By Bill Minor
JACKSON – You would never convince two former Mississippi governors, Fielding Wright and Ross Barnett, that the country should do away with the electoral college for the election of presidents.
That idea was floated in the recent presidential election, especially from the Republican side at a time some of his people believed Mitt Romney could wind up with a majority of popular votes but fall short of electoral votes.
Of course, neither happened, but some electoral college abolitionists haven’t given up the idea.
Back to our two home-grown electoral college hawks – Wright in 1948 and Barnett 12 years later. Both sold the idea to Mississippians (and other Dixie states who would listen) of deadlocking the “college” as a weapon to attack what they considered the heartbeat of states’ rights. You might say it was a bloodless way to re-fight the Civil War.
Their logic (if any) was to retaliate against the National Democratic Party for growing more pro-civil rights by withholding enough of Dixie’s electoral votes from the party ticket to throw the election into the U.S. House. There, so the theory went, if the Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) wanted to get the electoral votes of Southern states they would have to promise some major concessions, such as anti-civil rights appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court or an Attorney General who would not push enforcement of civil rights laws.
Wright, a silver-haired mild-mannered lawyer from tiny Sharkey County in the Delta, who was not a racial demagogue as were many other Southern politicians of that era, grabbed national headlines in his 1948 inaugural by calling for a South-wide bolt from the Democratic Party, which the region had loyally supported for decades.
As expected, Wright’s clarion call for an Old Confederacy party revolt evolved into a movement dubbed the Dixiecrats. A rump convention in Birmingham nominated Gov. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate, Wright for vice president, and adopted a segregationist-scented platform which also called for Gulf Coast states to get the major part of revenues from offshore oil production. That ticket carried Mississippi and three other Southern states but didn’t stop Harry Truman’s election.
Barnett came along in 1960 with a states’ rights version of the Dixiecrats, simply calling it the “Unpledged elector” movement, pushed behind the scenes by the segregationist Citizens’ Councils. Basically, the movement was aimed at blocking the election of John F. Kennedy, which, of course, didn’t happen.
Of course, Barnett’s unpledged (sometimes called unwashed) electors carried Mississippi but except for a couple of scattered bolters elsewhere went nowhere. The historical irony is that Barnett would confront President Kennedy twelve years later and again invoke states’ rights in a desperate attempt to block enrollment of one black student (James Meredith) to the all-white University of Mississippi, triggering a campus riot quelled by 25,000 troops dispatched by Kennedy.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.