By Bill Minor
JACKSON – When Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 voting Rights Act, he said “there goes the Democratic Party in the South.” How right he was.
Borderline Democrats, claiming the Democratic Party would become the “black man’s party” under VRA, began drifting to the long-hated Republican Party. Party realignment started slowly in Mississippi, but by the 1990s, GOPers – strengthened by urban counties – had gained parity with Democrats in the Senate and increased in the House.
Then 2011 saw the GOP win a majority of seats in both legislative branches for the first time since 1875. Rural white Democratic lawmakers became as scarce as hen’s teeth as GOP strategists began targeting rural white Dems for defeat and knocked off some of the ablest veterans.
Thus, 48 years of VRA, while giving Mississippi’s large black population long-denied access to the ballot, had delivered control of state government to Republicans. Meanwhile, using every trick available, Republicans set about to marginalize strength of the black voting bloc and rendered it ineffective on most big issues.
While the Voting Rights Act may well have outlawed prima facie voter discrimination, it is obvious it did not eliminate racial prejudice in choices for elective office. A shining example was the election of Mississippi’s state treasurer in 2003. Democrats put up a highly qualified black man, former state fiscal officer Gary Anderson who was challenged by a 29-year-old white Republican, Tate Reeves, a low-ranked Jackson bank employee with no previous experience in government. Although Anderson had substantial biracial support, especially from the banking community, the inexperienced Reeves was swept into office backed by the party establishment.
Some media commentators rushed to endorse the Supreme Court’s ruling by citing the impressive number of black elected officials in Mississippi as proof VRA is no longer needed here. But how many blacks have been elected to statewide office? The answer is none. That is why Gary Anderson’s unsuccessful bid in 2003 was a landmark case because it could have made the well-qualified Anderson the first African-American in modern times to win a statewide Mississippi constitutional office. Of note, no black has come that close since.
Another reality underlies the sizable number (900) of black elected officials in Mississippi: Only a tiny number of them were elected in white majority districts. Yet conversely, at least two black majority cities – Clarksdale and Indianola – have elected white mayors.
The Supreme Court decision striking down the key mechanism in the 1965 Voting Rights Act likely won’t lead to any move by white officials to revive the old “black code” obstacles to minority voting, but there are other less blatant methods already on the table that many believe would accomplish the same result. Of course, the move in Mississippi and a number of GOP-controlled states to install a rigid photo ID requirement comes to mind.
Backers of requiring a government-issued photo ID at the polls contend it is needed to protect “ballot integrity.” Yet they can’t come up with a case of someone intentionally misrepresenting himself to vote in Mississippi.
Obviously those most adversely affected by the photo ID are poor people, elderly blacks and whites and others without state-issued driver’s licenses.
So it looks as though we’re back to the “good old days” when if the state, city or any other jurisdiction makes some discriminatory voting change, you have to get legal representation and go to the courts to redress your rights. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR Has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.