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The New South and The Old Politics

Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi By Jason Berry Saturday Review Press, 358 pages, $8.95

By Douglas E. Schoen

THE PASSAGE of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 caused an historic change in the civil rights movement. With the enfranchisement of millions of blacks in the southern states, black leaders shifted their attention away from organizing sit-ins and demonstrations to building political structures capable of delivering the black vote. Since 1965, a large number of black political organizations and candidates have come forward but they have won comparably few elections.

In the "New South," blacks have only been able to elect two congressmen and a scattering of local officials. Part of the reason for this failure is traceable to basic structural conditions. In many areas, blacks simply do not have the numbers to outvote whites. Also, much of the black electorate is poorly educated and of low economic status. There are a number of other factors though, which must be considered if one is to understand the current state of black political development in the South.

Jason Berry, a white southerner who served as Charles Evers' press secretary during Evers' unsuccessful campaign for governor of Mississippi in 1971, has recently published a book which contributes much to our understanding of the political adaptation of southern blacks. Berry's book is a straightforward report of what happened during the campaign without any of the excesses of emotionalism that have plagued other authors who have written on-the-scene accounts of civil rights activity. Berry's most valuable contribution is that he isolates a number of key political factors which make electoral success in Mississippi, and by extension, the rest of the South so difficult for blacks.

ONE OF the key problems facing black politicians in the South is developing stable local organizations capable of turning out votes in the same manner that Irish politicians did in cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that Evers had developed a strong political machine statewide, Berry shows in some detail how poorly organized a number of counties were. While a number of counties in the Delta did have strong organizations, black candidates in many counties failed to campaign aggressively and did not develop the precinct organization to get out the vote. Many local blacks relied on Evers alone to produce a big enough turnout to give them the votes necessary to defeat entrenched whites. Many county organizations were not even strong enough to keep black voters loyal to black candidates. In some counties--including Evers's home area--black voters sometimes became jealous of black candidates and rationalized supporting the white opposition by concluding that uneducated blacks were incapable of serving.

Finally, black organizations often made the mistake of picking candidates who were unpopular in the black community.

A second problem black politicians in the South must consider is where to allocate the money they have raised. The local black organizations were hampered by a decision Evers made during the middle of his campaign that virtually all of the money he raised out of state would be used on his gubenitorial campaign and not sent to the county organizations. Evers initially had decided to run as a catalyst to pull out a large black vote capable of electing at least 100 local officials, but at the end of the campaign, put all of his resources in an extensive media campaign.

Berry concludes, quite correctly, that Evers probably made a mistake not channeling a greater share of his campaign funds to local organizations. He had virtually no chance of winning because only 35 per cent of the state's registered voters were black. As a result of this poor organization and a lack of funds, only about 60 local black officials were elected in 1971.

ANOTHER question black leaders in the South must resolve is what role out of state northerners should play in black campaigns. In the Evers campaign, large hordes of white students came to the state. One effect of the influx of out of state whites was to mobilize the instate white population to come out to vote against Evers.

In some cases, whites came to Mississippi and did little in the campaign except causing chaos for Evers' permanent staff. Berry chronicles how during the last few weeks of the campaign there was massive disorganization in the central office to the extent that there was so much commotion during the day he found he could only get work done when the volunteers left the office in the evening.

Berry deals personally with the problem of educated whites working with instate blacks. He notes that on a number of occasions he had personality conflicts with some of the black women in the campaign over seemingly trivial issues, and acknowledges that he had to go through a great number of changes in order to adjust.

While Berry does not reach any definite conclusions about the role of out of state whites in southern black campaigns, he implies that they can be helpful only if they commit a substantial amount of time to the campaign and agree to subjugate their own egos and take orders from blacks.

Because he was Evers' press secretary, Berry is able to present an indepth account of southern political reporting. He notes that because of FCC regulations, television reporting is surprisingly fair. However, the newspapers which are often owned by one family rarely give black candidates an equitable amount of exposure. In Jackson, the capital city, the Hederman family owns the two daily newspapers and carried on an active campaign in its columns for one of the white candidates. Its reporters slurred Evers repeatedly during the campaign, accusing him of having Communist affiliations because he supported a strike by black and white pulpwood cutters in Mississippi.

As Berry learned to his agonizing displeasure, Mississippi journalists are notoriously lazy and rarely travel with the candidates. Since black voters often live in out of the way places which candidates never come to, it is critical that black candidates be able to reach them through the media.

WHILE Berry isolates a number of the hurdles black politicians will have to overcome, he also provides an incisive analysis of Evers. A seemingly warm and open man, Evers, in fact, trusts almost no one. He is a domineering man who demands complete loyalty from his staff. At least twice, Berry quotes Evers as telling his staff directly, "When Bobby Kennedy ran for president I did what he told me to. Now that I'm the candidate you do what I tell you to."

In addition to being a demanding man, Evers seems coldly materialistic at times. He often told members of his staff that they should not confirm any out of state speaking engagements for him unless he had full payment in advance.

Despite all of his cold dispassion, Evers is a tremendously charismatic speaker. Berry documents the tremendous empathy Evers communicated to poor black audiences and how, through emotional speeches about his brother Medgar and the Kennedy's, he was able to inspire these impoverished farmers and laborers.

It is also clear from Berry's account that Evers felt it was a significant achievement for a black man to be able to run a full-scale campaign for governor of Mississippi without being shot down. One senses from the book that blacks across the state got great psychic satisfaction in just seeing a black man run for governor.

Already Evers is talking about running for governor again in 1975. Given the fact that black population in Mississippi is declining yearly, the smartest thing Evers can do is abandon any hope of winning and concentrate on developing strong local organizations, many of which have floundered since his last campaign. If it does nothing else Berry's perceptive study makes clear that Evers must use his charismatic appeal to help develop local black machines if black politics is to make a lasting impact on the South.

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