Lawsuit Claims Mississippi Employs Racist Means to Keep Blacks Out of Statewide Office

May 30, 2019 by Dan McCue
Former Attorney General Eric Holder discusses redistricting reform at the National Press Club on March 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TS)

A federal lawsuit filed in Jackson, Mississippi claims the state unlawfully continues to employ a racist provision inserted in its constitution in the 1890s to prevent African Americans from being elected governor or to any other statewide office.

In a complaint filed Thursday, the four plaintiffs — Leslie-Burl McLemore, Charles Holmes, Jimmie Robinson, Sr., and Roderick Woullard — ask the court to void what they contend is not only a racially discriminatory system, but one that is unique in all of the United States.

The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction to ensure they have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the 2019 election.

The provision in question was enacted during Mississippi’s 1890 Constitutional Convention for the specific intention of entrenching white control of state government.

It states that candidates for statewide office must win not only a majority of the popular vote — that is, more than 50% — but also a majority of the state’s 122 House districts.

If no candidate wins the required majority, the election is decided by the Mississippi House.

“For more than a century, African Americans in Mississippi have been forced to vote in an electoral system that was intentionally created to dilute their voting power,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American to hold that position.

“Mississippi’s long, sordid history of racial discrimination and politicians who exploit racial divisions only perpetuate this broken system in which African American interests are woefully underrepresented in the state government,” he continued.

“This lawsuit seeks to level the playing field so that African American voters are finally able to exercise their right to elect the candidates of their choice to lead Mississippi,” Holder said.

The former attorney general is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose affiliated foundation is providing financial and legal backing for the lawsuit.

To prove the racist intent of the provision, the plaintiffs point to a speech made by Judge Solomon Calhoon on the first day of the 1890 constitutional convention.

“[T]here exists here in this State two distinct and opposite types of mankind,” Calhoon told his fellow convention attendees.

He went on to contend that African Americans’ control of the government had “always meant economic and moral ruin,” compared with a government controlled by white men, which always resulted in “prosperity and happiness to all races.”

Holder said the result of the provision is “not a theoretical thing.”

“We have seen no statewide African American elected to office since this was enacted, in spite of the fact that Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state in the country,” he said.

The case is part of an effort by Holder’s organization to influence the election to public office of the politicians who will oversee congressional redistricting in Mississippi after the 2020 census. Some African American candidates are running for governor and other statewide offices this year.

The lawsuit notes that black voters are highly concentrated in some Mississippi House districts, holding a majority of the voting-age population in 42 of them. Mississippi’s white residents overwhelmingly vote Republican, while its black residents overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Democrats. About 38% of the state is black.

The last time the provision was invoked was in 1999, when the House chose between two whites who were the top vote-getters in a four-person race for governor.

The case will be litigated by Marc Elias and Uzoma Nkwonta from the Perkins Coie law firm, and Robert McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The named defendants, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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