrats, along with those of three other Southern states, bolted the ranks of the National Democratic Party and voted for the States’ Rights ticket of Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright, one of the chief architects of the movement was the grey-maned Sillers. The 1948 bolt put Mississippi on a course of alienation from the national party that would last for the next quarter century, finally ending in a unified bi-racial party in 1976.
During the latter half of the 1950s, following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Sillers and his loyal followers in the Mississippi House ran roughshod over the then moderate governor, J. P. Coleman, who, though a supporter of segregation, opposed putting the state on a collision course with the federal government.
When Coleman sought a new state constitution in late 1957 to replace the state’s 1890 document, the Sillers forces, with Newman a leading spear-carrier, soundly repelled the Coleman effort, implying that he was seeking to undermine the foundation of the state’s segregated society. Instead of a new constitution, the Delta conservatives pushed through a constitutional amendment providing that the legislature by a majority vote could abolish public schools if they were ever integrated.
A quarter of a century later, Mississippi still has its same antiquated constitution. Newman. who became Speaker of the House in 1974, has been one of those largely responsible for perpetuating the old document with its school abolition provision and a one-term limitation on governors, putting chief executives at a distinct disadvantage in dealing with the legislature.
For years, the legislature has been encroaching upon the executive branch of government in Mississippi, putting lawmakers by statute on the most powerful state boards and commissions. When the state’s attorney general, Bill Allain, precipitated a showdown with the lawmakers last year, Newman rallied the legislative forces to resist by going to court with their own attorney, a Newman crony.
A lower court judge ruled last January that the lawmakers were violating the state constitutional provision on separation of powers, and the case is now pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court. In the meantime, Allain has become the Democratic nominee for governor and is heavily favored to win the November 8 general election.
In the Mississippi House, the Speaker apoints all committees, even designating the chairs and vice-chairs. On key committees, almost invariable, Newman’s most loyal lieutenants sit in charge: Representative H. I,. “Sonny” Merideth of Greenville, his closest confidante, on Ways and Means; Representative Ed “Stump” Perry of Oxford, on Appropriations, and Representative Jim Simpson of Long Beach on Rules. With a brief word or even a nod from Newman, these chairmen know which bills “Mr. Speaker” wants brought out or left to die in their committees. Since the committee chairs control which bills will be considered and which will not, they hold the power of life and death over legislation.
Under the “deadline” system for considering legislation, which the Old Guard pushed through in the early ’70s (and which is now untouchable), a convenient graveyard is provided for three-fourths of the bills introduced at each session before they get any real consideration.
And, when a committee fails to stop some measure Mr. Speaker doesn’t want, he has other devices–his Rules Committee which can put bills up or down on the calendar, or his own gavel.
With the fall of his gavel, Newman, in the 1982 session,
choked off a drive launched by Governor William Winter to create the state’s first system of free public kindergartens. Winter hoped to fund the kindergartens with an increase in the state’s severance tax on oil and gas production, a tax which had remained unchanged since 1944. Not surprisingly, Newman has been a longtime foe of increased oil and gas tax.
Newman had taken refuge on the kindergarten issue for several years by saying that the only way he could support kindergartens was if they were funded largely by local school districts. Yet, because of a taxation straitjacket placed upon school districts by the legislature, such a system of funding was virtually impossible.
Kindergartens had also become a last line of defense among oldtime segregationists in the Mississippi Legislature who privately regarded the proposed system as “nothing but a babysitting service for black kids.”
With the kindergarten bill awaiting action on the House calendar, Newman called for a voice vote on adjournment which would have the effect of killing the measure. Despite a heavy chorus of “no’s,” Newman rapped the gavel and ruled the House adjourned. He then stalked off the podium, amid shouts by kindergarten backers for a roll call vote.
Newman’s action brought down upon him the wrath of public school forces as never before and became a focal point four months later for an ABC-TV 20/20 feature making him the culprit for depriving children in the nation’s most educationally deprived state of the opportunity to attend kindergartens. The 20/20 segment tied Newman’s outside interest as a gas company representative to his willingness to kill kindergarten.
The ABC show forced a turn-around in Newman’s attitude and triggered a succession of events which, in a winter special session, culminated in the passage of the Educational Reform Act of 1982.
Newman, stung by national exposure, created a special House committee to draft the school reform act containing the features wanted by Governor Winter, together with a financing plan. To the surprise of critics, the House committee brought forth a package which included an increase in the oil-gas tax, plus a laundry list of other tax hikes providing $140 million for the education measure.
What some have termed the “Christmas miracle” in Mississippi happened in mid-December, 1982 when the Educational Reform Act won enactment after unprecedented editorial pressure from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, which later won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts. The final version of the financing plan, however, eliminated any oil-gas tax increase, and shifted most of the burden to consumers through a one-half cent increase in the state sales tax. (Mississippi does not exempt groceries from the sales tax, thus placing a large portion of the tax increase on the poor.) Nonetheless, the way opened for Mississippi public kindergartens by 1986 and for other education improvements. (See “Mississippi Makes Up Its Mind,” Southern Changes, March/April 1983.)
The arrogance of Newman in killing the kindergarten bill in 1982 precipitated formation of a statewide bi-racial organization called “Mississippi First” to elect a more progressive legislature. Out of this came Ms. Farragut’s candidacy and a dozen or more foes for Old Guardsmen. While Mississippi First failed to unseat Newman, it did manage to topple seven of his committee chairmen and remove some other deadwood members.
How Newman, despite his old identity as a strong racist in the heyday of the white Citizens Councils and afterwards, has been able to establish rapport with the black power structure is one of the Mississippi political anomalies which Ms. Farragut discovered at first hand.
It was not until the early 1970s, after black voting strength began to show in Mississippi politics, that Newman discovered any need to communicate with blacks, even though he had always represented a black majority population area.
His first perceptible move came in 1974 when he shrewdly outmaneuvered several other able legislators to gain the House speakership. As one of those to nominate him for the post, Newman picked Representative Robert Clark of Ebenezer, who, in 1967, had become the first black member of the Mississippi Legislature since 1888. Three years later when the chairmanship of the House Education Committee became vacant, Newman rewarded Clark with the post.
Perhaps the true indication of how much Newman trusted Clark to pass on major education matters came afterwards when Newman began referring such measures to both the Education Committee and the Appropriations Committee–headed by a faithful lieutenant of the Speaker.
The most powerful black figure in Newman’s home county of Issaquena is Mayor Unita Blackwell of Mayersville. Many have wondered why Ms. Blackwell had not challenged Newman for his legislative seat, since she would have swept the black vote in the district.
Newman evidently began courting Ms. Blackwell several years back so as to dissuade her from launching an opposition movement. Observers remember the occasion of the Third Congressional District Democratic caucus in April 1980 when Newman sat at Blackwell’s elbow for eight solid hours, voting down the line with her to make certain she would be a delegate from the district
to the Democratic National Convention.
For weeks before the August primary contest with Newman, Ms. Farragut had tried to contact Blackwell and enlist her support. “I was never able to see her,” Farragut said, “but she sent word she was going to be out of the state working on an advanced college degree most of the summer and would not take part in the campaign.” This, Farragut later discovered, would not exactly be the case.
“I found I had been led down the primrose path, and that Unita Blackwell had organized her forces for Newman before she left,” she declared. “A lot of people say you can’t get the black vote by getting to the leaders anymore. I don’t think that is so in Sharkey and Issaquena Counties.”
In a number of instances where old hands in the Mississippi legislature were turned out of office this past summer, it was said to be a case of their having lost touch with their constituents. A notable exception came in State Senatorial District Thirteen, a decidedly black-majority district in the heart of the Delta where Senator Robert L. Crook, fifty-four, won his sixth successive term in the Legislature even though he doesn’t really reside among his constituents.
Crook, a white attorney, lists Ruleville as his hometown, but it is common knowledge in the legislature and among many in his alleged home county of Sunflower that he and his family have resided in Jackson, 120 miles to the south, for the past twenty-three years. Once a dry cleaning establishment operator in Ruleville, Crook had gone to Jackson in 1960 to take a job as state civil defense director in the Ross Barnett Administration. With no formal education beyond high school, Crook had gotten a law diploma from a night school in Jackson and became a member of the state bar, getting elected to the Mississippi state senate from Sunflower County in 1963 when only whites voted in the black-majority county.
In most of the election years since, Crook has encountered only token opposition, usually a little-known black candidate. This time, he was put to his sternest test when the district was reshaped to include a substantial chunk of neighboring Coahoma County and the city of Clarksdale, giving the district a fi3.6 percent black voting age population.
Not only did he have a rather prominent black opponent, fifty-year-old Elijah Wilson of Clarksdale, the president of the Coahoma County NAACP, but also fifty-two-year old Turner Arant, member of a prominent Delta cotton farming family.
Crook was fresh from having led Senate forces in blocking Governor Winter’s proposed reforms in the prison system. Winter sought to provide alternative sentencing and decentralization of prison facilities as a solution to overcrowding at Parchman Penitentiary and county jails around the state.
Labelling the Winter proposals “soft on crime,” Crook had mounted a campaign which almost destroyed the model state corrections board created in 1976 in response to a federal court order directing modernization of the penal system. For years. Crook has considered Parchman Penitentiary, located in Sunflower County, his personal fiefdom, involving himself in who is hired and fired, and serving as the “outside world” lawyer for inmates.
Significantly, when prison guards living on the premises at Parchman didn’t want to send their kids to integrated public schools in Sunflower County, Crook got through a bill providing tuition grants to send them to private, segregated academies.
In the old days of the Citizens’ Councils. Crook had been a loyal supporter of the segregationist organization. In 1966 he sponsored the CC’s bill for a “Mississippi Relocation Commission,” to provide one-way bus tickets for blacks to go North. It would offer assistance to any families who believed “they can improve their economic and social status by relinquishing residence and citizenship in this state and by going to and residing in another state.”
Prospective clients for relocation would be taken from the county welfare rolls. Funds would be provided to any family to move their belongings and transport themselves to another state, but acceptance of the funds would constitute a lien against any property the expatriated family may have in Mississippi. The debt would be cancelled after a certain number of years.
The “one-way ticket” measure never passed the legislature, and veteran lawmakers now concerned about their image with black voters don’t like to talk about the bill. When the Relocation Commission proposal was brought up by Crook’s opponents in the past summer’s campaign, he shrugged it off as “just newspaper talk.”
Wilson, the black opponent of Crook in the August 2 Democratic primary, had the backing of Mississippi First, which considered Crook to be one of the negative forces in the legislature. The organization put its
maximum help to the tune of $2500 in cash, printing and consultant services behind Wilson, but he was unable to raise more than one thousand dollars beyond that from black political activists, even though a majority of the residents of the district were in Coahoma County, and that part of the district was seventy percent black.
Coahoma County and Clarksdale happen to be the home of Aaron Henry, the state NAACP president. However, as Wilson’s campaign developed, it became evident that he was not getting the support from Henry which he would expect from a fellow black leader.
Six months earlier, Wilson had been elected president of the Coahoma County NAACP chapter, replacing Henry, who had held that title for nearly thirty years. “I didn’t campaign for it. The nominating committee came back with the recommendation that I be elected president, and that is what happened,” says Wilson.
Sources of campaign funds Wilson expected to tap in the black community “just didn’t come through . . . I don’t know if Aaron had anything to do with that or not.” The lack of money didn’t give him the kind of exposure he needed, especially in Sunflower County, which has seven small municipalities, the largest being Indianola with a population of around nine thousand.
Although Sunflower County has a fifty-five percent black majority, Crook got four to one the number of votes Wilson received, and almost double the number Arant received. Even with a clear majority over his two opponents in the 2900 votes Coahoma cast in the election, Wilson finished out of the money in third place, setting up a runoff between Crook and Arant.
Crook contends the utility companies went after him “with all the money and influence” they could throw into the second primary on the side of his opponent because of Crook’s stand for strong utility regulatory laws and his opposition to rate increases in recent years. “It’s unbelievable what they tried to do,” he says, “they spent $160,000, I believe, trying to defeat me.”
If the figure of $150,000 were accurate, it would be the largest amount ever expended in a single legislative race in Mississippi. In any case, Arant put on a major campaign for a largely rural area, utilizing phone banks, billboards and special spots on regional television stations during the three-week runoff campaign.
Crook, despite his heavy black constituency, has never learned how to pronounce the word “Negro,” or use the word “black.”
“This nigra woman called me,” Crook said later, “and said she had been in a meeting with the Arant folks that morning and she was offered $350 to work at the polls on election day.” The black lady had been told that she and some twenty-five others at the meeting would get the $350 plus $150 if Arant carried the voting precinct.
“She told me,” says Crook, “‘Mr. Crook, I don’t have
anything against you . . . you tried to help me one time, and I don’t know what to do.'” His advice, she told this reporter, was to accept the money “and let your conscience tell you how to vote.”
In the runoff Wilson decided to do a radio spot endorsing Arant because of some underhanded tactics he had learned that Crook used against him in the first primary. “He’s [Crook] a good manipulator. I thought I had all of the black mayors and aldermen in Sunflower County, but he went around after me and said Aaron Henry was supporting him. I never had a chance to counteract that,” Wilson said.
Wilson came out of the political race critical of his longtime black colleague, Aaron Henry. “He doesn’t speak for black folks in this state, but a lot of white folks think that he does,” Wilson declared. “Aaron is looking out for himself, not for the rest of us.”
Nobody underestimates the fact that Crook is a tiger when it comes to waging a campaign to hold on to his political base. “He has the qualifications,” said James Robinson, an alderman and black businessman in Indianola, who voted for him, “even though he might not have been the best man.”
Sylvester Ingram, a black grocery store operator at Moorhead, admitted he had voted for Crook. “I’ve known Senator Crook a long while, and I think he has made us a good senator. I don’t think he has said too much against the blacks. He’s for poor people, and that’s okay with me.”
Four years ago, state senate district thirty-seven in southwest Mississippi had more or less been tailor-made for Fayette Mayor Charles Evers. Many whites felt it better to give him a forum in the legislature rather than have him as a constant critic from the outside. The district had a 61.5 percent black voting age majority and included Jefferson and Claiborne Counties, considered “Evers Country.”
But the charismatic black political figure did not campaign very hard, assuming that his name recognition was all he needed to win handily. A year before, Evers had run as an independent for the U.S. Senate in the race won by Republican Thad Cochran and polled over 8600 votes in the four counties (Jefferson, Claiborne, Franklin and Copiah) in the senatorial district. That was believed more than adequate to win the seat in the state senate.
Meanwhile, however, some other factors entered the political picture. Significant opposition developed around Fayette because of Evers’ high-handed style of governing. In addition, he lost the backing of Mississippi AFL-CIO President Claude Ramsay for discouraging unionization of a new industry in Fayette.
Organized labor, which is not strong in southwest Mississippi, nevertheless proved to be a critical factor in defeating Evers and electing white Hazlehurst attorney Jay Disharoon, who had made an all-out bid for labor support. Disharoon, thirty-four, also had developed good relations with area blacks in a previous race for a U.S. congressional seat.
Evers fell some thirteen hundred votes below what he had received the year before in the U.S. Senate race in the four counties, and Disharoon wound up the winner by nine hundred votes in the November, 1979 general election.
This was the first of two political setbacks for the veteran Mississippi civil rights leader in his supposed stronghold. A year and a half later, Kennie Middleton, a thirty-year-old black attorney, came along and upset Evers for the mayor’s job in Fayette.
Disharoon kept his fences mended with his black constituents and when this year’s elections rolled around, he drew no opponents.
Newly created house district twenty-nine, a 67.1 percent majority black voting district in Bolivar County was considered almost a certainty to elect a black this year. The race pitted two white incumbent representatives, Ed Jackson of Cleveland and Hilliard Lawler of Rosedale, both of whom had rather good “moderate” credentials, along with a black candidate, Reverend Henry Ward, Jr.
Ward led the field in the August 2 first Democratic primary, going into a runoff with Jackson, forty-one year old printing company owner, on August 23. Jackson had done a lot of personal favors for his black constituents and was able to pull enough votes out of the black community to edge Ward by three hundred votes in the second primary. Ward’s defeat was blamed largely on a poor turnout of black voters in the runoff.
Jealousies and divisiveness among black leadership in Mississippi continue to plague efforts of blacks to win political offices that are within their grasp.
The classic example was the failure of State Rep. Robert Clark of Ebeneezer to win the Second Congressional District seat last year after impressively capturing the Democratic nomination in the first Democratic primary of June, 1982. The fifty-three year old Clark, a popular black legislative figure, was given strong endorsements by Governor William Winter and all leading white Democrats in the state in his general election face-off with Republican Webb Franklin last November.
Clark’s own campaign organization estimated he needed only about twelve percent of the white vote in the twenty-one county district to win comfortably. The district, embracing eleven Delta counties, had a 53.6 percent black population majority, and unofficial voter registration figures indicated blacks made up a fifty-five percent majority of registered voters district-wide.
The white vote that Clark needed materialized, but he fell two thousand votes short of winning when the black vote failed to reach expectations in a half dozen counties where he ran significantly below the black vote Jimmy Carter received in 1980.
Many of Clark’s campaign supporters blame the defeat of the Holmes County legislator on a few black political leaders and office-holders in the Delta who feared that the election of a moderate like Clark would diminish their local power and make him the consummate spokesman for the black community.
Instances were found where close supporters of former Tchula Mayor Eddie Carthan, now serving a federal prison sentence for falsifying statements to receive federal funds, discouraged blacks from voting for Clark because the Ebeneezer lawmaker had not defended Carthan. Several black mayors were also believed cool toward Clark because he was chosen by an informal caucus of blacks to be the candidate, rather than they.
Since the not-too-distant past when Robert Clark was the one black to sit in the Mississippi Legislature, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of black lawmakers. Four years ago, following creation of single-member legislative districts under federal court guidelines, the black legislative contingent rose from four to seventeen–two in the Senate and fifteen in the House. As a result of this year’s elections, to be completed on, November 8, blacks are assured of two additional seats in the House, and possibly a third, with a good chance of increasing the number of senators to three.
However, this total of twenty or twenty-one black lawmakers in Mississippi still falls considerably below the potential of black representation based on the number of legislative districts with majority black voting age populations. Ten Senate districts have a black VAP of fifty percent or more, four of them over sixty percent. Among House districts, a total of twenty-six districts have fifty percent or more black VAP, sixteen of them more than sixty percent.
Although they represent only fifteen percent of the total membership of the Mississippi House, the bloc of black lawmakers has been effective by standing together on several mayor issues, primarily against increases in taxes which hit the poor and blacks hardest. Reluctantly, some of the younger, more aggressive black lawmakers have come around to the philosophy of Robert Clark that they must first work within the system before they can change it.
Because Buddie Newman and his “Delta barons” have once more consolidated power, the prospect looms for at least four more years of waiting for change. What impact the black legislators can have in the meantime depends upon a dole system, in whose features lie a glimpse of plantation days.
Bill Minor, a longtime observer of Mississippi polities, lives in Jackson.