Making Votes Count in Arkansas–Challenge to Plantation-Style Politics
By Dan Fleshler
Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 14-15
Nearly every day this past year, M.C. Jeffers watched news reports of Eastern European crowds clamoring for meaningful elections, for the right to run for political office. He heard smug commentators explain that people in places like Romania yearned for American-style democracy. And he wondered if real democracy would ever reach the Mississippi Delta in Eastern Arkansas.
“I came up during the time of the poll tax,” says Mr. Jeffers, 67, an African American realtor in the Delta town of Forrest City, “when only a few blacks voted, and when they did, their votes didn’t do any good…Now we don’t have the tax but our votes still don’t do any good…Maybe this ruling’ll change that. .. Maybe we’ll get what everyone else in the world wants.”
He was referring to a recent Federal district court decision in Jeffers v. Clinton, an LDF case. After hearing evidence of the harassment of black voters and candidates, as well as the manipulation of district boundaries to dilute black voting strength, the court ruled that Arkansas blacks’ voting rights had been violated. And it ruled that state legislative boundaries drawn in 1981 must be redrawn.
The ruling, announced on December 5, 1989, called for the largest statewide redistricting ever ordered under the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Jeffers, one of 17 black plaintiffs, said he hoped the decision “would help blacks have real input into decision-making. Until we get it, conditions aren’t going to change.”
The 14 counties in Eastern Arkansas affected by the ruling have some of the world’s richest farmland, and some of America’s poorest people. Amidst fields abutting the Mississippi that yield abundant harvest of rice, cotton and soybeans, more than 40 percent of Delta residents live in poverty. Blacks comprise about half of the area’s population, but the vast majority of land in each town is owned by a handful of wealthy whites–many of whom are descendants of former slaveowners.
“They pay minimum wages when the fields need working,” says Clinton Harris, the black mayor of Wilmot. where unemployment hovers around 60 percent for macho of the year. “And in the winter, when the fields don’t need working, we just don’t have enough jobs.”
The Jeffers trial presented a sobering picture of the barriers to African Americans trying to change this bleak status quo through the electoral process. Although blacks comprise 16 percent of the state’s population, there is only one black in the 100-member House. In several majority black counties in Eastern Arkansas, white legislators have been elected with little black support.
The plaintiffs challenged the way in which majority black districts were carved up to submerge African American votes in larger pools of white votes by the 1981 reapportionment plan. While this plan created five legislative districts with majority-black populations, the plaintiffs argued that as many as 16 majority-black districts could have been created.
The court agreed, and ruled that the drawing of current district boundaries violated Section II of the Voting Rights Act, which requires proof of discriminatory results for electoral requirements and practices to be illegal. The decision called for “a new lawful plan” to be drafted in time for the 1990 elections.
In finding voting rights violations, the court also relied on extensive evidence of current “difficulties experienced! by blacks in electoral politics” in Arkansas.
For example, the court cited the experience of Roy
Lewellan, a black lawyer in Marianna, Arkansas, who “ran for the State Senate in 1986 against a white incumbent… At about the same time, the Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney instituted a well publicized criminal prosecution against Mr. Lewellan. Mr. Lewellan…gave a number of reasons for his belief that the prosecution was designed to discourage him in particular and black political activity in general. We find this testimony entirely credible.”
Interviewed after the trial, Mr. Lewellan noted that the man he had tried to unseat, State Senator Paul Benham, is a representative of the “Old South, from an old farm family, typical of the politicians who haven’t done a thing for black people in this district.”
Mr. Lewellan said that Senator Benham recently voted against a bill that would have exempted more than 60,000 poor residents from paying taxes. “His rich friends would have had to pay a few hundred dollars more in taxes, so he and other white senators opposed it…His friends know I’m in favor of helping the poor, and that’s why they didn’t want me to run against him.”
Many other examples of racially-motivated political harassment were presented at the trial. Helmet Mayor Harris testified that on election day in 1986, a gang of whites (including elected officials and a policeman with a gun) arrived at the polling place and prevented him and others from aiding illiterate black political voters.
Mr. Harris calls those responsible for the harassment “the Godfathers… They own the land, the mill, the bank.” He and other black political activists claim that the white power structure has openly resisted efforts to improve economic conditions for Delta blacks: “They don’t want industry coming down here, because factories’ll pay higher wages than they give to folks working the fields…”
The plaintiffs in Jeffers hope that black political empowerment gained through redistricting will help to counterbalance the power of “Godfathers” throughout the Delta.
Under court order, the Arkansas Board of Apportionment is currently drawing up new legislative districts, a process being monitored by attorneys Penda Hair, Dayna Cunningham, and Sheila Thomas of the Legal Defense Fund; P. A. Hollingsworth of Little Rock; and Olly Neal of Marianna.
Arkansas Election Update
Seven black candidates were nominated in March 29 primary elections in the ten Arkansas Delta districts affected by Jeffers v. Clinton. In one of those races, a black woman won the nomination for coroner of Lee County, the first county-wide electoral success for a black candidate in Arkansas since Reconstruction.
In addition to the seven black nominees, an old-line white conservative was defeated in another race by a white liberal. “The elections in some of the white-on-white races turned into referendums on the ‘good old boy’ political leadership in the region,” noted the LDF’s Dan Fleshier.
And voter turnout increased substantially–by 10 percent or more in some places–throughout the Delta.
Daniel Fleshler is director of communications of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. His article is adapted from Equal Justice: LDF News.