Redistricting crucial, NAACP leader says

Greenwood Commonwealth, The (MS) - Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Author: CHARLIE SMITHNews Editor

Understanding the redistricting process played a key role in Mississippi gaining more black elected officials than any other state, the president of the Mississippi NAACP says. 

“It is the most political process there is outside of going to the polls and voting, in many cases more political than that,” Derrick Johnson said during a Leflore County NAACP chapter meeting Tuesday night at the Jodie Wilson Library. “But it’s also one of the processes that can permanently disenfranchise individuals for a 10-year period.” 

New districts for supervisors, legislators and other positions are being redrawn this year. This is required every decade following a census to ensure voting precincts remain roughly the same size. 

The qualifying for county offices was March 1 — not enough time for counties to redistrict based on census numbers received in February. Many counties, including Leflore, decided to proceed with elections under the old lines, even though population shifts will require redistricting. 

“Some incumbents were going to use this as a trick because they knew their districts were malapportioned,” Johnson said. “They didn’t want to draw new lines. They wanted to run under old lines because they didn’t know what was going to happen once you redraw the new lines in terms of anybody qualifying against them.” 

NAACP branches in 13 counties filed lawsuits Feb. 28 to have election qualifying deadlines extended until new lines can be drawn. 

Leflore County wasn’t among them. Johnson said the NAACP pursued the lawsuits if local branches asked. 

Johnson said Leflore County could potentially be setting itself up for a later lawsuit that could require a second election a year later under the new lines. 

“Any citizens may have a right to go and claim a malapportionment claim against the county,” he said. “It will cost the county more money.” 

Johnson gave a history of voting rights in Mississippi going back to Reconstruction, when newly freed slaves voted en masse following the end of the Civil War. 

But that ended, according to Johnson, when former Confederate soldiers staged armed coups at courthouses around 1875. Discriminatory laws then denied blacks the right to vote for the next nearly 100 years. 

Johnson said things started to change after blacks, primarily those who fought in World War II and returned to a segregated society, pushed for change. Those people organized under the NAACP and other groups to find out how to change the law to allow blacks to exercise their full citizenship, he said. 

Key events were Freedom Summer, which brought media attention; organization of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which embarrassed national Democratic leaders when black Mississippians sought recognition at the party’s national convention; and, finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Mississippi and other states with a proven history of racial discrimination were put under Section V of the act, which requires pre-approval from the Justice Department before voting laws can be changed. 

Johnson said that law was set to expire in 2006, but 99 out of 100 U.S. Senators voted to extend Section V, including Mississippi Republicans Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, after hearing testimony after continued racial discrimination. 

But now, Johnson said, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is asserting “we don’t need the Justice Department in our business.” 

“For the lieutenant governor to say we don’t need it anymore, I question his understanding, one, of history, and, two, of the evidence and the problem of racial discrimination in voting in this state that was presented to the United States Senate,” Johnson said. “Maybe he thinks he’s smarter than them, but I question his comments.” 

Even after the Voting Rights Act, blacks were unable to elect candidates of their choice because of three primary redistricting methods, according to Johnson. They are: 

nPacking: Putting an overwhelming majority of an area’s black citizens into one or two precincts; 

nCracking: Apportioning a small amount of blacks in each district; and 

nStacking: Putting a large number of poor, uneducated people in a district with a smaller number of richer, more educated people, knowing that the more well-to-do vote in larger percentages and would control the vote even though they’re the minority. 

That shows why Leflore County, despite always having a 65 percent to 70 percent black population, did not elect a three-member majority to the Board of Supervisors until 1986, Johnson said. 

He cited white countywide officials in Leflore County as evidence that blacks do vote for white candidates and said there’s nothing wrong with that. 

“The problem is very rarely do whites support African-American candidates,” he said. 

Johnson said there are a few exceptions, mostly in northeast Mississippi, where he said race relations are different from those in the Delta. 

He said the NAACP’s goal in redistricting is not to ensure black politicians get elected but to ensure that voters “who happen to look like us can elect candidates of their choice. And sometimes, whether any of us agree or disagree, we may choose a candidate who may not be African-American. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”