BILL MINOR: In Mississippi, opportunity for new progress

JACKSON – First there was the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act and stripping away protection against racially discriminatory voting laws; then the acquittal of a white man for shooting to death an unarmed black youth in a gated white neighborhood; then admission of a celebrity chef she had used black epithets.

All of this, as Time magazine and several cable networks pointed out, has merged into angry, divisive public statements reminiscent of the explosive 1960s Civil Rights movement. When the president of the United States – himself the first black to occupy the office – feels compelled to speak out about the need for a national dialogue on race, you know this is a moment in history.

So how does the state of Mississippi fit into all of this? For once, there’s no way we can sit in the bleachers and say “let you and him fight.” We must realize that we have the highest proportion of black residents (37 percent) in the nation. Then we must understand the economic and political power is controlled by the 63 percent white population.

Further, we need to acknowledge that through clever manipulation of the levers of political power that political influence over Mississippi government and policy have been marginalized to the point of being neutralized.

The city of Jackson – remember, the capital of the state, and its largest city – is something of an anomaly in the statewide scheme of things. While the Capitol building is predominantly controlled by whites, the surrounding municipal government is controlled by black office holders, all the way from mayor to the seven-member city council. Eighty percent of the city’s residents now are African-American, representing a substantial increase since 30 years ago. Meantime,

Jackson in the last 20 years has had a 10 percent net population loss. “White flight” to the suburbs significantly began after the 1970 federal court ruling ordering massive desegregation of public schools.

As a journalist who has for 65 years closely watched the transition of Mississippi’s capital city and the state as a whole, I’ve seen black field hands, displaced from labor intensive plantations by mechanical and chemical technology, head to urban areas in search of employment. Those were the days of Jackson’s biggest growth.

But those days are gone. Now Jackson, which has elected a mayor with possible links to a more violent (and less-publicized) phase of the Civil Rights movement, could become a testing ground for post-Trayvon Martin America in a new chapter of racial division. Hopefully there are enough moderate, eloquent voices such as Myrlie Evers-Williams in our midst to lead Mississippi on a course away from again becoming a black-white battleground.

Blacks should not have to bear all the responsibility for racial reconciliation here in Mississippi or elsewhere. White leaders are the ones who have been pushing for raising barriers against minority voting, as well as the “stand your ground”laws such as the one in Florida that was at the root of the Trayvon Martin slaying.

Even crusty conservative Sen. John McCain of Arizona remarked last week that states with stand your ground and “castle doctrine” self defense laws should re-examine the laws in light of the Martin case, and their negative effect on minorities.

“We should not exacerbate relations between the races with such laws,” he declared.

The other day when a U.S. Senate committee held a hearing to consider possibly reviving major parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court, one political science professor called the effort a “joke.”

He might well have called it a “cruel” joke, because there is virtually no chance Congress will restore the key mechanism of VRA that has safeguarded access to the ballot for thousands of minority and elderly citizens across the South.

A lot more soul-searching seems in order before the country can begin a meaningful national dialogue on race. Maybe it can start in Mississippi, the deepest of Deep South states.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.