By Bill Minor
JACKSON – We now have for the first time in 137 years more members of the Mississippi House of Representatives (thought to be the “Peoples” House) with R behind their names than those with D’s. In reality, that may be just a cosmetic difference in the state’s legislative history rather than an ideological one. I’ll tell you why.
Over the past six decades, I have either covered the Legislature as a daily reporter or closely followed it as a journalistic observer. Nomenclature – the R or D behind names of the members as Republican or Democrat designation – has taken on significance in the public mind only in recent years.
For most of those six decades, I would classify the Mississippi House as a no-party legislative body. Though its 122 members (140 members until 1970) were elected to office in Democratic primaries, I wouldn’t classify more than a dozen or so as genuine Democrats who owed any loyalty to the national party that Franklin D. Roosevelt built.
Walter Sillers, who ran the House with an iron fist as speaker for 40 years, insisted on calling himself a “Mississippi” Democrat. However, for eight years – in 1944, and again with the Dixiecrats in 1948 – he led movements to bolt the Democratic ticket in presidential elections largely because the national party began moving to a pro-civil rights stance. Sillers’ Old Guard allies, numbering some two-thirds of the House membership, would fall into the no-party category.
Meantime, what passed for the state Democratic Party in Mississippi (remember Will Rogers’ saying that he didn’t belong to an organized political party, he was a Democrat?) laughably had no money and no leadership, shunned by Sens. James O. Eastland and John Stennis though they owed their immense power in Washington to Democratic seniority.
As the state Democratic Party became mostly a paper tiger, the Republicans, formerly hated as the Party of Abraham Lincoln, gained a new respectability when Republican Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1964 swept the state’s presidential electoral votes because he voted that year against Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. When LBJ pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would enfranchise thousands of black citizens in Mississippi, the exodus of Mississippi Democrats to the GOP steadily began, climaxing with the election of Kirk Fordice in 1991. Republicans reached a new pinnacle in 2003 when longtime GOP operative Haley Barbour moved (temporarily?) his residence down from Washington to Jackson.
When Barbour hit the Mississippi political landscape, the remnants of the Democratic Party at the State Capitol became bulldozed by a political machine the likes of which Mississippi had never seen before. Haley introduced money as the biggest power in Mississippi politics. When the GOP in 2011 needed to switch 10 seats in the House to win a majority, Barbour oversaw raising a $2 million pot of campaign money, that flooded distorted and outright false literature to oust targeted Democrats.
At this moment in state political transformation, Mississippians would be wise to review our post-Civil War history when Republicans in 1875 last held a majority in the Legislature. Many recently emancipated blacks and some ex-slaves were in the GOP ranks. Newspapers and even white ministers made the term “Radical Republicans” part of the lexicon. Unreconstructed ex-Confederates, whites of course, were the Democrats, popularly becoming known as the “Redeemers.”
Beginning in 1876 when the Redeemer Democrats took control of state government, reinforced in 1890 when they wrote a new Constitution, laws and other barriers were put in place to guarantee white supremacy. For the next 70 years voting and office-holding by blacks were effectively suppressed.
Now, in marches a herd of GOP elephants to run both the state’s executive and legislative branches. Understandably many are uneasy over how they will seek to govern in a state at the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder, with the highest proportion of black citizens.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.