FAR FROM PRETENTIOUS ivory towers and the unsettling cacophony and grime of Eastern industrial cities, far away where neighbors stop to help one another dig drainage ditches and pull trucks out of mud, where everyone still goes to church and prays, where small farmers still rise early to work the land, where metropolises are few and far between, and where a man's willingness to roll up his sleeves and work up a sweat is valued above all attributes--in this place--the people have found a new hero--Cliff Finch, a man who has appeared from nowhere to become within two years what the most respected journalists in Mississippi are daring to call the most powerful governor in the history of the state.
Finch, a North Mississippi small town lawyer with rough-hewn friends, a crunching handshake and grammar that makes high school English teachers Cringe in disbelief, has conjured up the specter of southern populism--a specter that has emerged from the hinterlands of Mississippi now that the race issue ceases to becloud class divisions in the state with the lowest per capita income in the nation.
This new populism is not the demagogy of a Bilbo or a Vardaman who used the black man as well as Wall Street as their whipping boys. Vardaman, often spoken of as the "Negro-cussin' Vardaman" and the "Great White Chief," dressed himself completely in white--white suit, white shit, white tie, white hat and white shoes, symbolical of white supremacy, as well as set himself up as the champion of the farmer against predatory bankers and businessmen whom he saw as locusts devouring the farmer. Finch, however, won over 80 per cent of the black vote in his gubernatorial race. Finch is a color-blind Vardaman, a politician who has managed to unite the poor black and the poor white Mississippians instead of pitting them against one another, and as a result, has tapped a potent human force composed of small Mississippi farmers and an embryonic working class.
TWO WEEKS AGO, Finch--riding a wave of grass roots popularity--accomplished what no predecessor in this century had ever done. Finch pushed a bill through the jealous and suspicious Mississippi Senate allowing him to serve two back-to-back four-year terms. In the past, Mississippi governors have perenially pleaded to the state's legislative bodies to pass a constitutional amendment permitting gubernatorial succession, but to no avail--despite the fact that these governors proved they had no ulterior motives by adding clauses insuring that the amendment would only affect future governors, not themselves. Suddenly, Finch is succeeding where the others failed, while not for one minute attempting to coneal the opportunistic calculation behind the move.
Last week, in an effort to persuade members of the Mississippi House of Representatives--an even more independent and covetous body--to ratify the Senate's succession amendment, Finch flexed his political muscles. State representatives went off the record to journalists to say they faced intense pressure and even threats from Finch's supporters in the representatives' districts and threats to trim state payrolls of friends and relatives of legislators opposing succession. Finch's henchmen, the representatives complained, had begun assembling information on every lawmaker: their bankers, their drinking and social habits, their credit and business affairs and their private lives. An Associated Press article quoted one representative as saying, "There have already been some telephone calls to wives about what their husbands have been doing in Jackson, and there'll be some more." Repeatedly, Finch justified all actions on behalf of the "people."
But the Mississippi House had amassed too much power over the decades to be toppled in two weeks. The members stood up to Finch's intrepid challenge, and the amendment died in committee. Several days prior to the vote Finch had apparently called off his dogs. In a press conference after the vote Finch forewarned ominously, "Just because some of the prophets of gloom and doom say it can't be done...if it's the people's will, it is going to be done." As soon as Finch capitulated, the Jackson press corps began speculating that the entire escapade was a carefully planned ruse designed to create a volatile isue that could serve as a springboard for Finch's senatorial campaign. Others feel Finch is organizing his forces for another challenge.
THE FAILURE of the Mississippi House to ratify the amendment has indeed stirred up a hornet's nest. The members of the House blatantly defied the will of the people personified in Cliff Finch, and the "people" want revenge. After the Mississippi establishment elite has for two years laughed and ridiculed Finch, they can no longer dismiss Finch's adventitious rise to power as incidental or insignificant. On the contrary, Finch's meteoric ascendency can be traced to the changing nature of Mississippi society and the material conditions molding the outlook of its people.
When Finch Jumped into the race for governor of Mississippi in 1975 he at first seemed, to many political observers, enigmatic. Finch proclaimed himself "the working man's candidate" and adopted a lunch pail as his symbol. One day a week he rolled up his sleeves and worked at various jobs to demonstrate his dedication to the working man--one day he bagged groceries, the next day he drove a bulldozer, etc.
Yet while obviously championing the members of the burgeoning class of laborers who are divorced from the means of production. Finch is simultaneously tapping the huge reservoir of power seething from the thousands of small landed proprietors whose chief concern is to protect the endangered agrarian lifestyle their fathers and their father's fathers led before them. As the waves of modernization lap just beyond their rickety barbed-wirse fences, these proud and fiercely independent farmers--no longer safely nestled far from civilization in the sparsely-populated Mississippi hill country--turn to a savior, or at least a defender. In 1975, they turned to Finch.
But whereas past Mississippi leaders helped forge an alliance between the small landed proprietors and the amorphous bourgeoisie, the sinews of Cliff Finch's power steam from a different coalition of two fairly distinct socio-economic classes-the blue-collar laborers living in the industrial centers of the state and the tenacious Mississippi farmers who eke out subsistence wages on their 100 or so acres of soil. This time the middle-class--the Chamber of Commerce set--has been left out in the cold.
Finch's opponent in 1975, Gil Carmichael apotheosized the values of this middle-class. Carmichael, who served as a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics the year after his defeat at the hands of Finch, was urban while Finch was bucolic, articulate while Finch was incoherent, organized while Finch was chaotic, and cerebral while Finch relied on good ol' home-grown common sense. Carmichael--a rich Volkswagen dealer--was the sweetheart of the more intelligent and wealthier 'Mississippians. In the election he carried Jackson, some coastal districts and the Mississippi Delta where plantations still abound and wealth and income disparities are astoundingly great. But the "working men" of Mississippi united. The establishment was overthrown. The "people" had their way.
When Finch mounts the speakers platform, the populist ring in his voice is as clear as a bed. He first recounts his poor childhood on his daddy's farm and eulogizes the honesty and integrity of hard work. Then he urges all the "working men and women" of Mississippi to unite to fight for more and better-paying jobs and to help create a "better, fairer" Mississippi for all. The elocution is egregious, but the 'underlying egalitarian message of his orations is obvious.
The appearance of a man like Finch on the horizon of Southern politics marks an important shift in emphasis from status to class concerns in the South, or at least Mississippi. The poor Mississippi whites rallying behind Finch are opposing poor blacks less as a competing status group and are fusing with them to form a new class alliance. This development has profound implications in light of the fact that Finch and his cohorts are in the process of creating an imposing and powerful political machine. Finch has fired great numbers of high-ranking state officials and replaced them with his own men. He wields almost dictatorial control over enormous amounts of federal funds. The white elite in Mississippi is beginning to worry.