The extent of political masochism in some states never ceases to amaze. It was evident most recently when Mississippi voters – among the poorest in the nation — re-elected the incumbent governor, rejecting a challenger whose candidacy offered them a good chance for breaking out of the cycle of poverty and the clutches of those committed to preserving the status quo.
Mississippi was the poorest state for 19 years between1982 and 2021 and among the five poorest for 38 years, the Associated Press reported. In 2021, the U.S. poverty rate was 11.6 percent; in Mississippi it was 17.4 percent, the highest in the nation. Still, on November 7, voters reelected Republican Tate Reeves over Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner seeking to become the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades.
Reeves sought re-election with a background tainted by a major financial scandal involving millions of dollars of anti-poverty funds – he has denied any wrongdoing — and an obvious anti-African American mindset. He once attended a Sons of Confederate Veterans gathering surrounded by Confederate battle flags.
Reeves has also been criticized for frequent attacks on the capital, Jackson, whose population is 80 percent African American – the most of any state. His administration became embroiled in a crisis that left most of the city’s 150,000 residents without running water for several days. Policing powers were taken away from elected city officials earlier this year. On the other hand, Presley is “an economic populist with deep roots in rural northern Mississippi,” according to The Nation’s John Nichols. He has a history of winning local and state elections, serving on the Public Service Commission since 2008 and establishing “a record of fighting on behalf of working families.” He promised to expand Medicaid so 230,000 Mississippians could finally access affordable health insurance, to save dozens of rural hospitals in danger of shutting down, eliminate “regressive grocery taxes” and break “the grip that corporate special interests have on the state government.”
The deciding factor seemed to have been not issues but two politicians not in the race. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Reeves, who supports his lie that the 2020 election was stolen. For Presley, it was President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party – allegedly the party of African Americans — in a state which Trump won by 16 points, where three of the four members of Congress are Republicans, who also hold two-thirds of the legislative seats.
Mississippi’s voter turnout is traditionally low. It was about 32 percent in the 2022 mid-term elections, which, Nichols pointed out, was the lowest in the country. For the gubernatorial primary, it was 10 percent lower than previously.
Presley’s hopes for winning hinged on the turnout of African Americans, who comprise 40 percent of Mississippi’s population – the highest of any state. But they, too, have a low turnout history and the fact that these were two European American candidates was not encouraging. Presley needed an African American turnout of at least 32 percent, according to the Cook Political Report, and he pushed hard for it, campaigning on African American radio, in churches and even at football tailgate parties. But the turnout he wanted came only for African American candidates: 34 and 35 percent for Barack Obama and 35 percent for Mike Espy who ran for the U.S. Senate and lost in a runoff.
The turnout last Tuesday was not immediately known but, whatever it was, Mississippi has a 120-year history of voter suppression. The state’s constitutional convention adopted a $2 poll tax (about $58 today) that effectively disenfranchised African Americans, most of whom were very poor. The “Mississippi Plan,” which took effect in 1892, prevented all but 8,615 of the state’s 76,742 African Americans from voting. It became a model for other Southern states and, as late as 1942, only three percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot in seven poll tax states, Emory University professor Carol Anderson noted in her book “White Rage.”
Voter suppression policies remained for 70 years, until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After that law took effect, the percentage of African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi soared from 6.7 to 59.4, Anderson wrote. But, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a section of the act requiring Mississippi and several other states with a history of electoral malpractice to obtain federal or judicial pre-clearance for proposed voting procedures changes. Those states, Anderson wrote, “all passed a compendium of voter suppression laws.”
There was an obvious link between voting and education, with Mississippi being among states that had denied education to African Americans and then made it a requirement to vote, especially after the Supreme Court abolished school segregation. “Mississippi reinforced an amendment requiring superior literacy and an ability to ‘understand’ and interpret the state’s constitution,” Anderson wrote. At the time, nearly 53 percent of Mississippi’s adult African American population had less than five years of formal education, compared to 10 percent of European Americans of voting age. As of 1960, more than 98 percent of African Americans were not registered to vote; in many counties, none were.
Mississippi also purged voter rolls and banned felons from voting for life — which, by 2020, affected 16 percent of the African American population. The state also imposed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country and had no clear system for early voting, Nichols reported.
Mississippi was a leader also in another form of voter-suppression: lynching. By 1920, more than 1,000 took place each decade nationwide, almost 90 percent of those killed being African Americans. Mississippi was among five states “that accounted for more than half of all lynchings in the nation,” Anderson wrote. It was in Mississippi where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed for trying to register African Americans to vote during Freedom Summer.
The genesis of all this was obviously the Black Codes, a series of laws in 1864, directed at frustrating Reconstruction, which Mississippi passed and nine of the other former Confederate States copied. Central to the Black Codes was a requirement that African Americans “sign annual labor contracts with plantation, mill or mine owners. If they refused or had no proof of gainful employment, they would be charged with vagrancy and put on the auction block, with their labor sold to the highest bidder,” Anderson wrote. It was an obvious response to the 13th Amendment that affirmed full citizenship rights for African Americans. Mississippi did not ratify the amendment until 2013, 148 years later.
“As they drafted their new constitutions, the delegates were defiant, dismissive of any supposed federal authority and ready to reassert and reimpose white supremacy as if the abolition of slavery and the Civil War had never happened,” Anderson wrote.
And it was only two years ago that Mississippi lawmakers voted to discard the state flag which was flown since 1894, The New York Times reported. The flag, which prominently displayed the Confederate battle emblem, was the only one of its kind left in the country.
Given that background, it is no surprise that Mississippi is one of 15 states that have banned the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), even though its education department repeatedly stated that it was being taught only at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Reeves claimed that “children are dragged to the front of the classroom and are coerced to declare themselves as oppressors, taught that they should feel guilty because of the color of their skin or that they are inherently a victim because of their race.”
That ludicrous assertion is similar to what Gov. Ron DeSantis used to justify banning CRT in Florida, a state that implemented several of Mississippi’s anti-African American policies. These also include restricting voting through the poll tax and purging the voter rolls and restrictive laws after pre-clearance was removed, adopting the Black Codes, lynching and disenfranchising exfelons.