"Lily White and Hard Right": The Mississippi Republican Party and Black Voting, 1965-1980

Article excerpt

IN 2005 THE U.S. SENATE APPROVED A HIGHLY PUBLICIZED APOLOGY for its failure to pass antilynching legislation in the twentieth century. The symbolic resolution had the cosponsorship of eighty senators, and those who refused to back the measure attracted criticism. The two senators who received the most attention for their failure to cosponsor were Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran from Mississippi, the state with the most notorious record of lynchings of African Americans. Criticism in particular focused on Cochran, the senior senator, who had a history of winning elections with more black support than his fellow Republicans. Cochran publicly defended his refusal after receiving editorial censure. In comments to black Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, also a Mississippian, Cochran said that he was "not in the business of apologizing for what someone else did or didn't do," even though he had previously cosponsored bills apologizing for the federal government's treatment of American Indians and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. (1)

Cochran's longtime lack of racial demagoguery or even use of racially coded appeals to white voters sets him apart from other Mississippi Republicans such as his colleague Trent Lott, who lost his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 after making a positive comment about Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for president. Cochran would also never have uttered a comment like that of Governor Kirk Fordice, who in 1991 openly supported repealing the Voting Rights Act and criticized the movie Mississippi Burning for its depiction of the 1964 Freedom Summer murders. (2) Cochran did not want to be seen as opposing successful civil rights legislation or as being tied to the state's brutal history of Jim Crow. Yet Cochran's refusal to support even a symbolic apology showed the importance of the votes of racially conservative whites. By 2005 the Mississippi Republican Party had long abandoned its interracial nineteenth-century beginnings and instead reaped the benefits of what Earl Black and Merle Black have dubbed the "Great White Switch" of southern white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Indeed, well before the 1991 election of Kirk Fordice as Mississippi's first modern Republican governor, the Mississippi GOP had firmly become "lily white and hard right," to use the words of Gilbert E. "Gil" Carmichael, the party's gubernatorial candidate in the 1970s. (3)

The identification of conservative whites in the South generally, and in Mississippi especially, with the Republican Party did not occur immediately after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As scholars have pointed out, the shift of segregationist white voters away from the Mississippi Democratic Party to the GOP took place much more gradually during the 1970s and 1980s. This phenomenon was part of the political realignment that the state and the South as a whole experienced from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s. This article details the response of the Mississippi Republican Party to the mass enfranchisement of black voters following the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and argues that after a period of internal struggle in the 1970s, the party built its strength solely on support from segregationist whites. The Mississippi Republican Party had factions in the 1970s and early 1980s that feuded about the pursuit of black voters. These divisions meant that for a time some party leaders pursued black voters with significant vigor. The Republican Party's approach was, like that of the rival Mississippi Democratic Party, a Janus-faced one that involved appealing to conservative whites as well. The tensions over the interracial strategy divided the Republicans into three factions. The polar opposites were a moderate wing that sought black voters and a conservative wing that preferred white segregationists disaffected with the Democratic Party. …