By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Watch out Mississippi, here comes James Meredith on another mission.
Twice before when he has done that, it resulted in something of a train-wreck after which Meredith stood on the sideline with a “who me?” attitude, but his mission goal accomplished.
This time he’s up to nothing like breaking the color barrier at Ole Miss and triggering a campus riot that took 25,000 troops to quell; or launching an unaccompanied 200-mile “walk for freedom” down U.S. Highway 51 from the Tennessee state line to Jackson that started with him being shot in ambush. (The walk became a national story that attracted top civil rights figures, joined by hundreds of others and sparked violence along the way.)
No, Meredith has a tame but perennially impossible mission: to junk Mississippi’s 120-year-old white supremacy Constitution and write a new one that would spotlight progressive changes that have come to the state since 1890.
“This would change the whole image of Mississippi,” says the 77-year-old Meredith. “My idea is to go in with a clean slate and encourage free and honest debate,” he adds. “It is my contention that every other Southern state later adopted the Mississippi plan to establish white supremacy, and we have seen that subtly show up in other state constitutions. Mississippi has been made the whipping boy unjustly.”
Mississippians need to understand, he said, that they are living under a constitution “written in the 19th century and so written as to make change by amendments impossible.” A constitutional convention (“my life’s goal”) is the only option, Meredith contends.
It would be easy to dismiss Meredith’s call for a constitutional convention as a crackpot idea, what with the sharp partisan divide in the Mississippi Legislature and the strong-arm governance of Gov. Haley Barbour. It’s fascinating, however, to see how Meredith approaches accomplishing his mission.
He has no hope of getting any help from Barbour, so what has he done? He’s written letters to Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, and, yes, Marsha Barbour, the governor’s wife. Last check, he had received answers from neither.
To call a constitutional convention requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, that, in itself would be difficult because of opposition by the legislative black caucus to any constitutional changes which may affect the state’s legislative apportionment. Over the years, civil rights advocates have won federal court rulings that significantly increased election of black lawmakers by single-member districts rather than long-used multi-member districts.
Meredith is strangely confident that black lawmakers would not stand in the way of a convention he would propose. However, he won’t say why he is confident of black lawmakers’ support.
Two governors in the last 72 years – Martin Sennett (Mike) Conner and J. P. Coleman – have made serious efforts to call a constitutional convention, but both failed to win necessary legislative approval. Several others – particularly William Winter and Ray Mabus – made strong statements criticizing the 1890 Constitution for its racial bias and ineffectiveness, but made no fight to get the Legislature to call a convention to rewrite it.
A bit of history: The 1890 Constitution was the fourth written, and has remained in effect far longer than the other three. When Mississippi became a state in 1817 it consisted of only 14 counties in the Southwest part of the state. Forty-seven delegates wrote the initial document, which scholars have said reflected the “conservative elitist” views of the frontier framers.
A new constitution was drafted in 1832 amid the populist Jacksonian era, reflecting democratic impulses. The big issues were the disposition of the lands acquired from Indian cessions and whether the judiciary would be elective or appointive. Mississippi became the first state to adopt an elective judiciary.
To rejoin the Union after it’s 1861 Civil War secession, the state in 1869 had to write a new constitution. In a convention that included newly-enfranchised blacks the state was barred specifically from ever seceding again. This was called the “Reconstruction constitution,” but a number of scholars have said it was the most progressive, establishing a statewide system of free public schools. When voters failed to approve the constitution in an election, President Ulysses Grant had it resubmitted by sections with objectionable passages removed. Each then won approval.
The 1890 constitution was written by a convention largely aimed at throwing Reconstruction-era officials out of office, and installing a “black code” to virtually bar blacks from voter registration. It went into effect without submission to the voters.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.