Mississippi, state, United States: The Persistence of Racial Conflict

The Persistence of Racial Conflict

Mississippi is still plagued by racial problems, which have changed the state's alignment in national politics. In 1948 Mississippi abandoned the Democratic party because of the national Democratic party's stand on civil rights, and the state supported J. Strom Thurmond, the States' Rights party candidate, for president. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation in public schools (see integration) occasioned massive resistance. Citizens Councils, composed solely of white men and dedicated to maintaining segregation, began to spring up throughout the state. In the 1960 presidential election Mississippians again rebelled against the Democratic national platform by giving victory at the polls to unpledged electors, who cast their electoral college votes not for John F. Kennedy but for Harry F. Byrd, the conservative senator from Virginia. In 1964 the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater carried the state; in 1968 presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, who had become famous for opposing integration, won the state.

In 1961 mass arrests and violence were touched off when Freedom Riders, actively seeking to spur integration, made Mississippi a major target. However, there was not even token integration of public schools in Mississippi until 1962, when the state government under the leadership of Gov. Ross R. Barnett tried unsuccessfully to block the admission of James H. Meredith, an African American, to the Univ. of Mississippi law school. In the conflict the federal and state governments clashed, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice took legal action against state officials, including Barnett. Two persons were killed in riots, and federal troops had to be called upon to restore order. Racial antagonisms resulted in many more acts of violence: churches and homes were bombed; Medgar Evers, an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was killed in 1963; three civil-rights workers (two white, one black) were murdered the next year; and there were many less publicized outrages.

After the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, many black Mississippians succeeded in registering and voting. In 1967, for the first time since 1890, a black was elected to the legislature, and African Americans, almost 36% of the state's citizens, are now as well represented in Mississippi politics as in any state, with a large degree of cross-racial voting. In spite of these advances, in 1992 it was necessary for the U.S. Supreme Court to order the state college system to end its tradition of segregation.

In 1991, Kirk Fordice was elected Mississippi's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, serving two terms. Democrat Ron Musgrove won the 1999 gubernatorial election but with less than a majority of the vote, which required the state house of representatives to confirm his win. Musgrove lost in 2003 to Republican Haley Barbour (2004-2012), who had previously been the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Conservative Republicans have governed the state over the last decade. Phil Bryant (2012-2020) championed education reform and encouraged business investment in the state, but opposed removing the Confederate saltire from the state flag. He was followed by current governor Tate Reeves, a strong supporter of Donald Trump.

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