The People of Claiborne County
I first tried to register in 1957. The circuit clerk gave me a pen and some paper and told me to interpret a section of the constitution — I think it was section 92. Well, the first time, she [the circuit clerk] said that what I wrote was too long. So she tore it up, put it in the garbage and told me that I couldn’t register. It took about a year for me to finally get registered, but it didn’t matter to me because I knew that someday the Civil Rights Movement would come to the South and I knew how powerful the vote was. I knew it was a right I had to have and one day I hoped to use it. — Nate Jones, Claiborne County, Mississippi
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the number of blacks registered to vote in Mississippi has increased from 6.7 percent to over 60 percent of eligible voters today. The number of black elected officials has risen from 29 in 1968 to 387, more than any other state in the nation.
The political power to improve economic and social conditions in black communities remains elusive. Despite the significant number of black Mississippians now registered to vote and the number elected to public office, the political process is still dominated by white and corporate interests.
A case in point is Claiborne County, a rural southwest Mississippi community of over 12,000. Seventy-five percent of Claiborne’s population is black, and the black electorate has made its presence known in county government. Of 32 elective positions in Claiborne, 26 are now held by blacks — more than any other county in the state. The county has had a black majority on its Board of Education and on its Board of Supervisors since 1975.
In Claiborne, black voters are learning that their struggle for social and economic justice goes beyond simply electing black candidates. The county still has the highest infant mortality rate in the state; there are no vocational education programs in the schools; and the county provides no social services for young or elderly people. The majority of black wage earners work in factories which pay from $3.70 to $4.20 per hour; per capita income is $6,684 and unemployment lingers around eight percent.
While blacks have been successful in the political arena, the economy of Claiborne is still controlled by predominantly white corporate interests. During the 1975 election campaign, community organizers linked political success with economic opportunities for the black population in the largest construction project ever undertaken in Mississippi — the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson, Mississippi, being constructed by Mississippi Power & Light (MP&L), Middle South Energy and the Bechtel Power Corporation. At a projected cost of $3.4 billion, the station will contain the two largest nuclear-fueled generating units in the world. Originally hailed as a source of high-paying jobs for county residents and a sound tax base for county coffers, Grand Gulf has proved to be neither. MP&L has, to date, paid over $27 million in taxes. However, while the worth of the two local banks has tripled in the last 10 years, there is no evidence that the tax dollars have been used for programs and services that the community needs.
According to the records of the Port Gibson Urban League’s now-defunct Labor Education Advancement Program, less than 200 local residents have ever been continuously employed at the Grand Gulf nuclear project, although the site, in peak periods, has employed as many as 3,400 people. County records show that although per capita income has risen since construction began on Grand Gulf, a substantial portion of the improvement is attributable to the influx of highly paid Bechtel and MP&L personnel from outside Claiborne County.
Since construction began, Claiborne’s Board of Supervisors has lowered the amount of taxes MP&L pays by almost one-third. Evan Doss, the county tax assessor and collector since 1971, has been a vocal critic of the board’s policies. Doss contends that the economy would be significantly better if the board would “stop catering to the white power bloc in the county” by cutting taxes to please white bankers and MP&L. Doss has charged that the lowering of tax rates has taken away revenue that otherwise could have been used to benefit the community. “A nuclear facility is a potentially high-yield business for MP&L,” Doss points out, “and a potentially dangerous one for the county. We will daily be surrounded by some of the most health-hazardous material in existence. I have always felt that the utility deserves to pay a fair price — to contribute to the community.
“Taxes are the only thing this community can hope to gain as a result of the plant being located here. Over 3,000 people work at Grand Gulf — but very few of our people are employed there, and even fewer of the others live or trade here. Most either head to Vicksburg, Fayette or Natchez when the work day is over.”
William Matt Ross, president of the Board of Supervisors, has become weary of Doss’s criticisms and counters that he “tries to be fair with all the people.” MP&L, Middle South Energy and Bechtel do pay the majority of taxes in the county, but the Board of Supervisors appear to be the only friends they have these days. In December, 1981, Mississippi Attorney General Bill Allain announced his decision to appeal a $48.5 million rate hike sought by MP&L. Allain charged the utility with deceiving the public in seeking such an enormous rate hike.
The problems in Claiborne County have not all centered around the supervisors’ handling of the Grand Gulf situation. Health care, for example, is an issue that George Henry Walker, community organizer and member of the county hospital board, sees as improving but still bogged down by political power struggles.
“The situation is very ironic,” Walker explains. “Claiborne County has a very well-equipped hospital. The Board of Supervisors has put thousands of dollars into improving the facility and buying new equipment. The supervisors also appointed members of the hospital board — all blacks. But when it comes down to critical issues, the majority of those blacks vote whatever way the whites want them to.”
Walker says that white power came to play in the hospital board’s decision to turn down the request of a black physician, Dr. Frank McCune, to be admitted to the Claiborne County Hospital staff. McCune had been on staff before, moved his practice to nearby Jackson, and returned to reapply to join the staff of doctors — three white and one black — who
currently serve Claiborne’s 12,000 residents.
“Dr. McCune is a board-certified surgeon and a very qualified doctor,” Walker says. “It was not his credentials that were in question. During one of the board meetings, the doctors on staff told us that they would resign if Dr. McCune was admitted to the staff. I have gotten feedback from several hospital board members that they were asked by those who appointed them not to put Dr. McCune on staff. And that’s exactly what happened. He was not admitted.”
Dr. McCune is fighting the board’s decision and continues to practice in Port Gibson, despite the fact that Walker says “the hospital will not even perform blood cultures or other laboratory services for his patients. I know because it happened to my wife. One night we needed to get some tests run. They were begun [at Claiborne County Hospital], but when the people on staff saw Dr. McCune’s name as attending physician, they ceased the tests and told us they would not complete them. It is a systematic approach by whites to run Dr. McCune, the only certified surgeon in the area, out of town. And if he is not granted the cooperation of the hospital, it just might work.”
“The situation in Claiborne County today,” explains Port Gibson High School’s Afro-American and U.S. History instructor Percy Thornton, “is very similar to the one in Reconstruction — blacks exploiting blacks and whites making an issue of it. We have not learned to exert political power because the electorate and the elected have not cultivated a strong relationship. We don’t even realize just how much power we have. That atmosphere threatens the future of majority black counties.”
Despite such disappointments, the struggle for black voting rights in Claiborne was long and difficult — and necessary. How did the residents of Claiborne County succeed in electing black officials during a period in which the majority of black Mississippians were without political clout? Many of the blacks who were at the nucleus of the political struggle in the ’60s attribute the success to the organized efforts of grassroots, community-based groups. Nate Jones and several other founding members of the local NAACP chapter gathered recently to discuss the voting rights movement in Claiborne County.
Jones: “The NAACP got started before 1965. On a couple of occasions, some of us met here — upstairs in this building. The first time we met — of course, it was a secret meeting — we wanted to deal with the discrimination against Negroes by white merchants and the local government. But somehow the white folks found out, and when we came out, the street was lined with them. We were told then, and on several other occasions, that they [the whites] didn’t like the idea of us meeting. We decided not to hold any more for a while.”
But by 1965, blacks in Claiborne County were prepared to charge the government and white merchants with discrimination in hiring and administration of services. A biracial committee, consisting primarily of blacks, had been formed to discuss and resolve the grievances, but Jones and the NAACP were not satisfied.
“Our problem with the biracial committee was that it was formed by whites and decided, without the consent of the majority of the community, to state and solve all of the problems. The biracial committee left out several of what we felt were very important grievances.
“In December, 1965, we met with the black members of the biracial committee. [Thelma Wells, another founding NAACP member, interjects: “They had been sent by the whites, who were waiting for the result of that meeting.”] They came to ask us to join them and agree to solving the problems their way. . . . We refused. . . . They left . . . and from that day, the NAACP took over.”
The NAACP resumed its attack on discrimination by the government and merchants and early in 1966 presented a list of 13 grievances, along with proposed solutions. Following fruitless deliberations, the NAACP instituted a boycott against the merchants which lasted for three years. (In 1969, the merchants brought suit against the NAACP and 132 individuals to stop the boycott and collect damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the boycott was an illegal conspiracy; the NAACP and 91 individuals were held financially liable for any and all damages the white merchants could prove were caused by the boycott and the defendants were prohibited from engaging in boycott activities such as picketing in the future. In November, 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the NAACP’s appeal of that decision.)
At about the same time that the NAACP was forming in Claiborne County, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was mobilizing in Greenville. Ignoring gun-toting plantation owners and hostile voting registrars, the NAACP and FDP succeeded in using the Voting Rights Act to register over 3,000 voters by 1967, and for the first time since Reconstruction, the organizations carried the campaigns of black candidates to the public.
Getting black voters to the polls was even more difficult than getting them registered, though. “Difficult is an understatement,” commented Charles Bunton of the FDP. “Most blacks were afraid — fear of economic reprisals, fear of intimidation — these things kept a lot of black folks from getting involved. We had a whole slate of black candidates in 1967. And the FDP did something that had not been done before. We held meetings all over the county — we went to the people with the candidates.”
Claiborne County elected its first black supervisor and chancery clerk in 1967. In 1971, largely because of the same organizing effort, it added a black circuit clerk and a tax assessor and collector on the countywide level, and on the district level, Claiborne elected black justices of the peace and constables. The total of black elected officials increased to eight. The first systematic grassroots political effort began in the 1975 election. Using what they called a modified block captain system, organizers sought out volunteers in each community, conducted an intensive voter education program and turned out more black voters than in any previous election. Evan Doss received more votes in his re-election bid for tax assessor and collector than any other political candidate in the history of Claiborne County. For the first time, blacks comprised a majority on the Board of Supervisors; William Matt Ross, first elected in 1967, became president of the Board. And for the first time, Claiborne elected a black Superintendent of Education and a black majority on the Board of Education. Every county department, with the exception of sheriff, was headed by a black. The 1979 elections brought a black sheriff and another black member to the Board of Supervisors. Those victories increased the number of black elected officials in Claiborne County to 26.
While the election of black officials in Claiborne County has not brought the social and economic development that was hoped for, the county has made some good investments: a public swimming pool, a county fire station and most recently, through the efforts of recently hired county planner Bennie Paige, a federal Rural Health Initiative Grant for the establishment of a primary health care facility. Paige says that other projects, including a rural transportation program, a flood insurance program and a housing project for the elderly, are in the offing.
Community organizers in Claiborne County look positively to the 1983 county elections: voter and community education will be the primary focus of grassroots organizing efforts. They will work closely with statewide groups like the NAACP, the ACLU of Mississippi and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Together they will bring forums, publications and voting rights projects to the community and document both the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act and the need to strengthen its provisions.
But the people of Claiborne County have learned through first-hand experience that exercising the right to vote means much more than simply casting a ballot.
George Walker, who has been involved in all of the campaigns in Claiborne County since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, believes he understands the shortcomings of the earlier political movement. “At that time, black candidates were those people who owned their own businesses or who were otherwise economically secure. And because black pride was all we had going for us, we ran the candidates on the premise of ‘Vote for me because I’m black.’
“Today that has changed. We understand that the power of the vote goes beyond casting a ballot. We have to choose candidates who have the ability to run the office and the concern of the community at heart. We have to be sure that once they are elected, their objective will be to make things better for those who elected them. Before, we were willing to put these people in office and just trust them to do the right things. Now we know that we have to hold them accountable — just as the minority of white voters have all along.”
From 1979 to 1981, Regina Devoual was associate editor of 40 Acres and a Mule, a periodical published by the Emergency Land Fund, and for eight months in 1980 and ’81 edited her own community publication, The Claiborne. She currently serves as public relations director for the Claiborne County Voters League. (1982)