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18 Plates of Silver, Plates of Mud 1965–1970 On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The act had passed over the opposition of numerous southern congressmen, including the entire delegation from Mississippi. During the first five years of its enforcement, the act helped black politics in Mississippi shift from symbolic actions to serious attempts to gain public office. While black Mississippians continued to wage high-profile political campaigns for offices they could not hope to win, most civil rights organizations in the state focused on registering voters and running black candidates in local races in heavily black areas of the state. During the major election campaigns of 1967 and 1969, black voters elected the first significant number of black public officials in the state since the nineteenth century. Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and MFDP pursued strategies to turn civil rights organizing into tangible political gains. The NAACP focused on nominating and electing candidates in the Democratic primaries, while the MFDP rejected an association with segregationist Democrats and opted to support independent candidacies. The respective strategies produced the two most prominent black politicians of 1960s Mississippi. Robert Clark became the first black state legislator in the twentieth century when he won a seat from the MFDP enclave of Holmes County. Charles Evers, NAACP field secretary and successor to his slain brother, also assumed office as the mayor and head of an all-black town government in the biracial town of Fayette. The MFDP favored a grassroots, bottom-up approach that aimed to empower black communities and create local leaders, a strategy born 2 2 Plates of Silver, Plates of Mud: 1965–1970 | 19 from their origins in SNCC organizing and voter registration campaigns. Yet the NAACP’s top-down, bureaucratic “boss” approach, promoted by Charles Evers, Aaron Henry, and white moderates won out in the struggle for black political power in the 1960s. Ultimately, the NAACP strategy, with the backing of national Democrats, led to more black victories than the MFDP approach, and with the creation of the Loyalist Democrats, a more moderate alternative consisting of NAACP-backed civil rights leaders and white moderates, the MFDP faded from view. A host of other blacks, most elected as NAACP-backed Democrats, represented the first real political access for black Mississippians. Although most black candidates for office lost, enough won to establish the largest body of elected black officials since the nineteenth century. Some, like Osborne Bell in Marshall County and Howard Huggins in Holmes County, would later become the first black sheriffs in the twentieth century . Despite the stronger NAACP position, Mississippi black politics in the latter half of the 1960s lacked clear boundaries between the various civil rights organizations. The political organizing of NAACP-affiliated integrationists overlapped with MFDP-supported black independents and black power militants during the rebirth of black political activity in the Magnolia State. The Voting Rights Act, which covered all or part of seven southern states, allowed for the creation of this first generation of black politicians in the late 1960s. It provided federal registrars and poll watchers and suspended the use of literacy tests for voting in the affected jurisdictions . During its first five years, it significantly increased black voter registration in the affected states. Mississippi’s black voter registration rose from 6.7 percent of the black population to 59.8 percent by September 1967. However, the act did not fund voter education, so civil rights organizers bore the burden of educating prospective voters in the use of the ballot. The Justice Department did not dispatch federal examiners to all the counties, instead preferring voluntary compliance from state and local authorities. As late as March 1966, thirty counties, where less than twenty-five percent of the adult black population had been registered , still had not seen a single federal registrar. Sen. James Eastland’s influence as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee prevented the arrival of a registrar in his native Sunflower County until nearly a year after the act went into effect.1 The reluctance of the Justice Department to deploy federal registrars on a wide scale limited but did not prevent an increase in new voters. figure 2. Charles Evers, field director of the Mississippi NAACP in the 1960s. The controversial brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Charles Evers continued voter registration work in Mississippi after his brother’s assassination in 1963. By 1968 he won election as mayor of...


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