How Mississippi continues to keep black people from winning state elections since 1890

Ama Nunoo September 25, 2019
Photo: The Civil Rights Movement Veterans

Mississippi is a predominantly black state with the highest number of African Americans, nonetheless, no African American has been elected into a state-wide office since 1890, NPR reports.

The obvious reason would be racial gerrymandering or election rigging but that would have been easy to investigate and overturn to give a fair chance to all.

The real reason for the lack of black representation in over 129 years is entrenched in the constitution.

The constitution allows at-large voting in local elections in some states. Mississippi is one of such states; it uses at-large voting that requires candidates to win a majority of votes. This, ultimately, disenfranchises black voters in the local elections.

The state’s 1890 Constitution gives a window for whites to dominate in any election. This became known as “The Mississippi Plan” where the law codifies the ability “to take political power out of the hands of African-Americans, and it was extremely effective,” said Paloma Wu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office.

Prior to the amendment in the 1890 constitution, African Americans were elected into office after the Civil War which saw a lot of significant cases and activism take place in Mississippi.

The legislators, at the time, couldn’t have been clearer in their intentions for re-framing the constitution to seize power from the blacks. It stated, “It is the manifest intention of this Convention to secure to the State of Mississippi ‘white supremacy.”

All these were orchestrated to prevent freed black slaves from assuming any office in the state. Attorney Wu said, “It was headlined to keep political power in the hands of white people who were outnumbered by free black people and their descendants.”

There have been several attempts to get the state to revisit the laws to give every candidate a fair chance at winning. The recent one is a federal lawsuit by four African Americans who are challenging the racially discriminatory system.

The lawsuit is eminent because of the November local elections where Mississippians will choose governors.

How Mississippi continues to keep black people from winning state elections since 1890
Photo: The Clarion-Ledger

At-large voting also includes “monopoly math” that hinders the minority from ever getting elected. Such voting allows voters to have as many votes as there are seats.

To be a governor or an attorney general in Mississippi, there is a two-tiered path to win the state-wide elections. The candidates must win the majority popular vote and a majority in Mississippi’s 122 state house districts, of which only 42 are majority black. When there is a clash, the state house of representatives decides who wins.

“Mississippi requires winners to receive more than 50% of the votes. When no one receives a majority, the Mississippi legislature, not the voters, chooses the winner,” the Conversation reports.

Even though there are about 38% African Americans in Mississippi who tend to vote Democratic, Republicans dominate the political landscape, which includes the legislature of Mississippi.

Bennie Thompson, a black Democrat and long-time Mississippi Congressman, said such a system inhibits black politicians from attaining positions in the state-wide office.

“Under the present terms, there’s just no way that I could win. “I could win the popular vote and lose the vote of the Mississippi legislature and it would nullify the will of the people,” he told NPR.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is a group backing the lawsuit by the four African Americans. The group’s chairman, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The scheme has its basis in racism – an 1890 post-Reconstruction attempt to keep African Americans out of state-wide office.”

The lawsuit names Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans as defendants but they have declined to comment on the case.

Their individual lawyers, in a court filing, have said, “neither the speaker nor the secretary wishes to defend the motivations behind a law allegedly enacted with racial animus.”

Such an attempt to change the law is viewed as being politically motivated rather than racially motivated or it is seen as both. It is, however, an unpopular subject among legislators in Mississippi and other states that use at-large voting to elect state-wide officers.

State Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, Mississippi, would rather have the constitution amended to reflect what the country allegedly stands for.

He says, “I think we’re wasting time if we have that kind of language in our constitution, we need to remove it. I don’t think I should be barred by something that was part of keeping me from reaching my potential based on, simply because my ancestors were slaves.”

This year’s state-wide elections see a potential stiff race between Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. The republicans hold about 60% majority in Mississippi’s 122 state house seats.

The lawsuit wants to break the 129-year-old streak of not having black people in office by allowing the voters to decide who they prefer than a primarily white state house which is backed by the 1890 constitution.

For the four African American voters suing, they hope to fully wipe out any traces of the Jim Crow Laws that are still infringing on the rights of the African American, including basic rights such as fair elections and equal voting rights.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 26, 2019


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