BILL MINOR: Civil rights issues shaped modern Mississippi GOP

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – There’s a presidential election in the United States on Nov. 6. but Mississippi’s vote has already been counted and the state’s six electors have been marked for the Republican ticket. That of course is what pollsters have already decided. For almost a century Mississippi has been “in the bag” for one party or the other.
For almost 70 consecutive years Mississippi was a solid Democratic state, except for a couple of third party excursions along the way. Then, a complete realignment in party preference began in the 1980s and for the last two decades and the state switched to the GOP bag.
Actually, the Democratic ticket hasn’t carried the state since former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter narrowly in 1976 edged out Republican Gerald Ford. Four years later, Carter lost Mississippi by only 1 percent to Republican Ronald Reagan for whom state GOPers had a longtime love affair.
The 1980 contest could very well be classified as Mississippi’s last truly competitive race between the two parties’ tickets. Richard Nixon in 1968 visualized a “Southern strategy” for Republicans to convert the South, fueled by Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act that enfranchised millions of black voters and brought widespread party switches by conservative Southern Democrats.
Perhaps the single biggest anomaly in Mississippi’s changing voting pattern came in 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the Republican standard-bearer, swept the state with an uncanny 88 percent of the vote. That marked the last time in Mississippi when a virtually all-white electorate decided the outcome. Goldwater, though the nominee of the historically hated Republicans, caught on with the state’s white Democrats because he had voted against the Civil Rights Act, a vote for which he later recanted.
Dissident Mississippi Democrats, unhappy with the national party’s growing movement toward enacting civil rights, in 1948 mounted what they hoped would be a South-wide bolt from the national party and block Harry Truman’s election.
Labeled “Dixiecrats” but calling themselves States’ Rights Democrats, the bolters held a rump convention in Alabama and nominated their own ticket. Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina headed it and Mississippi’s Gov. Fielding Wright became his running mate on a segregationist platform. The Dixiecrats carried Mississippi easily but only three states joined.
Mississippi returned to the Democratic fold in 1952 and 1956, but there were rumblings of a stronger Republican presence in the state electorate even then.
Ross Barnett’s “unpledged elector” scheme four years later in 1960 staged another Democratic bolt. The Barnett forces, backed by the segregationist Citizens Council, easily carried Mississippi, but after a tense election night when the Kennedy-Nixon race grew tight, JFK won enough electors.
Since the 1988 election, when George H. W. Bush after being named GOP nominee opened his campaign on the beach at Gulfport, Republicans have captured this state’s dwindling electoral vote as Democrats have become relegated to getting the mid-forties of the vote. How ‘bout that for a switch?
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.