A lawsuit over a Mississippi election law, if successful, will change the way that state elects its governor.
Four African Americans filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in May 2019, charging that the way their state elects its statewide officials violates the Voting Rights Act, the 14th Amendment and the principle of “one-person, one-vote.”
To win election, a candidate for governor of Mississippi has to win an outright majority of the popular vote – and win a majority of the state’s 122 House districts.
Today, Mississippi is one of only two states where the winner of the popular vote does not automatically become governor. Vermont is the other. In the 19th century, however, many states had such laws.
The damage that these laws did to democratic legitimacy and political stability in the 1870s, ‘80s and ’90s was not conjecture. These laws were intended to entrench the rule of the party in power.
This November, Mississippi is preparing for its first close gubernatorial election since 1999. The election law that is the focus of the lawsuit could decide who wins. Its origins and the track record of similar laws in more competitive states bear investigation.
They included the majority vote and state House district provision in the constitution as a backstop to preserve white control of Mississippi. However, voter suppression and a racially polarized electorate have produced few competitive elections in Mississippi, ensuring that the backstop has rarely been necessary.
In the 19th century, many states with similar election laws had much more competitive elections. The bad results these laws produced in close contests demonstrate the worst-case possibilities of Mississippi’s system.
The crowbar governor
These anti-majoritarian laws in governors’ races caused what legal scholar Edward B. Foley termed “a veritable epidemic” of crises during the Gilded Age.
In West Virginia (1888), Rhode Island (1893) and Tennessee (1894), partisan legislatures overruled the voters to install governors in office who had failed to win the most votes.
The 1890 drama in Connecticut provides the worst example of these laws in action.
Democratic candidates running for governor won the most votes in every Connecticut election during the 1880s. But with multiple parties running, they never captured a majority. The legislature, gerrymandered to favor the Republicans, installed their candidates in office 4 out of 5 times, even though they never even won a plurality.
In 1890, the Connecticut legislature was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. That year’s gubernatorial election was thrown to the legislature. Deadlock ensued. In a three-way race, where the Democrat had won nearly 4,000 more votes than his Republican opponent, Republicans in the state Senate refused to seat him.
Though the Democrats held the moral high ground, the Republicans had the election law on their side. With the stalemate, the sitting Republican governor, Morgan G. Bulkeley, who had not even run for re-election, simply stayed in office for two more years.
While Bulkeley’s supporters commended him for stepping in to “hold the fort,” his unelected tenure provoked a crisis of legitimacy that ground state government to a halt.
When the legislature refused to appropriate funds for the state budget, Bulkeley borrowed $300,000 ($8.3 million today) from his family’s company – Aetna Life Insurance – to pay for state operations. Neighboring states refused to acknowledge the legality of arrest warrants he issued. At one point, the Democrats changed the locks on the governor’s office and Bulkeley popped them off with a crowbar.
But Bulkeley’s methods had damaged the Republican Party’s reputation. In the regularly scheduled 1892 election, the Democrat who had won the most votes in 1890, Luzon B. Morris, won an outright majority and became governor.
The hero of Gettysburg
In Maine in 1879, a similar election law came close to provoking a civil war.
The sitting Democratic governor, Alonzo Garcelon, placed a distant third in the election, behind the Republican and Greenback candidates. Because no one won an outright majority, the new legislature, which Republicans expected to control, would decide the winner.
As the incumbent, however, Garcelon had power over certifying the legislative election results. Using every trick in the book, Garcelon’s cronies overturned enough election results to give his allies control of the new legislature.
The state’s supreme court ruled his actions illegal, but Garcelon ignored them and seated his illegitimate legislature, hoping they would vote to re-elect him governor.
Bands of armed Mainers from both sides of the dispute began gathering in the capital. Only the intervention of Civil War hero and former Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain averted bloodshed. Chamberlain, head of the state’s militia, refused to take sides. When a group of Garcelon’s supporters pushed into Chamberlain’s office, he opened his shirt and dared them to do what the rebels had failed to at Gettysburg.
The supreme court again ruled that the Republicans had the right to organize the legislature and appoint the governor. For two more weeks Garcelon refused to back down, but when Chamberlain publicly accepted the court’s decision and sided with the Republicans, the crisis came to an end.
If the civil rights lawsuit against the gubernatorial election process succeeds, it will mark a repudiation of Mississippi’s legacy of racial disfranchisement.
If it does not succeed, then Mississippi’s legislature and governor might want to consider the examples of Connecticut in 1890 and Maine in 1879.
Laws that place anti-democratic restrictions on the popular vote have a bad track record in competitive elections. At best they add unnecessary complexity and instability to what should be a simple system.
At worst they undermine the principle of popular rule, damage voters’ faith in democracy and provoke crises of legitimacy.
In August of 1955, Emmett Till was lynched in the Mississippi Delta. The 14-year-old African American reportedly whistled at a white woman, violating the racial norms of the Jim Crow South. For this supposed infraction, he was abducted, tortured, shot and dropped in a river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck.
Yet for 49 years and 11 months, his murder was all but forgotten in the Delta – the first memorial to Till wasn’t dedicated until July 1, 2005.
Since then, however, the region has witnessed an unprecedented “memory boom.” More than US$4 million has been invested in dozens of roadside markers, a museum, two restored buildings, an interpretive center, a walking park and a community building.
But many details of what happened to Till on that fateful night remain murky, and the abrupt investment in his memory raises a series of questions. Who gets to tell this racially charged story? Who gets to decide what, exactly, happened? And what’s motivating the construction of these memorials?
My just-published book, “Remembering Emmett Till,” addresses these questions head on. It suggests that as Till’s story has been passed down through the generations and taken up by a range of memorials, its plot has been shaped by forces like poverty as much as by fidelity to historical fact.
This is nowhere more conspicuous than in the village of Glendora, a small community 150 miles south of Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Beset by poverty, the village clings desperately to a version of Till’s story that few others seem to believe.
A community mired in poverty
Glendora is saturated with memorials. The tiny town of five streets boasts 18 signs dedicated to the memory of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder. In addition, Glendora is also home to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, a Till-themed park and the Black Bayou Bridge – a long-decommissioned bridge recently explored in a New York Times article as the site from which Till’s body may have been dropped in the water.
Glendora is also marked by breathtaking poverty. In an application for federal assistance, town officials noted that the Glendora median household income is 70% below the state average, 68% of families live below the poverty line, and just 18% of the adults have earned a high school education. According to numbers published by Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas in 2017, 86% of children in the village live below the poverty line. Partners in Development, a nonprofit committed to helping the poorest of the poor, has chosen to focus on Haiti, Guatemala and Glendora, Mississippi.
The Glendora version of Till’s story is unique on two counts.
First, while virtually every 20th-century history of Till’s murder suggests that the murderers dropped the body in the Tallahatchie River, the commemorative work in Glendora suggests that Till was dropped into a tributary known as the Black Bayou from a bridge on the south side of Glendora. According to this account, the bayou then carried Till’s body for three miles to the Tallahatchie River, where it was recovered.
Second, while no historian has been able to say with certainty where the murderers obtained the fan they used to weigh down Till’s corpse, the Glendora museum claims that the fan was stolen from the Glendora Cotton Gin, presumably by Elmer Kimbell, a gin employee and the next-door neighbor of confessed murderer J. W. Milam.
While these variations on the finer points of Till’s story may seem like minutiae, to Glendora residents they are matters so weighty that it sometimes seems as if the very future of the town hinges on where Till’s body was dropped in the water and what fan weighed it down.
In 2010, the Mississippi Development Authority sent a team of economic development experts to Glendora. Their charge was to devise a plan to rescue the town from poverty – a tall order.
The team struggled to find solutions. Aside from the unrealistic suggestion that the town turn the snake-infested land along the bayou into “riverfront property,” the development authority’s only other proposal was that Glendora capitalize on its connection to the Till murder. More commemoration, they said, would bring tourists; tourism would beget economic development.
The viability of this suggestion, of course, turned on a version of Till’s story that maximized the relevance of Glendora. None of this was news to Mayor Thomas. Since at least 2005, he had been promoting a Glendora-centric narrative of the murder in which Till’s body was dropped in the Black Bayou tied with a fan from the local gin.
The state agency has invested more funds into Till’s commemoration than any other organization.
It restored the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, the site of the Till trial, and even invested $200,000 in the controversial restoration of Ben Roy’s Service Station in Money, Mississippi. Although the service station sits just 67 feet south of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the site of Till’s alleged whistle, it played no role in the Till murder, aside from unverified claims that customers discussed the murder from the porch.
The agency, however, is not convinced that Till’s body was dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge. Nor does the organization believe that the fan was stolen from the local gin.
In fact, the agency has, in its files, a five-page “Summary of Research” that’s dedicated to the contested veracity of these two claims. The document finds neither claim verifiable and has thus rejected every grant application the town has ever submitted.
Mayor Thomas has one state agency telling him to lean hard into Till’s story and another rejecting his every attempt to do so.
The mayor gets creative
Without the backing of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Thomas has nonetheless been able to erect tributes to Till’s legacy.
The work began on Sept. 27, 2005. On that day, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded a Community Connect Broadband Grant to Glendora. Funded at $325,405, the grant was intended to bring broadband connectivity to Glendora.
After obtaining the grant, Thomas used the USDA money to convert the old cotton gin into a community computer lab with internet access. But he also used some of the funds to construct the world’s first Emmett Till museum – the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center – which was also located in the gin. Although the USDA approved the expenses, it is unclear whether they knew that their money was being used to build a museum. In the 647 pages of records preserved by the USDA – including the application, labor contracts, invoices and correspondence – Emmett Till isn’t mentioned once.
After the grant ran out, Glendora couldn’t pay the bills and internet service was discontinued. It has not resumed. The museum, on the other hand, is still in operation and visitors do occasionally stop in, though the majority of tourists go to Sumner, a town 12 miles north of Glendora and the site of the trial.
While the museum was initially funded by the USDA, it is maintained on a day-to-day basis by the Glendora Economic and Community Development Corporation, a 501(c)3 founded by Thomas. The town has assigned most, if not all, public business to the nonprofit. Glendora’s development corporation pays city workers, operates 24 Section 8 apartments and operates the Till museum. According to public records, the public housing funnels about $100,000 a year of federal HUD money into the nonprofit. With this money, the nonprofit maintains the apartments, pays city workers and, critically, subsidizes the Till museum.
Yet the questions remain unanswered: Was Emmett Till actually dropped from the Black Bayou Bridge? Was the fan stolen from the local gin? Was Elmer Kimbell involved?
Perhaps. But it is impossible to separate the veracity of these claims from the poverty of the townspeople. Thomas has been able to leverage the town’s poverty to support the museum; the museum, in turn, supports Glendora’s plausible-but-unverifiable theories of Till’s murder. Had Glendora been wealthy, there’d be little incentive to stick so adamantly to this version of the story. The Black Bayou Bridge would be lost to memory and Elmer Kimbell would rarely appear in the stories of Till’s final night.
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi’s Senate election runoff was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated Deep South state. But she still was never really threatened by Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday’s contest, which brought the state’s long history of racial politics into sharp relief.
Some takeaways as Hyde-Smith, who was initially appointed to succeed former Sen. Thad Cochran, returns to Washington as the first woman elected to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill:
RACIAL POLITICS STILL DOMINANT
In the end, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent — much closer than the cakewalk many predicted in a reliably red state that President Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2016. The contest was the latest reminder that race remains a potent factor in the region’s polarized partisan politics. Espy was seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Ahead of the runoff, a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” For many black voters, the comment harkened back to the state’s dark past of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. They were galvanized by her remarks and saw their votes as a rejection of racism. Many whites dismissed accusations that Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist.
Her statement was widely seen as a dogwhistle, similar to comments made in Florida by then-Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, who warned voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, who lost his bid to become the state’s first black governor. It also echoed comments by President Donald Trump, who cast Gillum as incompetent and Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as unqualified.
STRONG BLACK TURNOUT NOT ENOUGH
Black voters came out for Espy, but it wasn’t enough, given the overall makeup of Mississippi’s electorate and white voters’ overwhelming loyalty to Republicans, even among suburban whites who elsewhere nationally trended toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Espy’s biggest challenge was simply that Mississippi doesn’t have a metro area comparable to Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina — growing population centers where white voters are considerably more likely to support Democrats than their counterparts in small towns.
Yet even in Mississippi counties that fit the suburban model — better educated, more affluent — voters stuck with Hyde-Smith. Her 71 percent in Rankin County and 54 percent in Madison County (both outside the Democratic stronghold of Jackson) put her just a few percentage points behind Trump’s 2016 marks in those counties.
That’s a contrast even to other recent Deep South elections.
In Georgia, Abrams lost the governor’s race by just 1.4 percentage points in no small part because she won large suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett in metro Atlanta. In Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones capitalized on Republican Roy Moore’s weaknesses not by winning large suburban counties, but by vastly outperforming Democrats’ usual marks.
Espy’s almost 409,000 votes statewide was 84 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote count against Trump in 2016. By comparison, Jones managed 92 percent of presidential turnout in his Alabama victory. In Georgia, Abrams actually exceeded Clinton’s 2016 mark. If Espy had managed that on Tuesday, he’d have won: Clinton got 485,131 votes. Unofficial returns show Hyde-Smith at 479,365.
SOME AFRICAN-AMERICAN GAINS
Despite the Democratic loss in the state’s marquee race, civil rights groups and grassroots organizers point to down-ballot gains, particularly in judicial contests. High black voter turnout elected two black women to the circuit court in Hinds County, giving the county an all-black bench for the first time ever, including three black women.
The wins mirror gains in Texas, where 19 black women were elected to judgeships earlier this month, and Alabama, where a record nine black women judges were elected in last year’s special election.
Down-ballot candidates and issues also benefitted from high black turnout this midterm cycle in Georgia — where Lucy McBath, a black woman, unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel, flipping a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and in Florida, where voters supported restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of former felons.
With an increased focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights, such victories could have more of an impact on voters’ daily lives.
Mississippi isn’t used to having backbencher senators. From 1947 to 2007, the state sent just four senators to Washington. It wasn’t long ago that Mississippi’s Senate team consisted of Cochran as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott as majority leader, both of them specializing in fast-tracking federal money back to their home state.
Now, the senior senator is Roger Wicker, who has been in office since Dec. 31, 2007, but will find himself behind more than a dozen Republican colleagues on the seniority list when Congress convenes in January. Hyde-Smith won’t be at the back of the line — her months as an appointed senator put her ahead of the GOP freshmen just elected in November — but she’s close.
Certainly, Washington is different than in Cochran’s prime, with budget earmarks no longer at the center of every negotiation. But for a small, economically disadvantaged state that’s long depended on federal influence, the 116th Congress will be new territory.
NO PERFECT FORMULA FOR SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS
Democrats have made key gains in recent elections in the South, but there’s no perfect formula for winning statewide.
Espy, a former Cabinet official under President Bill Clinton, ran as a moderate with experience reaching across the aisle. Georgia’s Abrams and Florida’s Gillum ran as unabashed liberals and nearly pulled out wins in governor’s races that would have been historic. Democrats in Alabama and South Carolina nominated white men — relatively young, relatively moderate — for governor.
All of them lost: Abrams and Gillum had narrow margins; Espy ran strong but wasn’t close; Alabama and South Carolina were the usual Republican routs.
The lesson: Candidates matter, but so does the electorate. The three closest races made the case that Democrats shoudn’t cede the South, and that tests of electability shouldn’t be limited to white men.
The next test comes in Georgia, where a Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state pits Democrat John Barrow, a 63-year-old moderate former congressman, against a little-known Republican state lawmaker. After that, the focus shifts to Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will seek re-election in 2019 four years after upsetting his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter.
Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.
It’s been a week since the presidential election, and much of the chatter prior to Election Day about how racially divided America is has continued in different forms thanks to a crop of strange and often disturbing news stories that feature racial subtexts. Here are a few.
After President Obama’s victory, reports circulated about a race riot on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Apparently some students were angry over the Obama win and caused a ruckus which included the torching of an Obama/Biden poster. But was it a “race” riot?
A new meme has been making the rounds in social media that displays maps of slaveholding states in 1859, legally segregated states in 1950, and the breakdown of red vs. blue states after the 2012 election. The suggestion is that the slaveholding and segregated states from the past bear an uncanny similarity to the states won by Romney last week. But the meme doesn’t mention that Obama won Florida (as well as Virginia). So, does the comparison meant to show how far we’ve come, or how some things never change?
Obama’s Black Liberal Critics Are Still Mad, Too
Reports from The Grio and The Root find Cornel West calling President Obama “a Republican in black face.” And African American political pundit Boyce Watkins warns African Americans against “drinking the Kool-Aid” again and argues that Obama has yet to demonstrate a serious interest in tackling issues deeply affecting the African American community, including poverty, black unemployment, urban violence, and the mass incarceration of black men.
Those are just a few of the post-election race stories that are making headlines. Did we miss any? Is this much ado about nothing? Please share your opinions below.