Mississippi, like several states in the deep South, is polarized politically on the basis of race. The majority of whites are Republican, and the overwhelming majority of blacks are Democratic.
The Democratic Party in Mississippi winds up being an integrated group, but it’s hardly a place of racial harmony. Bob Moser, in his book Blue Dixie, explains some of the history behind this:
Beginning in the 1970s, Mississippi Democrats had been split by race into two different parties-a fissure far deeper than in most of the South. For years, there were black and white cochairs statewide, and many counties had exclusively black or white executive committees. The divisions stemmed from the 1960s, when most whites who’d historically dominated the party refused to accept black Democrats into the fold-a refusal symbolized by the standoffs over delegations at the national conventions in ’64 and ’68.
The book goes on to note that over time, black and white Democrats have reconciled and unified throughout the state. But it seems there’s still a ways to go before tensions between the two groups are eliminated.
Case in point: the recent reality show drama of the Mississippi Democratic Party’s Executive Committee. Consider these events:
• In February, the Mississippi Democratic Party’s Executive Committee selected Sam Hall as its new Executive Director. Hall, a political consultant, formerly served the party as a communications director, and was also director of the Mississippi House Democrats’ Political Action Committee. As Executive Director, Hall would oversees the daily operations of the party and its staff at the Jackson, MS headquarters.
The vote for Hall was split along racial lines: whites on the Executive Committee voted for Hall, while the black vote was split between the current interim director Rosalind Rawls and Chris Smith. Both Rawls and Smith are black.
Willie Griffin, a black member of the Executive Committee, was publicly critical of Hall’s selection. Griffin said that Hall has a history of endorsing Republicans, including Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, Congressman Chip Pickering and others. Griffin added:
In the last eight to 10 years, our party has been pushing party loyalty… We don’t need a Republican speaking for us. We have competent people who can run our party.
• On Saturday, March 21, the Mississippi Democratic Party’s Executive Committee held a meeting. Jamie Franks, the Democratic Party Chair, was out of town As such, the vice chair-Barbara Blackmon-conducted the meeting. Note that, Franks is white, Blackmon is white.
At the meeting, Hall was ousted from the Executive Director position by a vote of the Executive Committee – or at least, by the members who were present at the meeting.
• Also at the March 21 meeting, Ike Brown, who is black, is voted onto the Executive Committee. Brown is an extremely controversial figure in Mississippi politics. As noted here:
Brown, the former chair of the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee, was removed from that position by a federal judge as a settlement of a federal voting rights lawsuit. Brown was accused of discriminating against white candidates and disenfranchising voters in Noxubee County with his actions. Noxubee County is majority Black. Brown was not re-elected to the state executive committee last year due to his legal troubles.
In a statement, Brown says that in his “zeal to support the Democratic Party and its candidates, I ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act… I look forward to the opportunity to redeem myself as a member of the committee. My future conduct will reflect that I respect the rights of all voters of every race to participate in the election process.”
The Mississippi Republican Party immediately made political hay out of Brown’s election. Brad White, chairman of the state GOP, said in a news release:
“I think it is outrageous that the leaders of the Mississippi Democratic Party would vote to put Ike Brown, who has been sanctioned by the Department of Justice for violating the voting rights of members of his own party, on their state executive committee which is charged with representing all Mississippi Democrats.”
TV station WLBT in Jackson ran this story about it:
• Upon his return to town, Franks claims he was unaware that a meeting was called on March 21 and questioned the legality of its actions. Blackmon contends the meeting was duly called, and its actions are official.
• The Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Committee holds another meeting on March 26. Afterward, Jamie Franks, the Democratic Party Chair, says that Sam Hall will continue to serve as the party’s executive director. Franks also says that Chris Smith was hired as political director.
• Also on March 26, Jamie Franks, the Democratic Party Chair, announces the appointment of Eduardo Martinez as interim Executive Vice Chair. The executive vice chair oversees the party’s administrative committee, which can hire and fire staff. Martinez is the first Hispanic to serve in that position.
• March 27: The Martinez appointment sparks outrage from State Democratic Vice Chair Barbara Blackmon. Remember: Franks is white, Blackmon is black.
Blackmon says the Martinez appointment is improper, for two reasons. First, Blackmon says Martinez was not a member of the administrative committee, and therefore cannot serve on it.
Blackmon also said that the party’s bylaws require the executive vice chairman to be of the opposite race of the chairman. Blackmon (correctly) noted that Hispanic is not a race, but an ethnicity. As such, she said, “you cannot inject a Hispanic in that position.”
Franks responds by saying “In following the Constitutional requirements for that office, I appointed someone of opposite race than me by selecting the first Hispanic member of the Mississippi Democratic Party to ever serve in a leadership position. I consulted with the officers of the Executive Committee, including Vice Chairwoman Blackmon, before making my selection.”
It’s all been a big, ugly, embarrassing mess for the Mississippi Democrats. They could probably use some intervention, but who is there to come in and mediate the differences between the warring factions?
Erik Fleming, a black Mississippi Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for US Senator last year, offered this sober assessment of the events in his blog:
Now it seems that the racial tensions of generations past are re-emerging in the Mississippi Democratic Party, reminiscent of the days of the Regulars/Dixiecrats and the Loyalists/Mississippi Freedom Democrats. That division eventually played out on a national stage, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. This current rift could also have national implications, as the DNC has been funding the state party for the past four years and it is questionable whether the DNC will continue that arrangement.
So far the revolt has not become an all-out war, but if it is not resolved soon, it could and thus have devastating consequences for the upcoming Congressional and statewide elections in 2010 and 2011. Stay tuned…
But wait, there’s more! In Part 2 of this look at Mississippi politics, we’ll take a focus on the mayoral race in Jackson, MS. There’s more absurdity to follow.