Discover more from Progress Report
Organizing against history in the Deep South
The fight to make democracy possible in Mississippi
Go down the line of elected officials in Mississippi, from local offices to US senators, and you’ll find one Republican after the next. It’s not one of the sunbelt states like Texas or Georgia that has been creeping towards turning blue for a decade now, either — with a nearly 30-seat advantage in the State House and an iron grip on statewide offices, Mississippi is about as red as it gets.
Not coincidentally, Mississippi is also the poorest, most segregated, and most anti-democratic state in the nation. The state’s constitution was a product of deep racial antipathy and has purposely prevented competitive elections ever since its passage in 1890. It was the blueprint for the first Jim Crow era and now that the voting rights legislation is dead in the Senate, it’s the blueprint for a new Jim Crow.
“Mississippi is one of the blackest states in the union and we oftentimes we run into issues where our elected officials are not as representative of the state as we would like them to be,” says Hannah Williams, the Voting Rights Project Coordinator at the nonprofit organization Mississippi Votes.
It’s a considerable understatement, as Williams’ rueful laughs acknowledges, but when you spend every day fighting uphill against the whole of history, it helps to have a sense of humor. There are also a few reasons for Williams and her organization to feel some optimism amid what has been a persistently grim century and a half.
“The people of Mississippi have been able to come together and prove that they are ready for some progressive something to happen,” Williams says.
It’s hard to consider Democrat Mike Espy’s ten-point loss in the state’s 2020 Senate race even a moral victory, but he did improve on the party’s 2018 result by six points. And as in many states ruled by entrenched Republican trifectas, activists in Mississippi were able to advance several progress policies through ballot initiatives.
Last year, voters overwhelmingly chose to replace the Confederate bars and stars in the official state flag, ended the electoral college system that allowed the state legislature to toss out statewide office election results, and legalized medical marijuana.
And yet, the celebrations were short-lived: As I reported earlier this year, the idea of even the terminally ill receiving relief from ingesting cannabis, especially under the auspices of a policy approved directly by popular vote, was far too much for Mississippi’s extreme right-wing Supreme Court to countenance. In response, the court not only invalidated the medical marijuana victory, but also threw out the entire initiative process altogether.
To some degree, the resounding success of policies otherwise blocked by Republican lawmakers is maddening, because it suggests that Democrats in the state are simply inept at messaging and unable to capitalize electorally on the popularity of the ideas they ostensibly support. But direct democracy can’t be gerrymandered and doesn’t require strong party apparatus or even candidates to appear on the ballot. The vast structural inequities in the state’s geographic, economy, and democratic systems make competitive partisan elections almost impossible, and now the ballot initiative process is in limbo.
Further, the Mississippi’s Republican legislature, stung by the very modest progress made in the 2020 elections, passed an aggressive voter roll purge law, and in doing so joined more than a dozen other states in making it even more difficult to vote. New gerrymandered maps continue the tradition of splitting up the Mississippi Delta, the impoverished region where most of the state’s Black residents lived after emancipation and continue to live today.
“It’s hard to get internet there, people are still driving like 30 miles to their nearest hospital,” Williams says. “And so when there are things like voter ID in place, it makes it hard for those folks to have access to equal and ethical equitable voting tools. Polling places are often snatched up and put in different locations that aren't convenient for them.”
It’s against this backdrop that Williams and the rest of her intrepid staff dare to organize, educate, and activate the disenfranchised, working class, and disengaged Mississippians. The organization advocates for and against laws being considered in the legislature, but given the GOP’s supermajority, the priority is in large part on increasing voter access and education, with focus on both overcoming the suppression in place and creating a new generation of political activists and engaged citizens.
“We have a bunch of fellowships ranging from high school ages all the way up through college and post-grad and folks who have experienced non-traditional education paths,” Williams explains. “And we basically use our students as tools to go into the community and educate everybody else.”
On the high school level, Mississippi Votes’ Youth Advisory Council offers civic and history lessons to selected students, filling in the blanks where underfunded and state-censored public schools often fall short. “We tell them how the government operates and runs and works, what their roles can be and what their roles are, especially on the state level.”
One of the organization’s program for college-age activists, the Democracy in Action Fellowship, offers similar civic lessons and provides recipients with real-world experience. “We give them tools to be able to lift up their own voices and concerns that they have in the legislature,” Williams says. “They're completely in charge of hosting voter registration drives, reforms, whatever they want to do.”
The Emergent Leader fellowship is geared towards people who have moved past their undergrad years and want to get more deeply involved in community organizing and politics in a professional capacity.
“We may get fellows who are interested in how to run digital strategy, so they will shadow our comms department,” she says. “We may have people that are interested in data intake and organizing volunteers, and they'll go to our web services department. If they're interested in policy, they'll come over here with us in Policy Research.”
The organization also has a program specifically for women of color, called One Girl One Vote, that trains women in political organizing.
Mississippi Votes only has 12 staffers, but with help from community partners, it is able to run its Democracy In Action fellowship programs in high schools across the state and on every campus at each of Mississippi’s 17 state colleges and universities. The goal is to expand it out to community colleges and other campuses while also multiplying the number of fellows involved. The emphasis on recruiting local students to work in their home districts is particularly important in places where politics don’t often reach.
“Country folks don't like strangers in the neighborhood, knocking on doors, telling them to vote for and tell them about political anything,” she says, laughing. “The South is a very communal, tight-knit type of situation.”
As the elections grow closer, the organization will also turn its attention toward voting rights restoration and a 16-week voter education campaign. As a nonpartisan nonprofit, Mississippi Votes can’t back candidates, which makes it harder to immediately address the state’s crisis of uncontested elections, but it’s creating a new generation of political activists and engaged voters who will shape the state’s politics for decades to come.
Wait, Before You Leave!
Progressives Everywhere has raised over $6 million dollars raised for progressive Democratic candidates and causes. Isn’t that cool?
That said, none of that money goes to producing this newsletter or all of the related projects we put out there. Not a dime! In fact, it costs me money to do this. So to make this sustainable and to ensure that I can continue to spotlight important candidates/organizations and pay a new freelancer, I need your help.
I’m offering very low-cost premium subscriptions that offer a lot of goodies. If you become a member of Progressives Everywhere, you’ll get:
Premium member-only emails featuring analysis, insight, and local & national news coverage you won’t read elsewhere.
Exclusive updates from candidates and interviews with other progressive leaders.
Coverage of voting rights, healthcare, labor rights, and progressive activism.
Interviews with and the ability to help the little-known, up-and-coming candidates who wind up leading the progressive charge when they win office.
The satisfaction of financing new projects and paying freelance contributors
A new best friend (me).
You can also make a one-time donation to Progressives Everywhere’s GoFundMe campaign — doing so will earn you a shout-out in an upcoming edition of the big newsletter!