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191 9 9 The Delta District and the Continuing Politics of Race By the 1980s, many of the legal barriers that diluted the black vote had fallen or would fall soon. Although the total percentage of elected black officials did not equal the percentage of African Americans in the Mississippi population, civil rights activists had made major strides in the state legislature and on the local level. During the 1980s the Delta became the major campaign of black political activists, where they pushed for the restoration of a majority-black congressional district that would lead to the first black representative since the nineteenth century. While eventually successful in electing a black congressman , black Democrats faced a number of hurdles in their quest, from whites in their own party as well Republicans. The successful election of Mike Espy in 1986 showed that not only did race remain a salient issue in Mississippi politics in the post–civil rights era, but it also influenced what kind of black candidate could win an election in a biracial district. The Mississippi Delta is a geographically and culturally distinct area, a rich diamond-shaped alluvial basin hemmed in by bluffs and the Yazoo River on the east and the Mississippi River on the west. Stretching two hundred miles south of Memphis to Vicksburg, the humid subtropical Delta remained largely a wilderness until after the Civil War, with only a small portion settled. Since antebellum times, the Delta has also possessed a majority-black population as white southerners used slaves to grow cotton for export, and this white domination continued after emancipation. With the exception of a brief moment during 192 | After Freedom Summer Reconstruction, the Delta and its rural black proletariat remained wholly under the thrall of a white elite, who combined the twin features of white supremacist paternalism and economic development.1 While the racial paternalism of the planters contrasted somewhat with the rabidly racist populism of the hills, white Deltans hardly treated their black neighbors with goodwill. Lynching, while less common per capita in the Delta than in other parts of the state, still enjoyed significant white support as a means of racial subjugation. White landlords in the Jim Crow era, despite their imagined benevolence, regularly cheated and exploited their tenants. Even the New Deal strengthened the planters’ hold over the lives of their workers. Only a few programs, such as the Farm Security Administration’s loans to allow black farmers in Holmes County to buy land, provided relief to black Deltans.2 The state legislature in 1882 created a separate congressional district encompassing the Delta’s geographic borders and maintained it for decades afterwards. By the 1950s, eleven black-majority Delta counties made up the third congressional district, represented by Frank Smith, a moderate Democrat who won his seat in 1950 by advocating economic development and promised “to support the traditional viewpoint” of white voters on race. Despite his personal opposition to segregation and lack of demagoguery, he publicly supported it and signed the Southern Manifesto.3 Smith openly backed John F. Kennedy for president in 1960, which led Gov. Ross Barnett and state Speaker of the House Walter Sillers to redraw the state’s congressional districts and reflect loss of a seat due to the 1960 census. In 1962, they absorbed Smith’s third district into archconservative Rep. Jamie Whitten’s second district, creating a new second district with a black majority of 113,000. The district remained culturally and geographically the Delta, especially since some of the new counties lay partly in the Delta. Whitten, a native of Tallahatchie County and an eleven-term incumbent, defeated Smith in the 1962 elections.4 Whitten did not represent the Delta in its entirety for long. The Voting Rights Act soon prompted the legislature to take action on congressional redistricting mid-decade. In October 1965, Henry Kirksey and the MFDP filed the first of the Conner lawsuits against redistricting and legislative malapportionment under the “one man, one vote” standard of Reynolds v. Sims. The legislature had not redrawn the other districts, so the new second district had a population of 608,411, over twice the population of the least-populous fourth district. The legislature knew that The Delta District and the Continuing Politics of Race | 193 such a plan would not be upheld in the wake of Reynolds, so it moved to redraw the districts before the court hearing in 1966.5 The legislature adopted a plan in April that would nullify the...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813040639
Print ISBN
9780813037387
MARC Record
OCLC
757826249
Pages
350
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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