Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree made history when he won the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor of Mississippi on Tuesday. This makes DuPree the first African-American in modern times to receive a major party nomination for the position in the Magnolia State.
The state has not elected a black politician to statewide office since Reconstruction. The candidate goes up against Republican lieutenant governor Phil Bryant, independent Will Oatis and possibly a Reform Party candidate in the November general election.
DuPree’s candidacy represents a paradox in a state with a troubled racial past, and whose state flag bears the Confederate insignia. “I’m here to talk to you about color — green,” DuPree said in a campaign ad. Although the three-term mayor ran a race-neutral campaign — focusing on issues such as increasing teacher pay, early childhood education, safer streets and creating a business-friendly environment that will spur economic development — it is worth noting that Mississippi has the highest percentage of blacks of any state in the Union.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Mississippi is 37 percent black, while non-Hispanic whites are 58 percent of the population. The state boasts the largest number of black elected officials.
And this blackest state is also the poorest, ranking first in the number of people living below the poverty line, based on census data. Mississippi also places dead last in median household income, fourth in per capita federal aid, and first in the percentage of its Medicaid program that is funded by federal matching funds — in this case 76 percent.
In addition, the state trails the rest of the nation in quality of health care, according to the Commonwealth Fund and America’s Health Rankings. Further, Mississippi is the leader in teen pregnancies and gun deaths in the U.S.
Mississippi also suffers from 10.3 percent unemployment and the worst rates of mortgage delinquency in the 50 states.
Oddly, the blackest, poorest and most federally-dependent state in America is also the most conservative state, according to a Gallup poll taken earlier this year. With a 50.5 percent conservative self-identification rate, Mississippi is the first state to surpass the 50 percent barrier in the three years the poll has been in existence. Southern and Western states tend to be more conservative, and the former tend to be poorer.
Racial districting, brought on by the Voting Rights Act, has guaranteed minority representation in the form of majority-black districts in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. However, the unintended result has been racial polarization, with increasingly white conservative districts surrounding these black districts, and the marginalization of white moderate candidates in either party.
The reality in Mississippi poses a major obstacle for any Democratic and black candidate running statewide in this reddest of red states. In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain won Mississippi with 56.5 percent of the vote, to Obama’s 42.7 percent.
In a poll taken this year by Public Policy Polling, 46 percent of Mississippi Republican voters believe that interracial marriage should be banned, while only 40 percent believe it should be legal. The remaining 14 percent were undecided. Interracial marriage was legalized in the state 45 years ago. Nevertheless, the lingering racial divisions in Mississippi were brought to light in the film Prom Night in Mississippi, when actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for Charleston High School’s first integrated prom in 2008. The federal government had forced the school to desegregate in 1970. (In the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary, Freeman supported his business partner Bill Luckett, who is white.)
Mississippi’s racial divide manifests itself in many ways, with some of the most blatant examples including the June 29 murder of James C. Anderson, 49, a black auto worker, by a mob of white teens, and the proposal by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to issue a state license plate in honor of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to the Center for Policy Research and Planning at the Mississippi Institute for Higher Learning, blacks Mississippians earn 69 percent of what whites earn, while nationally the ratio is 80 percent. Black women in Mississippi earn 69 percent of the national median for black women, and black men 80 percent.
Meanwhile, the 2006 median household income for African-Americans in Mississippi was $21,969, a mere 51 percent of white families’ earnings at $43,139. Only 26 percent of blacks had homes worth over $70,000, as opposed to 60 percent of whites.
The unequal treatment of blacks and whites in Mississippi extends to the criminal justice system. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that black children in the Magnolia State are incarcerated at twice the rate of white children, usually for low-level nonviolent offenses.
Mayor DuPree, Hattiesburg’s first black mayor, faces an uphill battle to overcome an environment that maintains these glaring racial divisions, and emerge as Mississippi’s governor.
According to Project Vote, the voter ID ballot initiative on the November ballot, which is poised for passage, will disenfranchise African-American voters, the young, elderly, disabled and other constituents. If passed, the law would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID to be allowed to vote at the polls.
The initiative has received the support of the Tea Party and the Council of Conservative Citizens, a reincarnation of the White Citizens Councils that suppressed the NAACP’s voter registration efforts in Mississippi during the civil rights movement.
This, in a state with perhaps the most infamous history of voter intimidation and suppression, including a poll tax, literacy tests, violence and assassinations to suppress the black vote.
The Bush Justice Department, which did not pursue voting rights violations against blacks, pursued charges of voter intimidation and suppression against white voters in Noxubee County, Mississippi and other states, despite the lack of evidence. This led to the firing of a number of Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys, at the urging of Karl Rove, who refused to engage in the politically-motivated prosecutions.
And in the 2008 elections, state officials were accused of voter suppression by requiring extra postage for absentee ballots, and printing ballots that improperly placed the names of senatorial candidates near the bottom of the ballot, in violation of state law.
Excluding the Virgin Islands, only four black governors have served in the U.S. Of these, two have held office in the South — P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana in the early 1870s, and Douglas Wilder of Virginia in the early 1990s. Although Johnny DuPree seeks to downplay race in his quest for the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, the history of blacks seeking statewide office in the South suggests his efforts may prove inadequate.
When former Congressman Cleo Fields (D-Louisiana) ran for governor in 1995, he said “I’m not running to be the African-American governor, but to be the best governor.” Fields — whose candidacy was dismissed by many whites, and who was regarded by some as a spoiler to guarantee a Republican win- received all but 2 percent of his votes from the black electorate. His opponent Mike Foster won in a landslide, relying on Klansman David Duke’s mailing list and support.
In 2006, Harold Ford, Jr. (D- Tennessee) lost his bid for U.S. Senate after his Republican opponent Bob Corker aired a radio ad featuring jungle drums when mentioning Ford, and a TV ad featuring a white woman who winks and says “Harold — call me.” During the campaign, Ford had claimed that his grandmother was a white woman passing for black.
Meanwhile, Artur Davis, then-congressman from Alabama, tried so hard in 2010 to position himself as a race-neutral candidate for Alabama governor that he may have defeated himself in the Democratic primary. Davis, who voted against Obama’s health care reform and refused to court black political organizations, became the first black statewide office seeker in Alabama to lose the black vote. Davis even lost his own district in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt.
Regardless of the outcome of the Mississippi gubernatorial election, it is certain that Cleo Fields, Harold Ford, Jr. and Artur Davis provide hard political lessons for Johnny DuPree. And Mississippi is a hard place in many ways.