Racial Split Threatens State Democrats

Bill Minor, Greenwood Commonwealth (Greenwood, Mississippi), April 2, 2009

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A rump group of state [Mississippi] Democratic Executive Committee members, led by Vice-Chair Barbara Blackmon, who is black, held a special meeting on March 21 with a goal of ousting several previously chosen white leaders of the state party–a move that had classic signs of driving white Democrats out.

Removal of state Democratic Chairman Jamie Franks was in the air, but the group decided only to sack their other target, state party Director Sam Hall, and replace him with Blackmon’s hair dresser. Both Franks and Hall are white.

In a further insult, the rump group voted to restore controversial Ike Brown to the executive committee, despite a federal court finding that Brown violated the Voting Rights Act by intimidating white voters as a Noxubee County party official.

Franks immediately disavowed the rump meeting and its actions. Then, a week later he convened a session of the administrative committee to formally put Hall back on the payroll as the state party director. At the same time, the committee hired Christopher Smith, who is black, as the party’s field man. Smith gained creds last year working in the successful campaign of 1st District Democratic U.S. Rep. Travis Childers.

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Many Mississippi Democrats had high hopes that the election on Nov. 4 of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president would bring new energy for a resurgence of the state Democratic Party, after years of seeing the state trending Republican.

When the 1965 Voting Rights Act enfranchised thousands of black voters in Mississippi, they flocked to the Democratic Party as the party of their heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. They became the backbone of the state party, but for a decade the party ranks were riven by a racial split.

In a historic reconciliation, the division between the black-white wings of the state party was healed in 1976 when they united behind Jimmy Carter as the party’s presidential standard-bearer at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

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