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1 Introduction On March 14, 1977, Fannie Lou Hamer died at a hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Hamer, who had been suffering from breast cancer and diabetes, had largely been out of high-profile civil rights activities since the early 1970s. This included an unsuccessful run for the state Senate in 1971, an extension of her activities with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1960s. Hamer’s death drew major media coverage and attracted aging civil rights figures to her memorial service, including former congressman Andrew Young whom President Jimmy Carter had recently appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Aaron Henry, head of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).1 The gathering of African-American dignitaries, many now in positions of power, served as a reminder of the significant changes brought by the civil rights movement and the black enfranchisement created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now twice renewed by the time of Hamer’s passing. Yet other less public changes were also evident in Mississippi , the state long regarded as the most recalcitrant on civil rights due to its history of violence and white political resistance going back to Reconstruction. Ten days before Hamer’s death, Governor Cliff Finch, who had overseen the final integration of the state Democratic Party in 1976, signed into law a bill abolishing the State Sovereignty Commission . Some changes were symbolic ones, such as Gov. William Waller proclaiming (but not attending) Medgar Evers Day in 1973 on the anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination. Hamer herself had been honored with a commemorative day in her hometown of Ruleville 2 | After Freedom Summer in 1976. Others were more tangible, namely the elections of Unita Blackwell and Violet Leggette as the first two black women mayors in Mississippi , and the appointment of Robert Clark, one of only four black state legislators, to become the first black committee chairman in the twentieth century. Clark’s leadership as head of the House Education Committee would play a major role in bringing about a significant reform of the state’s public education system in 1982.2 These advances obviously did not come without struggle, but the fight for black political empowerment continued well after the post1965 era. In 1977, most state legislators were elected from white-majority multimember districts created by a nearly all-white legislature, a system which largely prevented the election of black candidates. No black sheriffs had held office since Reconstruction, and black county supervisors were underrepresented. The state’s largest city, Jackson, had an all-white city commission, and African Americans did not hold any major state offices, state Senate positions, or U.S. House seats. Black political underrepresentation was largely due to state and local gerrymandering and vote dilution, and black voters and civil rights attorneys still actively contested it in the 1970s. Despite these barriers, many studies of the civil rights era give the impression that significant white resistance to black voting ended with the 1960s and neglect the period of the new black politics of the later civil rights years. Yet in the state of Mississippi, white hostility did not quickly dissipate. Mississippi, which fought desegregation more fiercely than other southern states in the “classical” phase of the civil rights era, continued this resistance into the post-1965 period.3 The state’s opposition to integration became more sophisticated and legalistic and was expressed through a variety of vote-dilution mechanisms. Civil rights activists and black voters in the post-1965 period utilized the federal government and courts to defeat these schemes and turn black suffrage into tangible and recognizable black political power in state and local governments. This monograph examines the continuing centrality of race in Mississippi politics, specifically the development of black politics and the resulting white response in the years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the latter phase of the “long civil rights movement.”4 While the violence of the 1960s had largely passed by the 1970s, the basic issues of political access were still being contested in Mississippi on the state and local levels. As the direct action of the civil rights movement Introduction | 3 shifted to black political access, the movement in many ways reverted back to its pre-Brown focus on legal activism, a tactic used widely by the NAACP, as Timothy Minchin as shown.5 This institutionalizing of the movement was not only due to federal...


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Mississippi -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • African American politicians -- Mississippi -- History -- 20th century.
  • Political participation -- Mississippi -- History -- 20th century.
  • Mississippi Freedom Project -- Influence.
  • Mississippi -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Mississippi -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Mississippi -- Race relations -- Political aspects -- History -- 20th century.
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