Friday, May 22, 2009

Mississippi Turning???

Some fascinating news out of Mississippi. This week saw the election of James Young as the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi (NYTimes coverage here). For anyone familiar with the history of race in America and the Civil Rights Movement, Philadelphia is known as the place where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in June of 1964. Along with the Montgomery bus boycott, freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, and the March on Selma, these deaths during Freedom Summer were a major chapter in the march toward the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. Likewise, they've cast a long shadow that has been difficult for the city to shed. This election may help its residents turn a corner.

Later, Philadelphia was home to another event--viewed differently by competing camps--that speaks to our complicated history. Namely, Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign there at the Neshoba County Fair. By arguing strongly for "states rights," many have argued that Reagan, in coded language, was presenting himself as a more polished, refined, and less menacing version of George Wallace. This was, for critics, the personification and perfection of the "Southern Strategy." Others have offered a more benign interpretation of the Gipper's words to suggest that he was simply articulating his small government platform.

While Mississippi has the largest number of elected African American officials in the country, the bulk of these politicians come from the Delta region in the western part of the state. Back during the primaries I wrote a post about this region and how it differs from the rest of the state. Neshoba County is not in the Delta but sits in central Mississippi and has demographics that, even without its troubled history, would make the election of a black mayor more difficult. The county as a whole is 65% white and only 20% African American. Philadelphia has a larger black population with the breakdown being roughly 55% white and 40% African American. In last year's presidential race, McCain overwhelmed Obama in Neshoba County, winning 72% to 27%, 16 points better than he did statewide. Within Philadelphia itself, McCain bested Obama 59.5% to 40.5% (Results available here).

Its always dangerous to extrapolate from local races. As the coverage of Mayor Young's victory suggest, he campaigned as a reformer against a long-time incumbent and thus was certainly able to tap into voters'--black and white--dissatisfaction with the performance of city government. Nonetheless, one wonders whether the Obama campaign, despite losing badly in the state, benefitted someone like James Young. We know, for example, that black turnout in 2008 reached virtual parity with that of whites and that states with large black populations such as Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina saw voter turnout increase. If voters, once energized and mobilized, continue to vote over the long term then we might see something like an "Obama effect" in these other races. Its certainly too early to conclude that this is what's happening. Likewise, a four month old Obama administration isn't going to heal decades of racial tension and create national unity. Regardless of whether these campaigns are connected and regardless of whether James Young's election as mayor signifies something much larger than one candidate beating another in a small town race, one can't deny the symbolism.
**Top photo courtesy of the Neshoba Democrat

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