The Mississippi Election Today
The Jackson Citizens' Council, a white supremacy group in Mississippi, recently asked the major candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial campaign to explain "why our ideals of states' rights and racial segregation" were not being "featured in this campaign as in the past." A reasonable explanation might be that 195,000 Negroes are now registered to vote, as compared with 29,500 four years ago.
Although this greatly increased Negro voting strength has quieted the racist appeals common in past campaigns, it is ridiculous to expect that Negro votes will swing this election to a liberal or moderate. For one thing, there is no liberal candidate, and the nearest thing to a moderate is a segregationist who vows to protect Mississippi's rights from Federal encroachment. All seven candidates are declared segregationists.
Furthermore, the abolition of the poll tax has benefited many poor whites--the most race-conscious of all Mississippians--as well as Negroes. In fact, the number of newly registered white voters equals the number of newly-registered Negroes. Of the 675,000 expected to vote at the Democratic primary today, less than 30 per cent would be Negroes even if every registered Negro in Mississippi showed up at the polls. And, as was true in the Georgia elections last year, Negro voting will not increase nearly as sharply as did registration, especially since the Freedom Democratic Party is urging Negroes in many counties to boycott the primary.
State Negro leaders have not endorsed their favorite candidate to avoid alienating his white supporters. Although Negroes plan no bloc voting, State Treasurer William Winter and Jackson District Attorney William Waller have the largest Negro support. But if Winter, who is the nearest thing to a moderate, does get the bulk of the Negro vote in the first primary, he may lose much white support in the two-man runoff. A runoff is inevitable because no candidate is close to a majority.
Two candidates--a 65-year-old tax assessor and a Creole pipefitter who lives in Pennsylvania--have no campaign organization and will not affect the election. Of the remaining five, two are not contenders but will take considerable votes from the others. One of the two is Waller, who has attacked both civil rights "rabble-rousers" and the "hooded cowards" of the Ku Klux Klan. Waller has twice tried in vain to convict Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evans. His votes will be Winter's in the likely runoff three weeks from today.
The other non-contender that will draw a sizeable vote today is Jimmy Swan, a country singer and radio-station owner. Swan is the only candidate to undertake an unrestricted campaign of racism and paranoia, thus undercutting former Governor Ross Barnett's support. Swan proposes "free, private segregated schools" to save Mississippi "from the moral degeneracy of total mass integration that Washington has decreed for our children this fall." He says that to grant equality to the Negro is to make savagery the equal of civilization. "Communists are right here among us," he declares. Swan should receive 10-15 per cent of the vote.
Barnett gained local popularity and national attention by standing in the school-house door at the University of Mississippi in order to block desegregation. Ironically, that stand five years ago has cost him support now. Extremists figure that he did not go far enough in the Ole Miss. crisis. Robert F. Kennedy, then the Attorney General, has said that he and Barnett agreed that Barnett could make a short stand and then get out of the way. Mississippi rednecks call it selling out. Charges of financial corruption and old age (he is 69) have further damaged the Barnett cause and leaves U.S. Representative John Bell Williams as the front-running racist.
Williams, calling himself a middle-of-the-roader, has appealed to the "reasonable" element among segregationists and conservatives and has left Barnett try to out-scream Swan for the rabid-racist support. Williams has the distinct advantage of having lost his House seniority by supporting Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. This made a minor martyr of him. In a Southern state like Mississippi, where personal attacks rather than issues dominate campaigns, promises differ in tone and emphasis and not in content. Williams, who has amply proved his conservative credentials by giving up his Party power for Goldwater, does not need to shout the old slogans. Lester Maddox, in the Georgia gubernatorial race last year, never once raised the issue of race, but instead called for mental health facilities and new industry while his segregationist opponents shrieked strident phrases over each other's head. In the same way, Williams is now calling for better schools--and yet still winning the segregationist vote.
The racist vote will probably be so split today that the "moderate" Winter should be at the top of the balloting, somewhere near the 30 per cent mark. In the runoff, however, it is almost unquestionable that the more militant segregationist--Williams, or possibly Barnett--will win. Both Barnett and Williams have tried to stick the "liberal" deathmark on Winter.
James Meredith, the first Negro at Ole Miss, has dealt his old adversary Barnett a similar blow by endorsing him: "Leaving out race, the Barnett ticket is the one that will bring the Negro out of political obscurity and into political significance not only in Mississippi, but in the nation." Barnett immediately blasted it as a political trick. Meredith sounds convincingly sincere as he travels through Mississippi, ruining Barnett by saying that none of the candidates offer any real attraction to Negroes, but that Barnett has shown an industrial program that will provide jobs for Negroes.
Meredith is also endorsing incumbent Governor Paul Johnson for the Lieutenant Governorship. Johnson, who has kept racial tensions comparatively low during his term, cannot succeed himself as Governor and has set an historical precedent by running for the number two spot. Part of the Williams' appeal is that he would continue the relative calm of the Johnson years. Johnson faces the personal attacks of six opponents in the race for Lieutenant Governor. They include the same Beckwith whom Waller prosecuted for the murder of Evers; he is currently on $10,000 bond and is in the thick of the race.
Realistic Negroes have no hope for anything less than staunch segregationist Democrats in all the State's top posts. Only in the 12 counties where Negroes hold a substantial edge in voter regiistration do they have a chance to elect their own candidates or sympathetic whites. In the other elections, it is only a matter of which brand of segregation is most suitable.