Bowles: Mississippi’s racist political legacy and how we can change it


Jack Delano / Public domain

Mississippi has one of the highest Black populations in the country but no Black state-wide officials.

Luke Bowles, Managing Editor

Did you know that Mississippi has the highest proportion of Black residents out of any U.S. state at almost 40% ? So surely, you’d think about four-tenths of our elected state officials are Black, right?

Well, it would make sense to assume so, but if you did, you’d actually be wrong. We currently have no Black statewide officials and haven’t had one since 1890 during Reconstruction when Southern states were forced to allow Black citizens to vote.  And yes, you read that right. 1890. 

Why? Well, there are likely many reasons, but one of these will be subject to change depending on how we Mississippians vote this November: a racist, Jim-Crow era voting system from 1890. 

The system in question sets Mississippi apart as the only state with a multi-step process for electing state officials like Governor and Attorney General. Currently, a candidate must win a majority of the popular vote as well as a majority of the 122 Miss. House of Representatives districts, only 42 of which are majority Black. If no candidate receives a majority of both the popular and electoral [House] votes, the election is decided by the Mississippi Legislature.

This system is clearly racist and designed to keep Black candidates from winning. The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890 that created this stature quite literally said, “It is the manifest intention of this Convention to secure the State of Mississippi ‘white supremacy.’” It also created poll taxes and literacy tests, two other methods to eliminate the power of Black voters.

James K. Vardaman, one of the constitution’s framers as well as a future governor and senator, once said, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the [slur] from politics.”

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi last year stated that a Democratic candidate—or Black-preferred candidate—”would need more than 55% of the statewide vote in order to secure a majority of electoral [House] votes. Candidates preferred by whites, by contrast, would be able to win the electoral vote without winning a majority of the popular vote.”

So, it’s rather obvious that our current voting system is pretty racist. Considering that there have been over 30 elections between 1890 and 2020, each with six or more offices up for election (Insurance and Agriculture Commissioners were not elected offices in 1890), there have been over 200 chances to elect a Black man or woman since 1890. The fact that we have elected zero is representative of the racist condition of our voting systems as well as our state itself. 

However, we have a chance to right this wrong. This November, on the voting ballots, you’ll see a box titled “Statewide Ballot Measure 2.” This state constitutional amendment will remove the qualification that a candidate must win a majority of House districts and instead only require a majority of the popular vote like literally every other state does. Miss. is the only state with a multi-step voting process for state-wide offices and also the state with the highest proportion of Black citizens. What a coincidence. 

It’s up to us Mississippians to correct our racist laws, and this November is a perfect opportunity. It’s simply the difference between checking ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on whether to change a statute oppressively designed to limit Black citizens in our state government. 

Executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Miss. and a former Miss. state representative, Jarvis Dortch, even said that the current process essentially “blocks the door from Black participation in our statewide government.”

This might not come as a surprise considering Miss. was the first state to create Black Codes and that Miss. has a terrible legacy of Jim Crow laws. Changing the voting process won’t change the history of our state, and it won’t solve every racial conflict in our state either. 

What it will do, however, is make winning statewide office just a little easier for Black candidates; there truly is no reason to vote ‘No’ on this amendment. 

The National Redistricting Foundation, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, said the amendment would “cast out a post-Reconstruction era electoral scheme designed to maintain white control of the state government and prevent African-American voters in Mississippi from having a real voice in their representation.”

Those who claim to care about equality and the future of our state now have a chance to prove it. We Mississippians have been given the opportunity to take a step forward in the fight for racial equality, and it could be years until another similar opportunity presents itself. 

This November, Mississippians will have a chance to vote for President, Congress, and the state flag, but many might overlook the little box titled “Ballot Measure 2.” Clearly, changing our state flag is very symbolically important, but upending a racist state constitution is equally, if not more, important to advance racial equality in our state. 

Miss. is nowhere near perfect, especially in regards to race relations and political representation, but in less than a month, citizens will have a chance to make it just a little better. One can only hope a state with such a racist past will make the right decision.