Mississippi Mayor’s Election Shows Voting Law’s Imperfect LegacyMark Niquette
Percy L. Bland III said he knew he would become the first black mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, when he saw the crowd at Velma Young Community Center at 5 p.m. on election day. These were his voters.
In 2009, Bland had lost to white Republican Cheri Barry in a city that is 62 percent black. While he needed white support for the rematch last month, his 990-vote margin came from predominantly black wards where his campaign registered voters, called them and even offered rides to the polls.
“All that work was paying off,” Bland said.
The federal Voting Rights Act enabled Bland’s election by guaranteeing blacks proportionate power, yet it didn’t foster a coalition that bridged the races or prevent accusations of bias and intimidation. The campaign illustrates the unfinished legacy of the 1965 law, which enfranchised millions of African-Americans -- and whose core element the U.S. Supreme Court threw out three weeks after Bland won.
The judges ended a requirement that the U.S. Justice Department approve districts and election rules in Mississippi and all or part of 14 other states, most in the South. The court said that the law, prompted by the killings of a Meridian native and two others trying to register black voters in 1964, was made obsolete by its own success.
In Mississippi, Republicans said Bland’s win and increased black voting prove that federal protections are unneeded. Bland disagrees. He said his supporters had difficulty casting absentee ballots -- and a stuffed animal was hung in a noose outside his office. They fear that without federal oversight, officials will raise new barriers to voting.
“When you’re trying to suppress someone’s vote, you don’t have to do that much,” said Bland, a 42-year-old insurance agent.
Mississippi used to do a lot. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other subterfuges outlawed by the Voting Right Act kept generations of blacks from exercising their rights. The voter registration form from 1955, for instance, required applicants to copy a section of the state constitution and write “a reasonable interpretation,” according to a copy in state archives.
Lula Coleman, an 88-year-old Meridian resident, said she had to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to get a ballot.
On June 25, the Supreme Court said those days were long gone. In its 5-4 decision, it said the act served its purpose, proving “immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”
While only about 6 percent of voting-age blacks in Mississippi were registered shortly before the act was passed, according to the ruling, a U.S. Census survey showed that about 90 percent of black residents were registered in 2012. Their turnout was 12 percentage points higher than that of whites, according to Census estimates.
The act helped increase the number of blacks elected to federal, state and local offices in the 11 Southern states to an estimated 6,550 today from 565 in 1970, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, a nonprofit group that studies issues affecting blacks.
Yet political parties in the region have also become largely segregated by race, with white Democrats ever rarer. That leaves most Southern black legislators in the minority and reduces their influence, a center study said.
Mississippi has only one Democrat elected to statewide office and no blacks, even though they account for 37 percent of the population, according to the Census.
The voting wards in Meridian, a former railroad hub and the birthplace of actress Sela Ward, have become more segregated as white residents left for surrounding Lauderdale County and elsewhere. Meridian has seen its population decline 17 percent since 1960 to about 41,000.
Sixty-two percent of residents are black, compared with 34 percent in 1960, according to Census data.
Once home to auto-parts plants, Meridian’s economy is now based on caring for the ill and the young; Rush Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital and the public schools are the largest employers, according to the East Mississippi Business Development Corp. The art deco Threefoot Building, the most dominant skyline feature, sits empty near a restored city hall. Check-cashing companies mix with churches and auto-parts stores in the business districts.
Bland grew up in Jackson, the state capital, and worked as an epidemiologist as well as a health-department human resources and marketing director. He moved to Meridian in 2003 to open a State Farm office.
The last Democratic mayor was elected 28 years ago. Bland wanted the job because he thought better leadership could unleash Meridian’s potential.
Before he could govern, Bland had to be elected in a city where white residents dominate Ward 1, blacks Wards 2 and 4, and there’s a mix in Wards 3 and 5 -- all in boundaries approved by the Justice Department.
Bland won only 21 percent of the vote in Ward 1, which includes stately houses among tall pines near the Northwood Country Club. In Ward 4, filled with closely packed houses and public-housing complexes, he carried almost 82 percent, according to official results.
At the Velma Young Community Center precinct in Ward 2, he won by almost 800 votes.
Bland estimated that while 80 percent of his vote came from blacks, he needed white support to win. Like President Barack Obama, Bland also appealed to young people, said Bill Ready Sr., a Meridian civil-rights attorney.
Still, the race afforded glimpses of an older Mississippi. Bland said his campaign called the Justice Department with complaints, including that some elderly or disabled supporters were being unnecessarily forced to prove they were eligible to cast absentee ballots. The toy in the noose at his insurance office in April was intimidation, he said.
Both Bland and Barry requested Justice Department and state election monitors.
Rick Barry, the former mayor’s husband, who also was Lauderdale County’s Republican chairman, speculated that a change in voting locations and redistricting may have affected some of her supporters and said her base was less motivated. He said he questions whether the noose incident was staged for Bland’s benefit, comments Bland called “sad.”
Samuel Thompson, 60, senior pastor at Thirty First Avenue Baptist Church in Meridian who supported Barry, said there was a simple reason for the win: “The African-American community wanted an African-American mayor.”
That shows that the U.S. Supreme Court was correct, said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chairman. Discrimination isn’t confined to the South, so if any state is sanctioned with federal oversight, all states should be, Barbour said in a telephone interview from Jackson.
“We’re not going to keep punishing people for something that their grandfather did,” he said.
The journey to parity was hard for Mississippi, but the playing field is now level, said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a white Republican.
“No one that I know, Republican, Democrat, Tea Party or whatever party, has any impetus at all to go back to 1965,” Hosemann said in an interview at the Capitol in Jackson.
Yet Democrats said the Voting Rights Act allowed such progress, and without federal oversight, Mississippi will backslide. They point to Hosemann’s announcing on the day of the ruling that 1‘he would implement a requirement that voters show a photo identification, which Democrats said will keep some minorities and low-income voters from the polls.
“Until our hearts get right -- and I still can’t trust the heart of man -- until we all know that we are dealing with each other fairly, then we need oversight,” James A. Young, who in 2009 became the first black mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi, said in an interview at Bland’s inauguration at the Temple Theatre downtown.
During Bland’s speech there, the freshly minted mayor remembered the three civil-rights volunteers killed in 1964, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and city native James Chaney. He spoke of renewed hope and, overcome by the moment, broke down while recalling his father, who grew up poor and worked in the state’s cotton fields.
“My father understood dreams,” Bland said. “I am my father’s child.”