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53 Gubernatorial Fantasies and Gradual Gains President Richard Nixon, despite his “Southern Strategy” to woo segregationist whites to the Republican Party, signed the Voting Rights Act into law for another five years in 1970 over the opposition of Mississippi’s congressional delegation.1 During the extension period, black Mississippians continued the trend established in the 1967 and 1969 elections and shifted away from statewide races that raised black consciousness and turned instead towards races in heavily black counties where candidates could actually win offices. The older methods of the 1960s did not completely disappear with the shift to electoral politics. Black candidates on the local level expanded and in some cases secured majority control of county governments and city halls, but also continued the use of high-profile, largely symbolic races. The most prominent symbolic race in the early 1970s was Charles Evers’s 1971 gubernatorial bid, which attracted major publicity but produced few tangible gains. Away from the media glare of the Evers campaign, black candidates won municipal and county offices in areas with heavy African-American populations. The direct action and protest of the 1960s continued to exist alongside black political organizing, although mass protest did not have the same prominence it enjoyed in the prior decade. Liberals and civil rights advocates had worried that the Nixon administration would abandon the Voting Rights Act when U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell proposed to expand the coverage of the act nationwide to take the focus off of the South. Mitchell also frightened civil rights activists with his proposal to replace section five preclearance 3 3 54 | After Freedom Summer and the automatic review of election laws with voluntary litigation by the Justice Department. After some debate, Congress in 1970 passed a five-year extension of the act that preserved section five and suspended literacy tests nationwide. President Nixon, who did not want to deepen national divisions in the wake of growing unrest on college campuses over the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, signed the extension into law.2 The gains of the civil rights forces did not mean the white political establishment in Mississippi had given up fighting black political power. The legislature revived open primary legislation, first passed in 1966 but vetoed by Gov. Paul Johnson who had called it “radical.” The law abolished party primaries and the opportunity for a candidate to win the general election with a plurality and replaced them with an open, nonpartisan primary with a runoff for the top two vote-getters if no one received a majority. Increasing black voter registration since 1966 and the possibility of a white Republican splitting the unified white vote revived fears of a black candidate winning with a plurality. Although a unified black vote did not materialize in the 1967 elections, Charles Evers’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 1968 raised concerns that a black candidate could win a plurality in the 1971 statewide elections. The legislature passed the law again in April 1970, and a federal lawsuit by Evers and others led to its suspension on section five preclearance in April 1971.3 Back in Mississippi, black officeholders continued to slowly increase their numbers, such as when voters in Shaw in Bolivar County elected their first black alderman. Media attention in 1970 ignored local races and focused on the town of Fayette and its all-black government. Major news outlets covered the political sweep of the town’s offices, which Evers and his allies had conducted in 1969. Life, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker reported the election and his administration’s efforts to improve Fayette to a national audience.4 Evers brought some notable reforms to the Jefferson County seat in his first two years as mayor. He and his allies on the city council quickly integrated the town’s eight-man police force, but the last remaining white officer quit by the end of 1970. He also appointed Robert Vanderson, a black schoolteacher, as the chief of police and authorized him to enforce Evers’s law and order dictums. Reflecting his penchant for authoritarian measures, Evers ordered a 1:00 A.M. curfew for town bars and a police crackdown down on public swearing, drunkenness Gubernatorial Fantasies and Gradual Gains | 55 and speeding. Evers and Vanderson’s application of the law earned the mayor a grudging respect from whites and resentment from some black residents. After Evers received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, he and the city council also...


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