By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – When Billy McCoy was first elected to the House in 1979, Mississippi’s
racial wounds were still obvious, still festering. It was only a decade earlier that most Mississippi public schools were forced to integrate.
It wasn’t that unusual in 1979 for Mississippi politicians to rely on time-tested racial rhetoric to succeed, though it was obvious by then that times were a changin’.
McCoy’s election to the Mississippi House had nothing to do with race. He was elected in a heavily white majority district.
In short, he was neither a leader nor a detractor of racial reconciliation. He was a farmer from what he often lovingly refers to as Appalachia in rural Prentiss County.
In 1979, nothing about him indicated that he would become a principal figure in helping Mississippi’s African-American population gain its most political influence since that brief Reconstruction era after the Civil War. But that is exactly what he did as speaker of the House for two terms.
It is true that under McCoy’s predecessor, Tim Ford, also a Prentiss County native, a black member – Robert Clark – served three terms as speaker pro tem, presiding in the speaker’s absence. But that post – as important as it was – pales in comparison to the real power Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, had as chair of the Ways and Means Committee or that countless other African-American committee chairs had under McCoy’s governance.
Much has been said and written over the past two weeks since McCoy announced he would not seek re-election about the many significant pieces of legislation that he impacted during his tenure, ranging from the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Act to the Adequate Education Program in 1997.
But the great untold story is how McCoy was able to forge a coalition of rural white Democrats and African-Americans to govern the House for two terms during a time when the Republican Party in the state was making major gains led by Gov. Haley Barbour, known as one of the nation’s top political strategists.
It should seem obvious that black and white Democratic House members would band together to maintain governance of the chamber. But in reality it is not an easy task to achieve.
After all, the political goals of white and black Democrats in Mississippi are not always the same. But under McCoy’s governance, they were able to band together on such major issues as public education and health care funding. But there were major disagreements on some items, such as on many social issues and on changes to the civil justice system.
Those issues often forced McCoy to walk a tight rope to try to accommodate the political interests of the two camps of his governing coalition.
The process often was messy and often left hard feelings as each side felt it sacrificed too much, but in the end the two groups maintained their alliance and a degree of effectiveness. The result included more funding for education than Barbour and his Republican allies proposed every year of McCoy’s two terms as speaker, the continuation of civil service protection for state employees and the maintenance of the basic framework of the state Medicaid system.
Many of those issues, such as public education, are what McCoy fought for throughout his legislative career, so his core principles never changed as speaker.
Truth be told, the level of power black members ascended to in McCoy’s House was viewed as a political negative back home for many rural white Democrats. Truth be known, they knew it would not sit well with many of their constituents.
But of the three major coalitions in the House – Republicans, black Democrats and white Democrats – white Democrats now have the fewest numbers. For them to continue to have influence in the House, white Democrats must share power.
McCoy recognized that early on. He embraced it.
It was a formula for his success as speaker.
State Democrats on a broader level could take a few lessons from McCoy.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.