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Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer

06/26/14

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1950)

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On the night of the Mississippi GOP primary runoff between U.S. senator Thad Cochran and state senator Chris McDaniel, PBS aired Freedom Summer, a powerful American Experience documentary of the summer of 1964. Fifty years ago, on the invitation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), some 700 college students, mostly white and mostly from the North, volunteered to work in Mississippi to register black people to vote and to teach children and adults. The contrast, and the overlaps and continuities, between Tuesday’s election and 1964’s Freedom Summer are striking.

Many Americans do not know that in the early 1960s black people in Mississippi (though not only in Mississippi) risked being murdered simply for registering to vote. At the least, they could be fired from their jobs or driven from their homes. At the time, only 7 percent of the African American population of Mississippi was registered to vote, compared to about 50 to 70 percent in other southern states. Cochran won, but McDaniel has not conceded. It was widely reported before the election that the Cochran campaign realized they must appeal to Democratic voters, which in Mississippi means primarily black voters, to come out and vote for longtime senator Cochran. Mississippi has open primaries, which means that anyone of any party can vote for any candidate. The McDaniel supporters—mostly Tea Party conservatives who regard Cochran as a Democrat-like sell-out—are furious, and some are urging a break from the Republican Party, which they see as not much different from the Democratic Party.

Is It OK to Vote in Another Party’s Primary?

We confess to having some misgivings about the idea of large numbers of citizens who usually vote for one party getting involved in a primary election organized by a different party. We did not like it when, apparently, GOP operatives were behind the 2010 candidacy of an unemployed African American veteran in a senate primary in South Carolina ultimately won by Jim De Mint; this unemployed veteran’s candidacy drew Democratic votes away from other, more serious Democratic contenders. (Then–House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat, also found the whole affair very suspicious.) In short, Republicans have played so many dirty tricks on each other and on Democrats over the years that we have no sympathy when fair play brings about a result that displeases one of their candidates. (And, anyway, the McDaniel campaign was behind the sneak-in photographing of elderly Mrs. Cochran in a nursing home for an anti-Cochran video—in connection with which a Tea Party activist has now committed suicide—and just after the June 3 primary several McDaniel supporters were found after hours in the Hinds County Courthouse where the ballots were kept; that still has not been explained.)

In any case, though, it strikes us as reasonable that in a state with an open primary law, which allows any registered voter to give their ballot to any candidate they choose, to vote against a candidate who one has reason to believe will be harmful to oneself or one’s state. It was clear that McDaniel would not continue the flow of federal funding that Thad Cochran has succeeded in bringing to the very poor state of Mississippi, which needs all the money it can get for better roads, schools, water purification systems, and the like. An anti-government Tea Party firebrand like McDaniel somehow did not instill the same confidence as the 36-year veteran of the Senate. So, if you legally could, why not vote against him?

As reported in Talking Points Memo, McDaniel said, “Naturally sometimes it’s difficult to contest an election, obviously, but we do know that 35,000 Democrats crossed over. And we know many of those Democrats did vote in the Democratic primary just three weeks ago which makes it illegal.”

Who Is This Chris McDaniel?

chris mcdanielMany Democrats voted in the primary runoff to keep a Tea Party Republican from replacing a traditional conservative (but comparatively moderate) Republican who at least believes that government can play a beneficial role in public life. McDaniel said he was not sure he would have voted for federal relief funding after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in late August 2005. He has pointed out that education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. This time last year McDaniel delivered the keynote address at a gathering in Jackson, Miss., of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that contends that the wrong side won the Civil War. A spokesman for the group said McDaniel has addressed the Sons of Confederate Veterans on other occasions as well. Mr. McDaniel is certainly free to address any group he pleases, at any time, but what does this affinity of his say about someone who seeks to represent an entire state in the nation’s capital? It seems to us that he is more likely to be anti-government, certainly unfriendly to the concept of the federal government, and will have pro-secessionist inclinations. How well would such a person “play with others” in an institution whose work, at least historically, calls for occasional cooperation and compromise? And—just one more question—how sympathetic can such a friend of the Confederate Sons be to the aims of Freedom Summer?

Red State Republicans ‘Free at Last’

“The Court’s finding reflects well on the progress states like Mississippi have made over the last five decades.  I think our state can move forward and continue to ensure that our democratic processes are open and fair for all without being subject to excessive scrutiny by the Justice Department.”Senator Thad Cochran, June 25, 2013

Freedom Summer handshakeAlmost exactly one year to the day after the Supreme Court narrow-mindedly struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and thus opened the way for new restrictions on likely Democratic voters in the former Confederacy—which GOP-led legislatures in southern states began taking advantage of by introducing new voter I.D. laws and other restrictions on the very day the ruling was issued—a Republican candidate finds himself depending on the votes of the very people his party has worked so assiduously to discourage from the polls. Because the mostly white Republican voter base is increasingly a minority, the party must find ways to prevent the other side from going to the polls in substantial numbers.

[ See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past,” LNW 6/26/13  •  “How Many White Folks Does It Take to Pass a Jim Crow ‘Brain-Teaser’?” LNW 6/30/13  •  and “The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South,” LNW 7/11/13. ]

Now, Mr. Cochran, Stand Up for Voting Rights Act’s Protections

New York Times editorial, “Thad Cochran’s Debt to Mississippi,” asserts that Cochran owes it to the people of his state—particularly those who helped him keep his job—“to return the favor by supporting a stronger Voting Rights Act and actively working to reduce his party’s extreme antigovernment policies.”

Last year, Mr. Cochran praised the Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act. He can now make it clear that bipartisanship goes both ways by crossing party lines to support a new measure that would restore the act’s protections, becoming the first Republican senator to do so.

It remains to be seen what William Thad Cochran will do with the power he continues to wield, and whether McDaniel will contest the election, or form a third party. McDaniel has signaled that he has no interest in remaining in a timid, “pastel” GOP that is sometimes willing to compromise (or even to speak) with Democrats. He is clever, articulate, photogenic, and he has a strong base of support—not only in Mississippi: allies include talk radio hosts Glenn BeckMark Levin, Sean Hannity, and a former GOP vice presidential candidate this blog prefers not to mention by name. Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner

Early on, a tragic pall was cast over Freedom Summer by the disappearance on June 21, 1964, of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (left). Goodman and Schwerner had come to Mississippi earlier than most of the other volunteers and met their SNCC partner James Chaney. It was later found that the three were murdered by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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Photo of Thad Cochran (top) by Joe Ellis/AP; photo of Chris McDaniel from campaign website.

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