By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Have you been counted yet in the 2010 federal census?
Evidently a lot of Mississippians haven’t – and won’t be – judging from a story in The New York Times last week. Writing from the tiny Delta town of Mayersville in Issaquena County, the Times reporter showed how difficult it is just to find one resident for every 116 acres in the sparsely-populated county. And when found, it’s hard to get straight answers from the person, likely an African-American.
According to the Times story, many Delta blacks in the poverty-ridden region mistrust census-takers, fearing that someone from the government asking questions may cut off their Medicaid payments or other welfare benefit.
Not just blacks are hard to count in rural Mississippi, evidently. National reports on census forms received as of last week showed Mississippi’s percentage of forms returned was among the lowest in the country.
Now you can see why state officials loudly complained about an undercount when the last census was taken in 2000. The most questions surrounded the predominantly black 2nd Congressional District. Despite a desperate last-minute attempt to turn up some more residents, Mississippi lost one of its five Congressional districts, leading to a fractious partisan struggle that is still being felt.
Several Issaquena residents interviewed by the Times reporter told why they and their fellow Deltans don’t see any importance in being counted in the census. “If we get counted what is it going to matter?” said one.
Some did perk up when told that the census can determine how $400 billion in federal funds is spent. “I didn’t know it was worth money,” said one black lady.
The responses from the Delta residents indicated that the matter of representation in the Legislature or Congress is not high on their list of concerns, in sharp contrast to Mississippi lawmakers who are looking forward anxiously to whether their seat will be pulled out from under them in a reapportionment based on population. Ironically, two decades ago the tiny town of Valley Park in Issaquena County was the home of the most powerful state representative, House Speaker C. B. “Buddie” Newman.
The census didn’t mean much to Mississippians until the 1970’s because for some 80 years, the Legislature ignored Section 256 in the state’s 1890 Constitution which called for reapportionment of legislative seats decennially after each census. But because Section 256 said “may” instead of “shall,” longtime Speaker Walter Sillers interpreted that as “never” and blocked consideration of any reapportionment bill. Outrageously, when the 1890 Constitution was written, House and Senate seats were specifically allocated by name and the state was divided into three “grand” legislative divisions, in an obvious attempt to bar the election of any black members.
Finally, even the courtly Sillers realized after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961 handed down its momentous “one man, one vote” decision in a Tennessee legislative case, his embargo against reapportioning legislative seats was coming to an end. Even then, for nearly 10 years, he allowed only token shifting of legislative seats, mostly to give the most grossly under-represented counties along the Gulf Coast and Hinds County some additional seats.
Not until 1974 was there a full-fledged redistricting according to population and when a federal court ordered the state to create single-member House and Senate districts, eliminating the perennial multi-member districts, did the number of blacks elected to the Legislature greatly expand.
The population growth landscape has changed dramatically from what it was 10 or 20 years ago, partly due to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Formerly the growth counties were the three along the Gulf Coast. Now it’s DeSoto county in the suburbs of Memphis, along with Rankin and Madison, the bedroom communities for state employees and business people who work in Jackson, plus shopping centers that have fled the capital city.
Significantly, DeSoto, Rankin and Madison are Republican strongholds, which bodes well for the GOP to gain ground in the Legislature’s makeup.
Katrina has left a big question mark on the present population of coastal Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties as many residents who lost their homes in the storm relocated upstate or left the state.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.