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The political life of Mississippi


Democrat Ronnie Musgrove
Democrat Ronnie Musgrove

The civil rights issue assumed overwhelming importance in Mississippi politics in the 1960s. In the 1964 presidential election, most white Mississippians supported the Republican candidate, Barry M. Goldwater, largely because he championed states’ rights and had opposed the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time only about 6 percent of blacks, who made up nearly 40 percent of the state’s population, were registered to vote due to intimidation, phony literacy tests, and other obstacles placed in their path.

Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, racial politics continued to divide Mississippi. The traditional allegiance of white Mississippi voters to the Democratic Party, which at the national level had backed the civil rights legislation, began to seriously erode during the 1960s. Black Mississippians, whose voter registration increased to nearly 60 percent by 1968 and to 74 percent by 1998, largely supported the Democratic Party.

However, the black percentage of the population had declined to 36 percent by 1990. In the eight presidential elections from 1964 through 1992, Mississippi voted for the Democratic candidate only once: Jimmy Carter narrowly carried the state in 1976. In 1968 third-party states’ rights candidate George Wallace carried Mississippi. In the other six elections the Republican candidate won.

Similarly, most white Mississippians have swung to the Republicans in congressional elections. Both of Mississippi’s senators and two of its four congresspeople are Republicans. In 1991 Kirk Fordice became the first Republican to be elected governor in 120 years. Fordice became the first Mississippi governor in the 20th century to serve consecutive terms when he was reelected in 1995.

In 2000, however, the Democrats regained control of the governorship. After no candidate received a majority of the votes in the 1999 general election for governor, the state House of Representatives, following constitutional procedure, chose Democrat Ronnie Musgrove as governor. Musgrove was defeated in a general election in 2003 by Republican Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In 2005 Mississippi continued a process that had begun in the early 1990s to hold accountable those who had murdered civil rights activists during the 1960s. In 1994 Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1998 Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted of the 1966 firebombing death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Then in January 2005 a former Ku Klux Klan member was charged with murder and manslaughter in the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. It was the first time state murder charges had been filed. In June the former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty of manslaughter.

In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, causing the costliest natural disaster in United States history. Harrison County, Mississippi, bore the brunt of the Category 3 hurricane, which slammed into the nearby Louisiana coast with maximum sustained winds of 204 km/h (127 mph) before heading inland. The powerful winds and storm surges completely or nearly destroyed coastal cities such as Biloxi and Gulfport. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour estimated that it would take years to rebuild the state following the “indescribable” destruction along the coast.

Due in part to the economic importance of gambling casinos that lined the Mississippi coast, the rebuilding effort quickly gained steam. Many casino operations were soon back up and running and providing employment. Barbour enjoyed a reputation for adroit handling of the crisis, and he was reelected in November 2007. "Mississippi" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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