Last month Charles Evers lost his bid to become to first black governor of Mississippi. Evers had said that he expected to get between 30 and 35 per cent of the vote but the fact that he only got 21 per cent is not surprising. Observers like R.W. Apple and Thomas Johnson of the New York Times said that the election was a major disappointment to blacks in Mississippi. They failed to consider the election in perspective and thus did not realize what Evers was trying to do.
Evers was running in an effort to build a black state wide political machine. In the short run he was interested in getting himself and his slate of candidates for local office elected. However his major concern was trying to develop strong local organizations across the state. These local organizations--if they are effective--will be able to deal with a number of the other problems which Johnson and Apple said Evers faced in this election such as election fraud, intimidation of black voters, and black votes for white candidates.
Last April after Evers announced his candidacy, I made plans to go to Mississippi in June and do voter registration. The last day to register to vote in the 1971 elections was July 2, so I figured my involvement in the campaign would end then. Anticipating this, I took a job in New York City which was to begin after the 4th of July weekend.
However, the weekend before I left to go to Mississippi, I had a phone conversation with Evers' campaign manager, Edward Cole. I told Cole that I had had a certain amount of experience in New York State politics and proceeded to list all my skills. I mentioned that I had done research on occasion. Cole interrupted me and told me that he wanted me to come to Jackson and be the research director for as long as I could stay. I told him that could only be until July 1. I at first felt it was strange that I would be entrusted with such an important position sight unseen. However, as soon as I arrived, I realized that there were so few blacks with basic political skills in Mississippi that anyone from the North who has had any experience was potentially of tremendous value to the campaign.
In addition to writing position papers and press releases for Mayor Evers' campaign. I spent a good deal of my time travelling around the state helping to organize local Evers for Governor headquarters. Originally in June most local Evers volunteers across the state were enthusiastic and listened with interest to what I said. Yet when I returned to Mississippi at the end of October to poll-watch on election day, I found that most local headquarters were very disorganized and poorly run.
In the interim what generally happened was that the specific instructions which we had given to the local groups were ignored. At each organizational meeting, I stressed the importance of getting lists of all registered black voters. In half the places I later toured in October this was never done. At each meeting, I also urged that an intensive precinct canvass be undertaken. No house-to-house canvass was done in three-quarters of the state.
A strong precinct organization will serve to minimize the problems which Apple and Johnson cited. If a strong precinct captain is present, he can act as a buffer between the white community and the black community. He can reassure blacks that there will be no retaliation if they vote for a black candidate. Further, a good captain can catch any fraud going on at the polls because as a local fixture he is in a position to know whether the people presenting themselves as registered voters are really the people whose names are on the books. Finally, a strong local organization can discipline the black vote so as to assure that there is no defection from the slate. During this election, there was strong pressure from the white community for blacks to vote for white candidates. If a strong captain is present on each block, voters can be pressured by people that live around them all year to vote for the black candidates.
Yet--as I have explained--this type of strong organization just did not exist. In Gulfport, Mississippi, a group of us from Jackson spent two days in June explaining to the local Evers supporters what had to be done. Mayor Evers held a fundraising event there early in July to raise money to rent an office. We explained how to do public relations and how to organize a canvassing operation. We held two meetings with the people in town and left a campaigning guidebook with them. This was the people in Gulfport's last contact with the main headquarters until September when Evers travelled to the area.
When I got to Jackson October 26, I was told that the local people had done an effective job of isolating and organizing the black vote in Gulfport. I was sent there to help with election day organization. When I arrived. I found the campaign in disarray. The local coordinator, who was working in conjunction with a northern white volunteer had gotten only one-half of one precinct canvassed. They had tried to isolate the black vote, but had gotten incorrect data on the per cent of black registration in the city's precincts. The few press releases that had been done were poorly written and incomplete. No organization had been developed to pull out voters. Even the most rudimentary task of getting poll-watchers to guard against election fraud had hardly begun.
In political campaigns, election eve is critical. Usually, final plans are made for election day and people often stay up all night. Incredibly, the people in Gulfport, the headquarters for all of Harrison County, scheduled a victory party for themselves that night. As they feasted, a group of northern political volunteers tried to salvage the campaign. We found out from the local coordinator where the pre-election meetings were being held around the county--the headquarters in Gulfport coordinate activities in all of Harrison County--and sent people to each to speak about poll-watching. Poll-watching was expected to be especially important in this county as rumors had been circulating about possible fraud because of the use of computer ballots. There was no hope of setting up an operation to pull voters in Gulfport so we hastily mimeographed sample ballots which we distributed late that night in black neighborhoods. Before we went to bed, we checked to make sure that there would be a poll-watcher at each voting place in the county at 7 a.m. when the polls opened.
I poll-watched at precinct number five which had a 20 per cent black registration. According to the figures at headquarters, it only had a neglible number of blacks. At the end of the first hour, over 125 whites had voted and only 10 blacks had. At noon when my shift ended, only 23 blacks had voted while over 375 whites had. The white election manager--who proved to be quite fair--told me that the blacks who had voted were the ones who always vote. He said that he had not seen any new faces despite the attention the campaign got in the newspapers. In the afternoon I visited other polling places, and as at precinct five, was told that no new black voters had turned out.
As the results began coming in, we saw that Evers was only going to get 15 per cent of the vote in Gulfport. Blacks make up 30 per cent of the registered voters in the city so many were disappointed. Yet a number of people in the Evers' headquarters did not even bother to watch the returns as they came in over the television. The northern white students, who had come in to Gulfport in the last six weeks of the campaign to take over the day to day work in the campaign, were content to sit and talk among themselves--getting returns sporadically from local black volunteers who were eagerly watching the television and listening to the radio at the same time.
This attitude on the part of the white students resulted from the fact that many of the volunteers were unconcerned with the election itself. Many considered themselves "free-lance radicals" and had come to the state simply to see what conditions were like. They did not view the election itself as critical. Rather they felt that the actual campaign was simply a means of raising important issues.
A group of white women had come to the state to try and involve themselves with the pulpworkers' strike which was then going on. They found that there was little they could do on the strike and thus graduated to the Evers campaign. Another group of people came from Philadelphia where they had worked as union organizers in a Nabisco plant. They got frustrated with work in the north and decided to come to the south.
These people did not generally have the personal discipline necessary for a rigorous political campaign. For example, each Monday night was devoted to encounter group sessions where self-criticism was the vogue. While from a personal standpoint these sessions may have been helpful, Charles Evers got very little out of them.