EVERS FOR EVERYBODY
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.
Father William Morrissey--an Irish priest formerly from Brooklyn who coordinated the volunteers into Mississippi project--complained bitterly to me about the Northern workers. He told me that he was forced to take the blame when volunteers were ineffective. In Adams County where he was running for the state senate, Morrissey told me how he had left detailed instructions for the volunteers about how he wanted the precinct canvass organized. He explained that he had been forced to go to Jackson for a couple of days. When he returned, he found that the volunteers had gotten only halfway through the job.
As it turned out, Morrissey was glad that the task had not been finished. The Northern volunteers working on the canvassing cards had organized them by street within city rather than by street within precinct. It is impossible to canvass an entire street in rural areas as there are often large gaps between houses. Often these divisions are marked by rivers and by long stretches of bridges. Usually if one canvasses within one precinct on one street, there is a good chance that houses will be close together. Morrissey then had to take an additional week reorganizing the cards by precinct so that canvassing routes could be given out.
The National Committee to Elect Charles Evers, which was based in New York, tried to recruit teams of northern organizers to train local coordinators. This plan failed dismally. Most of the northerners who went to Mississippi went with the main idea of improving their own standing in their home communities. Consequently a number of liberal politicians came for a minimal period of time--usually must as long as it took to be photographed with Mayor Evers.
None of the major presidential contenders (many of whom Evers himself had helped) spent any time in the state with the exception of John Lindsay. Senator Edmund Muskie refused to go on Mayor Evers' campaign committee for fear of angering his southern white supporters. Senator Henry Jackson, who said that he would campaign for all official Democratic candidates, refused to come to Mississippi at all because he said Evers was running as an independent. Evers was running as an independent--with the blessings of Democratic National Chairman, Larry O'Brien--because blacks are not allowed to participate in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party. Evers is Democratic National Committeeman from Mississippi. His organization, the Loyalist Democrats, are the official Democratic Party of Mississippi.
Ted Kennedy also refused to come to Mississippi to help Evers. Evers spent almost two solid months campaigning for Robert Kennedy in 1968, but the most Ted Kennedy would do for Evers was to give him a fundraising party at his home in Massachusetts.
Lindsay sent a number of his advancemen to Mississippi for the two weeks before the election. Two of his workers did some advance work, but were not skillful enough to take over election day operations in a county. Another Lindsay worker went to Adams County and tried to give the impression that he knew everything there was about Mississippi politics. He made frequent references to "Big John" and infuriated the local people by talking about successful campaigns he had waged in New York City.
When he arrived in Adams County, the weekend before the election, the Lindsay advanceman told the local coordinator that he had been sent by campaign manager, Ed Cole, to "get the campaign together." Under Morrissey's leadership a decent job was being done, but this fellow began reassigning people according to his own desires. There was strong resentment of the advanceman from a number of local blacks and they called Cole to find out why he had been sent to Adams. Cole said that he simply sent the fellow to Adams to help out and that he had not intended for him to take over the campaign there.
Cole then said that he would reassign the advanceman. However, Lindsay's troubleshooter had already done a great deal of damage, alienating a number of local workers from the campaign.
Evers and Cole were perhaps the only two people competent enough to have organized local campaigns in each of the 82 counties. However, Evers, as the candidate, had to travel around the state making appearances. Thus he did not have the time to be in one area for more than a day at a time. Cole had both to schedule Evers and manage the central headquarters in Jackson. In addition to this, Cole tried to settle local disputes as best he could on the telephone. He simply did not have the time to travel around the state to clear up every problem.
One night in June, Evers and part of his staff went to Copiah County. When we got there, we found there had been a dispute and a group of younger blacks had left the meeting. Evers dispatched Cole to get them and proceeded to hear the story of the people still in the hall. Apparently there had been a minor dispute over what night to hold the Democratic Party meeting and what night to hold the NAACP meeting. The argument, while trivial on the surface, illuminated the split in that county between the younger and the older black leaders.
When Cole returned with the other members of the group, Evers quickly settled the dispute by recommending that instead of having two separate meetings, one general "mass meeting" be held. Evers then asked the leaders of both factions how much registration work had been done. Predictably little had been done because of the dispute.
Evers then organized a registration campaign for the last two weeks of June and dispatched a group of students from his Jackson headquarters to canvass in Copiah. I did not go but heard reports that the first couple of days of the campaign were a success. However, after three days, another dispute arose over where the canvassers would go. The younger blacks felt they were being left out of a policy-making role and they felt they should decide where the students should canvass.
In the past, when problems like those arose Evers could step in and settle the disputes. However, this year he was in another part of the state speaking and could not be reached. For the rest of the summer there was chaos in Copiah County.
Evers had built a strong organization in the third Congressional District (of which Copiah is a part) following the 1964 Democratic National Convention. In 1967 he produced an 85 per cent turnout in the twelve counties in the district. He was also able to elect three-quarters of the blacks who won local office. In 1968 he ran in a special election to fill the Congressional Seat of Governor John Bell Williams. He won the first primary against six white opponents but was forced to face a runoff because he had not won a majority. He lost the runnoff by a 2-1 margin to a single white opponent but proved that he was the dominant force in Mississippi black politics.
This year he entrusted the leadership of the campaign in the third district to a variety of local leaders. In his home county, Jefferson, a twenty-one year old student from Alcorn A.M. was given control of the campaign. All the black candidates in Jefferson lost and Evers ran behind his 1968 totals in the Congressional race in Jefferson county.
Despite the obstacles Evers faced, progress was still made. Evers got 5,191 more votes in the third Congressional District in his race for Governor than he did in the second primary in 1968. His effort marks the beginnings of a statewide black political machine in Mississippi. As he said in his letter to volunteers thanking them for their help: "What we did this fall was the start of a new era in the south. All the struggle and sacrifices of the '60's, all the pain and fear, were carried out so that today we could begin to build the strong political movement the south needs. A hard-nosed broad-based organization with the power to get blacks on the ballot and get them elected. That movement we're building now.