Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination—Volume VII: The Mississippi Delta Report
Findings and Recommendations
The Commission’s hearing in the Mississippi Delta addressed three main topics with respect to racial and ethnic tensions: the Delta’s unique racial history and its impact on the region’s economy and prospects for future economic development; Mississippi’s history of a racially separate public education system and the current state of equality of opportunity in higher education as well as in the state’s elementary and secondary schools; and voting rights and political representation. This report has summarized the hearing record and has incorporated additional research on each of these major topics. Based on the hearing testimony and additional staff research, the Commission has developed the following findings and recommendations.
CHAPTER 1. EQUALITY OF ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
Race and the Economy of the Delta
Finding: Significant racial disparities exist in the socioeconomic conditions of black and white Delta residents, with black residents having markedly higher rates of unemployment and poverty, lower incomes, and more substandard housing. These disparities are largely the result of the region’s legacy of slavery, the sharecropping system, Jim Crow Laws, and discrimination against blacks in many areas of life, including employment, lending practices, and housing. All Delta residents, especially black residents, require immediate improvement in their economic conditions, i.e., increased job opportunities and greater access to capital for business development and to secure decent, affordable housing, and health care services.
Recommendation: New businesses in the Delta that receive tax incentives under the region’s designation as an empowerment zone or that receive any other financial benefit based on federal legislation should be required to establish equal employment opportunity policies, including grievance procedures. Businesses should be required to maintain detailed EEO statistics, including employment in job categories by race, and report this information annually to appropriate federal entities, e.g., the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, lending institutions in nonmetropolitan areas should be required to report the number of mortgage applications originated, granted, and denied by race of household head, as is required by lending institutions in metropolitan areas under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. Finally, the current federal prohibition against borrowing money for a down payment to purchase a home should be eliminated. This proposal could result in better quality housing for impoverished Delta residents and lead to asset building for poor residents.
Finding: In recent years, the Delta has experienced an increase in the number of new jobs, resulting in greater employment opportunities for some residents. The most significant increase in jobs has occurred as a result of Mississippi’s establishment of dockside gaming in 1991. Additional jobs have been created in other industries, including catfish farming and manufacturing. However, in a region of the country with a history of significant occupational segregation by race, the Mississippi Gaming Commission has no equal employment regulations or reporting requirements. In addition, because of insufficient data regarding equality of employment opportunities in other new businesses in the region, it cannot be ascertained whether occupational segregation is occurring in the new industries, resulting in blacks being employed in disproportionate numbers at lower paying jobs, or whether they are securing employment in all job categories.
Recommendation: Because the Mississippi Gaming Commission has no equal employment reporting requirements, it is not possible to ascertain whether black applicants and employees have an equal opportunity with respect to hiring, promotions, and conditions of employment. Accordingly, it is recommended that the industry be required to establish an equal employment policy, including a grievance procedure. In addition, the Mississippi Gaming Commission should be required to maintain detailed EEO statistics, including employment in job categories and salaries by race.
Finding: Despite the recent influx of new businesses to the Delta and the introduction of legalized gaming, the most recent statistics indicate that the region still leads the nation in most indices of poverty, including unemployment and substandard housing. Long-term improvement in the economic lives of impoverished Delta residents will require not only traditional approaches to eliminate poverty—such as creating new jobs, more job training, granting tax incentives to corporations, and government/private sector cooperative initiatives—but also the use of asset-building strategies for the poor—such as educational and business savings accounts, increased homeownership, and greater opportunities for self-employment.
Recommendation: Individual Investment Accounts should be funded with federal money allocated to match individual savings for down payments for home purchases, start-up capital for small businesses, and postsecondary education. The accounts should not result in any reduction in welfare, Social Security, pension, or other transfer payments or tax consequences to individual program participants.
Economic Opportunity, Agriculture, and Black Delta Farmers
Rural Development Initiatives
Finding: Black and small farmers often depend on the resources of university land grant programs and cooperative extension services, to improve and develop their farm plans and to obtain greater access to farm loans and agricultural expertise. Historically, white land grant universities have received greater resources than historically black institutions in the South. As a result, this inequity has hindered black farmers’ access to technical support and financial assistance.
Recommendation: The USDA should initiate or continue efforts to appropriately fund and support cooperative extension programs on both historically white and black universities, particularly for those colleges that primarily serve minority and small farmers. Outreach efforts should also be established and intensified to ensure that black farmers have routine access to these services.
Lending Difficulties, Loan Debt, and Discriminatory Treatment at Local FSA Offices
Finding: African American farmers have repeatedly indicated that they face inequitable treatment from local lending institutions and county Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices when seeking financial assistance. As a result, black farmers often experience difficulties in securing farm loans in a timely fashion, unnecessary loan debt, and ultimately farm foreclosure. In addition, the USDA has documented that there is a lack of a racially diverse staff in local farm offices. These factors only serve to escalate the rapid loss of black-owned farms in the Mississippi Delta.
Recommendation: The USDA should thoroughly investigate and resolve outstanding complaints of discriminatory treatment at local FSA offices. Moreover, the Department should also work with other governmental entities to examine lending practices at area banks in rural areas to determine, document, and alleviate discriminatory lending practices, as well as institutional barriers that contribute to lengthy loan approval methods. The Department should also seek input from minority and nonminority farmers when designing methods to facilitate the lending process. Further, the USDA should examine legislative initiatives that contribute to farm foreclosure and prevent farmers from reducing their farm loan debt. New legislation should facilitate continued farm operation and ownership. County FSA offices should also encourage and initiate active participation from African American, female, and other minority and small farmers and staff on local farm boards and in FSA offices. Where necessary and appropriate, targeted debt relief programs should be available to farmers in cases involving proven discriminatory lending practices.
Lack of Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws
Finding: Though several USDA institutional mechanisms exist that can address civil rights issues, African American farmers have had to obtain legal redress to seek enforcement of federal civil rights laws for discriminatory treatment from the Department. Black farmers often wait years to receive an acknowledgment from the USDA of their complaint. As a result, many complaints are unresolved. The farmers’ efforts to obtain legal action has only exacerbated the decreasing number of black-owned farms, due to the passage of time and the lack of farm services. Farmers also contend that local FSA offices often do not enforce the decisions of their USDA appeals.
Recommendation: The USDA should resolve the backlog of civil rights complaints through the most expedient, equitable, and efficient mechanisms. Efforts should be made to investigate those institutional factors that created the backlog of complaints, and the Department should eliminate these conditions as soon as possible. Civil rights investigation and enforcement staff should also be appropriately trained to address these complaints. In addition, minority, female, and small farm owners should be encouraged to become members of local farm boards, which often review area farmers’ complaints of discrimination.
CHAPTER 2. RACE AND THE PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM IN MISSISSIPPI
Elementary and Secondary Education
Finding: When school districts in Mississippi are evaluated using a performance-based accreditation system, nearly half of the lowest ranking districts are located in the Delta and its periphery. In 1998, in an effort to bring about greater equity in school funding, the State Legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. This legislation, which will continue to be phased in over a six-year period, will target an additional $130 million annually to education needs and will provide an increase of at least 8 percent for education services in every district throughout the state.
Recommendation: The impact of this legislation should be evaluated to ensure that the objective of increased funding equity is being met.
Finding: There was testimony at the hearing to indicate that “tracking” of students within schools, as well as the related policy of dividing students into different “ability groups,” still occurs despite testimony to the contrary by representatives of the public school system.
Recommendation: The determination of whether such policies help or hinder students in the learning process is beyond the scope of this review. However, at the very least, the State Department of Education should determine the extent to which tracking and ability grouping are taking place. Moreover, the information should be made known to the public so that parents and outside experts can lobby for policy changes if they deem such changes to be appropriate.
Finding: An agreement has been signed between the state of Mississippi and the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education to address the problem of overrepresentation of minority students in special education classes. Significant statistical disparities have been found in the percentage of African American students being placed into Mississippi special education programs.
Recommendation: Appropriate monitoring and evaluation must take place to ensure that the provisions of the agreement are being followed, with adequate avenues available for participation and input from teachers, parents, and other concerned parties.
Finding: There was testimony at the hearing to suggest that placements into the alternative school programs treated children unfairly. Parents also questioned the alternative school programs. Testimony suggested that alternative schools were being used as “dumping grounds” for black male middle school students and that the school system was not concentrating on making them into high-quality programs.
Recommendation: Teachers should receive competent training in classroom management and conflict resolution. Alternative schools should be a last resort in removing disruptive students from the regular school setting and not unless and until fair and nondiscriminatory policies and procedures are followed prior to suspensions and expulsions. These students must not simply be separated—they must also be taught basic skills that are crucial even for entry-level jobs. The state must design curricula, train teachers and staff, and fully fund alternative programs toward that end.
Finding: The State Legislature should scrutinize the current system of electing district school superintendents rather than having individuals appointed to the position. There was testimony at the hearing to suggest that electing people to these positions might unnecessarily limit the pool of talent from which the official is selected. It is very difficult to bring in “new blood” when the person must already reside in the immediate district—which is the case if the position remains an elected one. There was testimony to suggest that while the practice of keeping the position an elected one is waning throughout the country, nearly half of Mississippi’s 149 school district superintendents—or 63 of them—remain elected.
Recommendation: While there has been resistance to alter the status quo, state legislators should undertake a closer examination of the issue to determine whether students could be more efficiently and effectively served if superintendents of schools were appointed to their positions.
Finding: Volunteer efforts such as “Net Day” have encouraged local businesses to donate time and resources in helping to wire Mississippi schools for computer use.
Recommendation: Because it is crucial for all students to be able to travel the new “information superhighway,” the State Legislature should work to assist the schools in becoming “wired” for computers, for the Internet, and for the future.
Finding: Teacher shortages exist throughout Mississippi. Many of the state’s poorest school districts, with the highest concentrations of students of color, are the ones grappling with the most severe teacher shortages. Especially troubling has been the precipitous decline in the number of teachers of color, as well as the number applying for teacher certification. The teacher shortage was one of the most serious and troubling issues that arose during the Mississippi Delta hearing. Following are several recommendations that the state should take into consideration as it grapples with the matter:
Teacher salaries. In 1997, the state’s average teacher salary was over $5,000 less than the Southeastern average and almost $11,000 less than the national average. When the Public Education Forum of Mississippi convened a task force in 1998 to examine factors contributing to public school educators leaving the profession, the highest ranking factor was “inadequate salary.” In 1997, the State Legislature did approve a three-year initiative to raise teacher salaries 10 percent—yet even these increases fail to make the state average competitive with those in other states. Testimony at the hearing strongly suggests that an increase in teacher salary is a crucial component of any plan to reduce teacher shortages.
Teacher retirement. It is important for the state to present options that would encourage quality teachers and administrators to return to the Mississippi public schools following retirement. (Currently, many retirees will start teaching at a private school, or will cross state lines to start a second teaching career in another state while drawing full retirement benefits from the state of Mississippi.) Nineteen other states offer such programs, and they have been able to do so in a manner that immediately increases the supply of quality teachers and administrators, yet has not negatively affected the actuarial soundness of the states’ retirement systems. Mississippi should consider implementing a similar plan as part of an overall strategy to address the teacher shortage.
Pupil-to-teacher ratio. There was testimony at the hearing that a high pupil-to-teacher ratio, especially when there is a wide divergence of talent in the classroom, can lead to discipline problems and other stress factors that can contribute to a teacher’s decision to leave the classroom. Testimony indicated that reading levels within a single class of 30 students could range from fifth grade to college readiness. The federal government is taking this issue seriously, including implementing the 1998 Class Size Reduction Initiative. Mississippi’s allocation from the $1.2 billion targeted nationwide, approximately $19 million, will enable the state to employ an estimated 494 new teachers. However, there must be adequate state and local support, including financial support, if the goal of a lower pupil-to-teacher ratio is going to be met.
Funding for aspiring teachers. In recent years, the State Legislature has substantially increased funding of scholarships, grants, and loans for aspiring and practicing teachers. These programs include the Critical Needs Teacher Loan/Scholarship Program, which funds four years of college (tuition, housing, meals, books, and fees) for students who commit to teaching in a critical need area of the state for three years; the William Winter Teacher Scholar Loan Program, which provides loans to individuals interested in becoming teachers; and the University Assisted Teacher Recruitment and Retention Grant, which provides tuition, fees, and books for individuals teaching in a critical shortage area of Mississippi. Testimony at the hearing suggested that such programs have been urgently needed. It is hoped the continued popularity and success of these programs will lead to an increase in funding levels, as well as an expansion of similar loan and grant opportunities.
“Master teacher” program. There was testimony at the hearing on the importance of implementing a “master teacher” program that would provide mentoring to new teachers. Each new teacher would be assigned an experienced “master teacher” for one year, who could nurture the new teacher’s growth and advancement as an educational leader in the school. National statistics strongly illustrate the need for providing a support system that addresses the developmental needs of beginning teachers: it has been estimated that 25 percent of beginning teachers do not teach more than two years, and that nearly 40 percent leave the profession within their first five years. The Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act authorized the Mississippi Teacher Center to implement an induction program for beginning teachers. This critical program aims to promote the “personal, social, physical, psychological, emotional and professional welfare of beginning teachers.” It is very important that teachers be surveyed periodically to see if the new program eases the transition into the profession.
Teacher certification process. It is crucial that the teacher certification process in the state not act to overly restrict a person’s ability to enter the profession—especially those who wish to switch to teaching from another profession. While the state must ensure that preparation and competency standards remain high for individuals who wish to be admitted into the ranks of teaching, there must also be flexibility so that good potential teachers are not turned away due to unreasonable licensing rules and requirements. As one Mississippi educator said, “Redesign the requirements for teacher certification in a way that matches requirements with the skills required for success in today’s classroom.” The current teacher shortage adds a sense of urgency to this recommendation.
Higher Education in Mississippi
U.S. v. Fordice
Finding: The racial identifiability of Mississippi’s eight public universities persists: in the fall of 1996, the on-campus undergraduate enrollment ranged between 75 percent and 85 percent white at each of the state’s historically white institutions, and averaged nearly 98 percent black at each of the state’s historically black institutions.
Even though the courts have directed the state to spend millions of dollars to improve its historically black public universities (which will lead to the creation of new graduate programs, new scholarship programs to attract “other-race” students, etc.), it might take time—possibly years—for these schools to bolster their academic reputations to the extent required to attract substantially greater percentages of white students.
Recommendation: In the interim, additional means should be used to bring about increased participation in higher education as well as increased desegregation. This might include creating additional university “satellite centers,” which can be opened in different parts of the state in order to enable residents to attend college while working full time. Well-planned programs that respond to the particular needs and interests of local populations can assist in desegregation efforts. Specifically, programs that are not duplicated at proximate institutions, which are targeted to local demands, and which are offered through alternative delivery systems (such as off-campus, evening, and weekend programs) have had success in attracting white students to historically black institutions.
Finding: Since the state adopted new admissions standards by equalizing admissions requirements at its eight four-year institutions, a smaller proportion of black high school graduates have qualified for unconditional admission. The first year after the new standards were introduced, black representation of first-time, full-time freshmen fell from 43 percent to 38 percent across the state’s eight public four-year institutions. And while the court-approved summer remedial programs might play a role in preparing young people for the rigors of higher education, it is highly unlikely that such programs will be able to wipe away the educational deficits that a young person can build up while attending years of substandard public schools.
Recommendation: There was a consensus at the hearing that improvements in the state’s K–12 system are necessary in order to give all students—black and white—a chance to compete for a college or university slot under the now-uniform entrance criteria. However, there are real questions in the Mississippi Delta about whether public schools currently offer curriculum of sufficient quality to meet the higher standards. It is hoped the newly passed Mississippi Adequate Education Program—which states that every school district must receive “sufficient” funds to provide an adequate education—will lead to improvements enabling students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to effectively compete for entrance to higher education. However, if that program fails to achieve the desired outcome, the State Legislature should institute other measures to improve the K–12 system.
Also, the summer remedial program is still in its infancy, and perhaps it should be reviewed to make sure that it does not unnecessarily stigmatize participating students. (Of course, if any stigmatization is found, the solution would be minor adjustments to, rather than the wholesale elimination of, the important summer program.)
Finally, there is evidence that the numbers of young people opting to participate in the summer remedial program are small. Hearing testimony suggested that some students will not participate in the summer program because doing so requires forgoing a summer job. Perhaps the state could investigate the possibility of providing more scholarship resources to the summer program, especially to needy students for whom participation in that one 10-week program might mean the difference between attending and not attending college at all.
The Appeal of U.S. v. Fordice
Finding: On January 20, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, declined to review the latest Fordice opinion of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was argued in the failed appeal that the state is continuing to segregate students and to discriminate by discouraging blacks from attending college.
Recommendation: Whatever one thinks of the Fordice case or the judicial process through which it traveled, it appears that the court system is mostly finished with the matter, except for ongoing status conferences being conducted by the district court as it attempts to carry out the orders of the reviewing courts. This might be an indication to both the State Legislature and the College Board that if any other changes, major or minor, are going to come about in this matter, then they will most likely emanate from one of these two bodies. Perhaps establishing a way for representatives of these two groups to work together, with input from concerned citizens and education experts from throughout the state, could result in suggestions and compromise solutions that have not been achieved heretofore through the long and combative litigation process.
Hopwood or Fordice: Which Controls?
Finding: It will be helpful when the law becomes more settled in the area of higher education desegregation. There is still confusion over when—and in what forms—affirmative action is a permissible remedy in higher education desegregation cases. This matter is especially important given that the Hopwood v. the State of Texas court appeared to disregard certain principles put forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Until clarification is provided, there will continue to be “mixed signals” and disagreements as to the state of the law.
Finding: Currently, the focus of the state community college system is on “transition” programs, which entail responding to the needs of industry as people are “re-tooled” for the higher technology jobs of a changing workplace. The programs concentrate on skills acquisition in order to increase a person’s immediate marketability and employability. It is projected that 80 percent of all new jobs will require education beyond the high school level, so community colleges in Mississippi will continue to play a useful role in imparting needed skills and knowledge to people seeking those jobs. Moreover, community colleges help increase access to and desegregation within the state’s higher education system because they are more flexible, more affordable, and oftentimes more “user-friendly” in helping nontraditional students—including older students and/or students whose families and cultural values typically do not send them to college—to access higher education.
Recommendation: The state must not forget that a small percentage of community college students—usually less than 5 percent each year—use the colleges as an “academic bridge” to transfer to a four-year institution. This is a small but vital role that should not be overlooked when the state is funding scholarship and other programs that help these students make the transition to four-year institutions.
Race Relations and Desegregation
Finding: While there are many people, black and white, who are working toward desegregation and integration of the state public university system, testimony suggested that there are nonetheless people at both historically white and historically black institutions of higher education who oppose meaningful integration.
Finding: There is a perception among black leaders in the education arena that oftentimes in desegregation cases the burden of integration falls upon the historically black institutions. Indeed, a longstanding paradox of the desegregation movement in higher education is the possibility that historically black colleges and universities—the very institutions that provided opportunities for blacks during times of segregation—might be sacrificed in the name of desegregation.
Recommendation: As decisions are made by the courts and the College Board in this ongoing matter, it is very important that neither the people associated with historically black institutions nor the people associated with historically white institutions feel that they are being made to accept more than their fair share of the burdens involved (i.e., school closings, etc.) in bringing about desegregation and integration.
Finding: Important social interaction between blacks and whites is clearly taking place at greater levels in the Mississippi Delta, especially in business and civic activities. However, there were some indications put forth at the hearing to suggest that race relations continue to be tenuous. This also applies to the state’s institutions of higher education.
Recommendation: All the state’s institutions of higher education must provide a campus and classroom environment where students of all races feel welcome and comfortable. Highly commendable are the actions taken by some of the higher education institutions, including the University of Mississippi, to review certain Confederate symbolism that some members of the university community find offensive. It is important to keep the dialogue and lines of communication open between different groups and communities as relationships continue to build and strengthen over time.
CHAPTER 3. VOTING RIGHTS AND POLITICAL REPRESENTATION IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
The Census Undercount
Finding: The Census Bureau has determined that the 1990 census resulted in a national undercount of 2.1 percent, or approximately 5.3 million persons out of a total population of approximately 255 million. The undercount was greater for members of racial and ethnic minorities. Hispanics were undercounted by 5.2 percent, African Americans by 4.8 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders by 3.1 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Department of Commerce v. United States, 525 U.S. 316 (1999), that the Census Act prohibits the use of statistical sampling to determine population for congressional apportionment purposes. The decision is likely to ensure the repeated undercounting of poor people of color in the Mississippi Delta. This undercounting will have an adverse impact on people of color communities and their participation in the political process.
Recommendation: The Commerce Department, and specifically its Census Bureau, must assess its efforts to target historically undercounted communities for the 2000 decennial census in order to verify whether these efforts produced a more accurate count of these communities compared with previous census counts. The Census Act should be amended to remedy the persistent and prevalent practice of undercounting identifiable groups of individuals during the decennial census count by recognizing the legitimacy and usefulness of statistical sampling for apportionment as well as nonapportionment purposes.
History of Voting Rights in Mississippi
Finding: Minority political participation in Mississippi has increased substantially since passage of the Voting Rights Act. Voter registration rates for African Americans changed dramatically following passage of the Voting Rights Act, with the black registration rate in Mississippi rising to 59.8 percent of eligible voters by 1967. Just three years before, only 6.7 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi.
The number of black elected officials in Mississippi began to rise gradually throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Many majority-black counties in the Mississippi Delta, which had no or only one black supervisor until the late 1980s, began to elect black representatives. Similar increases occurred with respect to black representation in municipal elected offices. Whereas in 1965 most cities and towns in Mississippi elected city council and board of aldermen members through at-large elections, by 1988 most had converted to ward or single-member district plans. As a result, the number of black elected officials on municipal governing bodies rose substantially throughout the 1980s, nearly doubling between 1984 and 1993. By the mid-1990s Mississippi had more black elected officials than any other state.
Litigation filed in 1991 resulted in reapportionment of the State Legislature after which the number of black representatives doubled. Before redistricting the State Legislature was 11 percent black in a state with a black voting-age population of 31.6 percent. By the time of the Commission’s hearing in March 1997, the State Legislature was 25.9 percent black, with 10 black senators, up from two, and 35 black representatives, up from 21.
Current Political Representation in Mississippi
Finding: Some reports indicate that with the dramatic increase in black representation in the Mississippi Legislature, there has been racial polarization among the members of the Legislature. There also appears to be racial polarization among the electorate. While there is some evidence that white crossover voting for black candidates exists, racial polarization of voters is more common. Blacks tend to vote for black candidates and whites for white candidates in most black versus white elections. Thus, the increase in the number of black elected officials in Mississippi can be attributed primarily to the creation of majority-black districts.
Barriers to Black Political Participation
Finding: Black voter registration and voting still lag behind that of white citizens. While some witnesses contended that there are no barriers to black political participation in Mississippi, others testified about the correlation between electoral participation, and poverty and education. Census figures demonstrate that voter participation increases dramatically with family income. Census figures also demonstrate a strong correlation between educational attainment and voter participation. In Mississippi, there are significant discrepancies in both poverty levels and educational attainment between blacks and whites.
Recommendation: Economic development and educational opportunities for black citizens in Mississippi need to be strengthened and emphasized.
Recommendation: Potential voters who are unregistered should be allowed to register on election days at the polling site for the next election cycle.
Recommendation: Efforts to increase voting turnout should be encouraged.
Finding: Another issue affecting black voter registration is the disenfranchisement of African American voters because of felony convictions. As more young blacks are being put through the criminal justice system, they are losing the right to vote. A recent study by the National Sentencing Project reported that about 4.2 million voting-age Americans cannot vote because they are in prison, on parole, or have permanently lost the right to vote because of their convictions. Of that number, about 1.4 million are black males. As a result, one in seven otherwise eligible black males cannot vote. In Mississippi, one who has been convicted of certain crimes as listed in the state’s constitution may not vote even if he has already served his term.
Recommendation: Congress should pass legislation to allow former offenders who are otherwise qualified the right to vote in federal elections once they have served their sentence and have been released from prison. Similarly, the Mississippi Legislature should amend the state constitution to allow otherwise qualified former offenders the right to vote in state and local elections.
Impact of Black Political Power in Mississippi
Finding: Although African Americans in Mississippi have achieved substantial electoral success, the ability to translate that success into economic gain and power has been less certain. According to Children’s Defense Fund figures, more than half the state’s black children lived below the poverty line in 1990. Black per capita income was less than half that of whites in Mississippi in 1990; the gap in per capita income, while improving somewhat between 1970 and 1980, remained nearly constant between 1980 and 1990. While the percentage of black Mississippians living below the poverty line has improved from 1970, it remained nearly the same between 1980 and 1990. In the Mississippi Delta, 53 percent of its black residents live in poverty, compared with 13.1 percent for the nation as a whole.
Finding: There have been steps toward economic progress. When she was elected the first black mayor in Mayersville, Unita Blackwell oversaw the construction of four sets of public housing, which was the first time that federal housing had been built in Issaquena County. Problems of water shortages and clean water access in the Delta have been addressed through increasingly effective federal representation. Further, the Delta also is the location of an empowerment zone that residents hope will spawn greater economic development.
Finding: There have also been noneconomic benefits to black political empowerment. Racial violence against blacks in Mississippi, while not eliminated, has dramatically declined since the increase in black voter registration after 1965. Although it continues, racial rhetoric in political campaigns has been curtailed. The Mississippi Legislature appears more considerate toward black members and to black Mississippians since the increase in black political representation.
Recommendation: Elected officials must place a greater emphasis on remedying the stark economic inequalities between blacks and whites in Mississippi.
National Voter Registration Act
Finding: Mississippi had one of the lowest percentages of National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) transactions relative to its voting-age population from January 1995 through June 1996, the first 18 months of the NVRA’s operation, than any other state. An estimated 10,000 citizens registered under the law in Mississippi as of January 1997.
Finding: Prior to the implementation of the motor voter law, Mississippi had a unified system for voter registration in which a person was eligible to vote in any election—whether federal, state, or local—upon registering to vote. The unified system included voter registration by mail, availability of state voter registration forms at drivers’ license offices, and fairly uniform local voter registration procedures. Mississippi had implemented the unified system following federal court decisions that the previous dual registration requirement violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it had resulted in a “denial or abridgment of the right of black citizens in Mississippi to vote and participate in the electoral process.”
Finding: Mississippi is the only state in the nation with separate registration procedures for federal and state elections for those registering under the NVRA. Those voters registering at motor vehicle or other locations pursuant to the NVRA are allowed to vote only for federal offices. Those who wish to vote for state and local offices have to register additionally under the state’s pre-existing procedures. Mississippi continues to maintain the unified system for those voters registering pursuant to the state’s pre-existing procedures.
Finding: Mississippi did not preclear its implementation of the NVRA with the Department of Justice pursuant to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In Young v. Fordice, the Supreme Court held that Mississippi must preclear its implementation of the NVRA with the Department of Justice. Accordingly, Mississippi submitted its plan to the Department of Justice. In September 1997, the Justice Department determined that Mississippi’s separate registration system discriminated against black voters and refused preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Finding: The Mississippi Legislature sent a bill to the governor which provided that those registered through the NVRA would be registered for state and local elections as well. In his State of the State Address, Governor Kirk Fordice promised to veto motor voter legislation that did not require all citizens to provide identification at the polls. In late February 1998, Governor Fordice vetoed the NVRA bill sent to him by the Legislature that did not include voter identification requirements.
Finding: On April 18, 2000, Mississippi ended its history of resistance to the motor voter law when recently elected Governor Ronnie Musgrove approved House bill 763, which adopted the provisions of the NVRA.
Recommendation: Mississippi should fully implement and monitor a unified system of registration for federal, state, and local elections under the NVRA before the next election.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, hearing, Greenville, MS, Mar. 6–8, 1997,
pp. 193, 195
(hereafter cited as Hearing Transcript).
Public Education Forum of Mississippi, Quality Teachers, Every Child’s
Educational Birthright, Jackson, MS, November 1998, p. 10 (hereafter
cited as Quality Teachers).
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., p. 10.
Hearing Transcript, p. 105.
Quality Teachers, p. 11.
Hearing Transcript, pp. 102–03, 106.
Ibid., p. 114.
Quality Teachers, p. 12.
Hearing Transcript, pp. 124, 196.
Ibid., p. 142.
Quality Teachers, p. 14.
See Hearing Transcript, p. 127.
999 F. Supp. at 872; 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5339, Mar. 20, 1998.
 438 U.S. 265 (1978).