Primary Day in Mississippi –by Peter Eisenstadt

Primary Day in Mississippi
Peter Eisenstadt

It was primary run-off day in South Carolina on Tuesday. We voted in a storefront church in a strip mall. In South Carolina, there is no party registration, so you can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary, but if there is a run-off, you are obliged to vote in the same party you voted for in the regular primary. This was not an especially noteworthy primary. South Carolina has a lot of elected officials, which might sound like a good thing, but since most people if they care about politics at all, focus on the top of the ticket, it becomes an exercise in sham democracy. Not many people showed up, no more than 10% of eligible voters, for a run-off between candidates for Superintendent of Education, and Adjutant-General, whatever the hell that is. But we did.

Anyway, the first thing they did was to ask us for our photo IDs, and I decided not to make a scene about the racist evil inherent in such a requirement, the election officials were just following orders, after all, and I fished out my South Carolina driver’s license. The election official remembered us. “Oh,” she said, “you were the Democrats.” We had complained during the primary that sample ballots for Republicans were available, but none for the Democrats, and they promptly did the right thing, and made sample Democratic ballots available. So, I asked, “how many Democrats and how many Republicans voted in the primary?” Well, she replied, “about 5 Democrats and 120 Republicans.” The Dems are not going to be winning elections in our patch of upstate South Carolina.

I tell this anecdote because the same day as our South Carolina, elsewhere in the Deep South, in the sovereign state of Mississippi, there was a run-off in a primary for the US Senate that attracted national attention, in which a long-term Republican senator was challenged by a Tea Partier, and the senator, Thad Cochrane, resorted to the desperate expedient of encouraging black Mississippians to vote for him in the primary, and the gambit paid off, and Cochrane eked out a narrow victory, evidently, election analysis indicated, on the strength of black voters.

And the same week was the 50th anniversary of the murders, in Mississippi, of the three civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, American martyrs, whose bravery and dedication should always be remembered. They were part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, whose main purpose was to register black Mississippians for the vote. Voting, they argued, is the most fundamental and basic right. With the vote, all other rights follow.

They were right, of course. By 1965 the back of Jim Crow had been (or at least was being) broken. And soon, all across Mississippi, primarily in local elections, black voted, and often elected black candidates. But what is striking about the state is how circumscribed is black voting power. Of all the states, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American population, about 37%. (South Carolina is fourth, at about 28%.) The thought was, in 1964, with those numbers, blacks in Mississippi would never be electorally marginalized again.

They were wrong. Although moderate Democrats did okay for while (since 1964, three moderate southern Democrats have been elected president–Johnson, Carter, and Clinton—four if you count Al Gore.) But Republicans, which after 1964 rapidly became the party of white southerners, learned to close ranks. In Mississippi and South Carolina, something like 10% to 15% of white Southerners in 2012 voted for Obama, enough to neutralize the enormous black voting bloc. And this is to say nothing of the underhanded means, such as ID requirements and gerrymandering, that further dampen black voting strength. And this means that in Mississippi, with the highest percentage of black voters in the nation, is the only state in the union that has the Confederate stars and bars on its state flag. And Mississippi has never elected a non-segregationist Democrat to the US Senate (that is, no Democrats since the Dixiecrats Stennis and Eastland finally shuffled off the mortal coil in the early 1970s.) So the Republican primary becomes the only real election in the state, and black Mississippians knew their choice was between the devil they knew, Sen. Cochran, and a neo-Confederate jackass whose braying did little to disguise his disdain for blacks, and they voted accordingly. Good for them, and I hope they exact payment for their votes—such as expanding the state’s Medicaid.

What are the implications of this? One reason why Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner were killed was the fear of white Mississippians that if blacks got the vote, they would also gain political power, and soon control the state. As often happens, both the hopes on one side, and the fears on the other, were exaggerated. Black Mississippians won, but white Mississippians didn’t exactly lose. A similar thing transpired in South Africa. An expansion of the voting franchise, without changing the structures of power, doesn’t change enough. Another example is female suffrage—a century old, and women still have nowhere near 50% of elective offices, and it is only in the past two decades that the number of women in politics is more than a statistical anomaly.

And then, by entirely legal means, if a majority is determined to stick together, they can neutralize a minority, even a sizable minority. The Arabs in Israel, making up 20% of the electorate, generally with 0% of the political power, because of the unwritten rule that “non-Zionist” parties can never participate in the government, is another example of this. And much of the ferocity of the tea party in the South comes from the recognition that only by near complete white unity can black influence in southern politics be thwarted.

The lesson of last Tuesday’s election, and the lasting lesson of the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner is that no cause is permanently won, and every generation must fight old battles, sometimes under new banners, with different strategies. Poverty, grotesque and grotesquely unfair rates of incarceration, segregation in schools and housing, lack of vocational opportunities, lack of effective political power, still bedevils blacks and other racial minorities today. And an effective strategy to address these issues is difficult to find. But voting effectively and making strong interracial coalitions is certainly part of the answer. In many ways it is shocking how much the South has regressed racially in recent decades, fed by Republican triumphalism and the fires of the Tea Party. But one thing is clear; if we want to honor the memory of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, we need to work to make Mississippi, South Carolina, the Old South, the Old North, the entire nation, and indeed, the entire world, the vibrant interracial democracy they died to create.