Populist Revival in Mississippi?
By Brad Pigott
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1984, pp. 12-17
My opponent is not the man whose name will appear on the ballot. Instead, my opposition is a small group of very wealthy and very powerful men who are financing the campaign against me. These bigshots oppose me because they cannot tell me what to do.”
–Mississippi Congressman Wayne Dowdy, campaigning for Congress in 1982
“If we win this campaign, we will be sending a message that if a politician fights the big power companies, fights the powerful legislators, and makes these people mad, then the people of Mississippi will stand up for that politician.”
–Mississippi Governor Bill Allain, campaigning for Governor in 1983
A century devoted to the political subordination of black people in Mississippi almost silenced biracial aspirations for populist reform. But with the waning of official racial segregation, there is evidence that the next era of politics in the most Southern of Southern states might be distinguished not by the corporate pampering with which boosters have hailed the latest “New South,” but by a biracial assertion of common dignity through the populist checking of private power.
Populist aspirations have themselves been checked for so many generations in Mississippi by the tragic lessons of the turn-of-the-century Populist movement’s greatest but last hurrah in the state, the election of 1895. That year, populist gubernatorial nominee Frank Burkitt was bringing forth a relentless crusade against the “putrid, putrescent, putrifying political moribund carcass of bourbon democracy.” The Populists had gathered more than a third of the votes in the previous year’s congressional elections, and were on the rise. Burkitt took to the stump not just with the familiar Populist proposals for regulating and taxing economic privilege, but also with advocacy of free public education for both black and white children, and with attacks on the severe franchise restrictions locked into the state’s 1890 Constitution. (Burkitt as a constitutional convention delegate had refused to sign the Constitution on account of those voting restrictions.) The Populist political base in the relatively white, eastern hill country had been consolidated, and the conservative white Democratic establishment set about frantically to find some way to choke the Populist momentum.
They found their way in smothering the economic aspirations of have not whites with the rhetoric of white supremacy and solidarity. Their rallying cry was that a Populist government would tolerate black political power–portrayed as an appalling threat to every white. The racist barrage dislodged enough have-not whites from support of the Populists’ economic reform message to assure a solid defeat of Burkitt and his Populists, who never recovered politically from the stigma of the Bourbon attacks.
Twelve Per Cent Democracy
With biracial populist aspirations thus squelched, politics for the next four generations in Mississippi was the politics of privileged white men. By the turn of the century the ruling whites were so pleased with themselves that they saw fit to include, among “Mississippi Firsts” boasted of in the Official and Statistical Register of Mississippi for 1904, the following:
“Mississippi was the first state in the Union to solve the problem of white supremacy in the South by lawful means. The Constitution of 1890 disfranchises the ignorant and vicious of both races, and places control of the State in the hands of the virtuous, intelligent citizens.”
The ballot was regarded by Mississippi law as a prerogative of racial and economic privilege, to be reserved only for monied white men. Before the Populist movement had had a decent chance to organize itself in Mississippi, the 1890 voting bars managed to pull much of the Populist potential out from under the state’s people: By 1892, black registration had been cut to 5.4% of black adults, and enough white have-nots had been blocked from the ballot to cut white registration in half. As a result, during the seventy years following the 1890 disfranchisement, Mississippi’s governors were elected with votes from an average of only 12% of the
state’s adult (twenty and over) population. No Mississippi governor during those seventy years ever received the consent of as much as one-fifth of the adult population of the state.
What competition there was for power was generally waged between the planter-lawyer-merchant class concentrated in the western Delta, and, when they were permitted to vote at all, the “redneck” farmers concentrated in the hills. Between the planters and the rednecks, there was never any dispute about whether the black community was to be suppressed. There was only dispute about whether to talk about it openly.
As if remembering what the “better element” of the Delta had done to Burkitt and the Populists, politicians who addressed the hill folk found it necessary to combine their modest spending and reform proposals with a constant rhetorical attack on the black race. The brutally racist ridicule offered from the stump first by James K. Vardaman and then by Theodore G. Bilbo served as a political cover for their programs of progressive taxation and expanded education for have-not whites and preempted any charge that they sought to lift blacks along with their programs to lift have-not whites.
With the hills’ advocates preempting the field of white supremacist rhetoric, the planters and their allies had little use for open talk about “the race problem” which they had done so much to create and sustain. Like their modern successors in the Republican Party, the planters regarded such public rhetoric as bad manners and as worse public relations.
Mississippi politics remained white politics until the decade of the civil rights movement.
The New Electorate
By 1970, a third force had arrived in Mississippi politics with the registration of black citizens in legendary numbers under the protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As recently as 1960, only 5.27% of Mississippi blacks of voting age had been permitted to register to vote. This pathetic figure had barely changed since the 1890 disfranchisement had shrivelled black registration to 5.4% by 1892. But a remarkable 66% of voting age blacks became registered voters by 1970, and made up 29% of the Mississippi electorate. The election of over four hundred black officials to legislative and municipal offices has kept alive the notion in the black community that voting can make a difference, and the increasingly intense competition for such offices among politically talented blacks is likely to sustain the level of black voter turnout. The first major party nomination in this century of a black candidate for federal or statewide office came in 1982.
“But it is the populist appeal,” says Mississippi civil rights organizer Rev. Ed King, “which alone has been able to bring into the voting electorate thousands of more fundamentally alienated black Mississippians. Populism expresses their alienation not just from privileged whites, but from politically established black leaders as well. When this extra black electorate has been activated at all in recent years, which has not been often, it has been through an informal network which lacks a current name, but which is in fact the remnant of the old Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” says King, who was the MFDP’s national committeeman.
To win a two person, statewide political race in Mississippi without significant black support would now require over 70% of the votes of whites. The state’s recent political history is a witness to the political impossibility of such a requirement. Since black Mississippians became virtually a third of the state’s electorate around 1970, no candidacy has been able to survive mobilization of so high a portion of the state’s electorate against it through open indulgence in the slogans of racial supremacy and segregation.
The New Bourbon Boosters
Meanwhile, during the very years of black enfranchisement, the loyalties of the Delta state of mind have been enticed, updated, and organized by the newly active forces of the Republican Party. To the usual pretensions of elitist bourbonism, the “New South” Republicans have added the boosterism of the “new money” metropolitan suburbs. Like the Delta Boubons of old, the Mississippi Republicans center their political world around their longing for a social world that is, above all else, quiet. They are drawn to a political message which promises for them the quietness within which to pursue the central mission of their daily lives, their own comfort.
This “upwardly mobile” world of shopping centers, franchise strips, and country clubs has claimed 35% to 40% of the active Mississippi electorate: A 1979 statewide political poll found 39% of likely Mississippi voters classifying themselves as either Republican (10%) or Independent (29%). The total in a 1980 statewide poll was 38% (21% Republican; 17% Independent). A 1981 poll found 33.7% of the electorate to be made up of either strong Republicans (8.4%), weak Republicans (11.3%), or Independent Republicans (14%). (Probing by pollsters of self-classified “independents” in Mississippi has revealed that, though party realignment toward a Republican identity has not been completed for this segment of the electorate, their views are such that they tend predominantly to vote Republican.)
But a party or a state of mind cannot win elections with 35 to 40 percent of the vote, and indeed no Mississippi Republican has won a majority of the votes in any statewide election in this century. Republican Thad Cochran slipped into a US Senate seat in 1978 with a 45% plurality victory over a Democratic constituency split between an undirected white nominee and a strong black independent candidacy. Though the Republican nominee for governor in 1975 had gathered 46% of the general election vote, the same Republican candidate slipped to 39% in 1979. A different, more conservative Republican nominee received the same 39% in the 1983 race for governor. 1981 saw the Republicans lose Mississippi’s fourth congressional district seat, based around the Jackson metropolitan area and the lower Mississippi river counties, which they had held since 1972. The predictable Republican share of the statewide vote in Mississippi seems, at least for now, to have peaked.
Like their planter-merchant predecessors from the segregation years, the new Republicans are rendered uneasy by the sound of outright public and explicit racial combat. Their uneasiness lies not in any preference for racial justice, but in the fact that the tensions and embarrassments surrounding open talk about race tend to disturb the quietness of what has become the Republican state of mind. Thus Mississippi Republicans are attracted to both elements in any call to “put race behind us” and to get on about the business of nourishing and preserving a “good business climate” suitable for the quiet pursuit of comfort. Outright mention of race risks an extraordinary intrusion into this state of mind, for the Republican strongholds of comfort in the metropolitan areas of Jackson and the Gulf Coast are easily the most racially segregated zones of Mississippi life.
Yet the Mississippi Republican Party, in further imitation of its Delta-Bourbon heritage, has proven itself quick to exploit racial prejudice through indirection and innuendo where necessary to thwart the prospect of a biracial coalition against it. Republican Cochran won his 1978 plurality Senate victory in part with the charge that Aaron Henry, the veteran NAACP state President who had endorsed! the white Democratic nominee against Cochran, would have “a rope around [the Democrat’s] neck” if the latter were to go to Washington as Senator. Republican Webb Franklin in 1982 narrowly won the Delta’s congressional district seat from black Democratic nominee Robert Clark with the Republican campaign slogan, “A Congressman for Us.” Though the Republican congressional nominee in the fourth district had learned by 1982 not to boost black voter turnout by repeated reference to his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, his campaign did see fit to saturate the district with half-page newpaper advertisements centered around a distorted drawing of his white Democratic opponent’s face, complete with noticeably African features. The white Democratic opponent, Congressman Wayne Dowdy, had voted the previous year not only for extension of the Voting Rights Act but also against every amendment aimed at weakening the Act’s effectiveness. Dowdy went on to win reelection in 1982 despite official Republican Party placement at predominantly black precincts of hired white “guards” and posters featuring multiple references to the word “jail” as the promised punishment for noncompliance with registration technicalities.
The Transformed Political World of Have-Not Whites
The Republican innuendo of white solidarity reflects the virtual desperation of the state’s privileged whites in the face of a subtle transformation by the most complex force in Mississippi politics, the white have-nots. Those whites who perceive themselves as on the outside of the circle of power and comfort in Mississippi life now in fact hold the balance of electoral power as the swing group in the state’s politics.
There are, for one thing, more have-not whites participating in the electorate than could ever have participated during disfranchisement. In silent vindication of the old Populists’ 1890 warning that official disfranchisement was aimed at have-not whites as well as at blacks, whites in Mississippi have been able to double the total number of whites registered to vote since enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But the real transformation is taking place within the minds of have-not whites. The choices they have begun to make do not include outright abandonment of racial bigotry; Mississippi life is still too richly tragic to allow for that. The question is instead whether the salience of racial polarization has submerged enough in their lives to permit the emergence now of economic consciousness as the central focus of their political choices.
Some powerful evidence has emerged for the declining significance of racial polarization as the centerpiece of the political lives of have-not whites. By significant majorities, white Mississippians with annual family incomes of less than ten thousand dollars responded that white students “should go to the same schools” as black students, and that -whites have no “right to keep blacks from moving into their neighborhoods if they want to,” when a representative
statewide sample was asked in a 1981 academic poll. Half of non-retired whites making annual incomes under $25,000. asserted in the course of a 1981 poll of Wayne Dowdy’s fourth congressional district that it would not “make any difference” in their voting decision if a congressional candidate were “strongly supported by local black leaders.” Only 36% responded that they would be “less inclined” to support such a candidate.
Within days following the mid-1981 special election in which Dowdy was first elected to Congress, a Republican Party pollster asked a representative sampling of the district’s voters to isolate an issue “of particular concern to you personally” in making their voting decisions. That Dowdy was the first major white candidate in Mississippi ever to endorse retention of a strong Voting Rights Act had been during the campaign the focus of repeated and highly visible attention by all sides and by the media. Yet the white respondents who had voted against Dowdy did not even mention his voting rights stand as a factor in their voting decision. The economic issues of social security and Reaganomics dominated the white voters’ responses, with the Voting Rights Act being mentioned only by black Dowdy supporters. In short, his decisive stand for the continuation of federal supervision of black voting rights added to, and did not detract from, Dowdy’s successful populist coalition. (Nor was Dowdy’s congressional voting record in fulfillment of his voting rights pledge an issue in his 1982 re-election campaign, which he won handily with the help of the populist slogan, “Don’t let the big shots call the shots.”)
The decline of racial polarization as an effective political weapon has brought a decline also in the political potency of what were once conventional verbal codes for a message of white unity. The ability of the code word “conservative” to galvanize whites, for instance, has apparently been dissolved with the withdrawal of explicit racial combat from the center stage of politics. Though the state’s journalists continue to churn out the conventional wisdom that Mississippi has a “conservative” electorate, a 1981 statewide academic survey finds a slightly lower proportion of the Mississippi electorate willing to accept the “conservative” label (27.8%) than was the case in the country as a whole (28.3%, from a 1980 national survey). A separate 1980 statewide poll found only 33% of likely Mississippi voters accepting the “conservative” label, while only 27% of Dowdy’s congressional district electorate was found to be made up of white “conservatives” in 1982. The old “conservative” catch-all code simply rings hollow now for a majority even of white Mississippi voters.
What can be seen as emerging to overshadow racial resentments in the political focus of have-not whites in Mississippi is a preoccupation with economic issues, which now dominate the responses to every survey question calling for “our most important public problem.” And what has every chance of shaping those economic issues for have” not whites is an old Southern peculiarity which is just now being let loose for full political expression: a sense of psychological distance from a privileged circle of absentee power-holders who are insulated both from the consequences of their own power and from the traditional reciprocities of folk values. This is the stuff of populism.
There is first the essential estrangement from the flow of affairs as run by the powerful. A representative, statewide sample of Mississippi voters was asked this question in a 1980 poll: “Generally speaking, do you feel things are going in the right direction in Mississippi today, or do you feel that they have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?” Among white non-retirees with family incomes under fifteen-thousand dollars, significantly more answered “wrong track” (44%) than answered “right direction” (36%). The responses of these less privileged whites were remarkably similar to the responses of black participants in the same survey, who responded “wrong track” (46%) more often than “right direction” (40%). But the responses of non-retiree whites making over $25,000. were fundamentally different from those of both blacks and less privileged whites, with only 28% responding “wrong track” and with fully 58% responding “right direction.” A 1982 poll asked of likely voters in Mississippi’s fourth congressional district an otherwise identical question aimed at “things in the nation” rather than in the state. Among blue collar whites, 49% saw the nation as having “gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” while only 35% saw a “right direction.” The responses among non-retired whites with incomes of at least $25,000. reflected the reverse of the blue collar white responses: 55% of these privileged whites saw a “right direction” in the nation while only 38% sensed a “wrong track.”
It is by now an item of conventional political wisdom that the growth of governmental bureaucracies, themselves oversized and stifling, has provided a new target for the old populist sentiment. But in fact an attack from the right on such governmental targets has little chance of attracting a political majority now in Mississippi, when compared with the biracial attraction to reforms aimed at private privilege. Any message of attack against the public bureaucracies would first forfeit the support of most black Mississippians, who know racial bigotry when they see it in the form of wholesale attacks upon the organizational vehicle for administering public policies of compassion. But any “rightwing populism” would also leave untouched some of the deeper populist values of many less privileged Mississippi whites. Among non-retired whites with family incomes
below $25,000. who responded to a 1982 poll of Dowdy’s fourth congressional district, for instance, the most favored route to cutting the federal budget deficit was not “cuts in social programs.” It was, instead, “the elimination of tax cuts to business.” About half of those white respondents further indicated that if they understood a candidate to be “supported by big Jackson businessmen,” they would be inclined to vote against that candidate based on that one fact alone. The emerging language of populist candidacies in Mississippi has indeed been directed almost exclusively at the state’s own business elite, concentrated in Jackson.
Have-not Mississippi whites know that they are prepared to live their own lives by shared folk rules like frugality, humility, simplicity and informality. But they know also that the reward these days for abiding by these old rules is next to nothing. And they can increasingly sense that the bulky private institutions of the rich, in exempting themselves from and snubbing the old values, are rewarded immensely, regardless of their performance.
Early Rumblings of a Populist Resurgence?
It was by no coincidence that the first major Mississippi gubernatorial candidate in contemporary times to abandon the rhetoric of segregation was also the first such candidate to invoke the language of the populist heritage. Bill Waller was elected governor in 1971 on the force of his pledge to check the power of what he cited as “the Capitol Street Gang” of privileged private institutions centered around Jackson’s principal commercial street. Maverick Cliff Finch drew entirely on populist symbolism, with a lunchpail as his chosen campaign symbol, in winning the right to succeed Waller as governor in 1975. But these early rumblings of a biracial populist resurgence suffered some frustration at the hands of the purported champions of the revived populist heritage, Waller and Finch. For lack of ideological sincerity they were unwilling, and for lack of governing skills they were unable, to transform their symbolism into deeds of populist reform. (As one black political strategist has said of Finch in particular, “that lunchpail turned out to be empty.”)
William Winter as Governor sought to draw on a potent deed of populist reform with his 1982 legislative proposal to raise the oil and gas severance tax in order to finance a package of authentic reforms in the state’s otherwise dismal public education system. But for reasons of political style and personal demeanor Winter was unwilling to draw the symbolism of the populist heritage to the aid of his tax proposal, which proceeded to die under the pressure of state and national oil lobbyists and their friends at the top of the Mississippi Legislature. The painfully regressive sales tax, to which those legislators are prone to turn for their answer to every new revenue need, was once again hiked in order to finance the Winter education reforms. (Mississippi was already imposing, for instance, the highest sales tax on food, in the country.)
Only with the just-completed race to succeed Winter did there emerge in a major statewide candidacy, for the first time in this century, an apparent unity between the words and the deeds of biracial populist reform. His court victories in landmark cases against the rulers of the state’s utilities, utility regulatory commission, and even the Legislature, were at the center of Mississippi Attorney General Bill Allain’s successful campaign for the governorship in 1983. He protested the holding of closed-door official meetings by walking out of them, and personally boycotted the posh private clubs populated by the business elite which runs so much of the state from Jackson.
Allain even dared to file and to win a lawsuit insisting that the State’s standpat legislative rulers must abide by the state’s constitutional separation-of-powers provision, which prohibited the nevertheless pervasive membership of legislators on executive agency boards. He argued as attorney general before the Mississippi Supreme Court that if the state is to have a right to ask the average person to obey the Constitution, “then we must have the right to ask the richest person, the most powerful person in the state, to do no less.”
But Allain’s central focus has been as an unflappable critic, both in and out of court, of what was until recently a silent attack by the state’s electric utilities on the old values of frugality and lawfulness. Here is Allain on the blank-` check rate base traditionally accorded to Mississippi’s larger utilities: “I have seen their books. . .you are paying those $150,000 and $200,000-a-year salaries, you are paying their country club dues, and you are paying when they go up there in that twenty-story building and eat and drink all that imported wine.” As black activist and political scientist Leslie McLemore puts it, Allain’s call for checks on utility spending reflected “an issue that had an impact on pocketbooks. It transcended race and class, although it was strongest among people of poorer socio-economic backgrounds.”
The electoral possibilities of the revived populist heritage in Mississippi are dependent on the continuing emergence of a rare and resourceful breed of populist politician, and therein lies populism’s chief vulnerability. To bring and hold have-not whites and blacks together after so many generations of bitter hostility still requires extraordinarily subtle political leadership. It is the uncommon politician who brings to the task both the necessary political agility and the necessary psychic detachment for sustaining the wrath of the privileged which is certain to be released privately against any populist politician. For such a maverick figure to have access to the awesome amount of money required to run a modern political campaign is more uncommon still, and tends to require that the politician have personal wealth.
A still more painful hindrance to the emergence of
biracial populist leadership is the prospect that white have-nots are not yet ready to be led by black populist advocates. As long as even the most talented black politicians are deprived of highly visible offices from which to act out roles as majoritarian decision-makers, calls by black politicians for economic fairness will too often be dismissed by have-not whites as calls limited to the black community alone. That black politicians are now relatively handicapped in bearing the banner of a populist movement aimed at biracial justice is but one more tragic reminder of the legacy of racism handicapping populism itself.
Even for the rare political figure able to survive such hurdles to be elected, the profound fragmentation of state governmental power offers an abundance of veto points from which privileged interests can and do quietly obstruct populist policies.
Yet there has also emerged a certain amount of institutional and cultural glue available to the uncommon politician who sets out through electoral politics to bring together the populist constituency in Mississippi. The formal Democratic Party organization in the state has just begun to generate for itself the money and technology with which to sustain a network of loyalities capable of biracial political organizing. And voter identity with the Democratic Party has itself stabilized as a potent for reconciliation: the portion of the Mississippi electorate volunteering identification with the Democractic Party in statewide polls has been 51% in 1979, 53% in 1980, and 55.3% in 1981.
The state’s relatively small organized labor movement, whose leadership stood firm with biracial backing of the civil rights movement in its toughtest days, has now found political vindication in its ability to offer populist candidates a ready-made network of black and white political organizers. Longtime Mississippi AFL-CIO President Claude Ramsay even says that “the labor movement provided the glue for Dowdy’s” congressional wins, which Ramsay sees as “a pay-off for work over many years” in holding together a biracial organized labor movement.
A hard-won astuteness among black voters about the necessities of coalition building is another source of glue capable of holding together biracial populist majorities. Black independent candidacies for Congress in 1982 and for governor in 1983 failed to win more than one-tenth of the votes of black Mississippians. Such failures have just now put the state’s Republican strategists on notice that an earlier Republican scheme of sponsoring black independent candidacies can no longer be counted on to split the Democratic vote and produce a Republican plurality. Mississippi’s white Democratic governor and congressmen made an overdue attempt at reciprocity in 1982 by publicly campaigning for the election of black Democratic primary winner Robert Clark in Mississippi’s new Delta congressional district. (Though the votes of about 13% of white voters and a lower-than-expected black turnout caused Clark a very narrow loss in 1982, he has announced his candidacy for the same seat in 1984 and has at least an even chance of becoming this year the first black Mississippi congressman in this century.)
Whenever the populist ingredients bubbling in Mississippi’s political culture can manage to come across just the right maverick advocate, populism will continue to have a decent chance of winning elections in the state for the foreseeable future. The old recalcitrance in the face of absentee power, having been drawn on and abused for so long by the segregationists’ clamor against “outsiders” and federal “intervention,” can now be turned against the pretensions of private powerholders whose isolation comes from exclusive devotion to their own comfort.”
In moving to check the prerogatives of private power, Mississippi populism has a chance to claim an anchoring of politics in a moral purpose: authentic racial reconciliation. Populism can direct the political attention of have-not white Mississippians away from the preoccupations with racial bigotry, bringing them instead under the same banner, in defense of the same values, as the state’s black community. And, through populism, black Mississippians can join in a majority coalition with whites without evading any of the central economic purposes on the black political agenda. Populism’s attempt at this historical reconciliation, so long feared by Mississippi’s inner circle of monied whites, need not concede any of the raw, redemptive power behind a movement rooted in the values of simple justice.
Brad Pigott is a native of McComb, Mississippi who now lives and practices law in Jackson. His political apprenticeship came in 1976 77 as issues director of the final gubernatorial campaign of Virginia populist Henry Howell. In 1982 he managed the reelection campaign of Congressman Wayne Dowdy.