Mississippi Mayor’s Election Shows Voting Law’s Imperfect Legacy

Mississippi has only one Democrat elected to statewide office and no blacks, even though they account for 37 percent of the population, according to the Census. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Percy L. Bland III said he knew he would become the first black mayor of Meridian, Mississippi (STOMS1), when he saw the crowd at Velma Young Community Center at 5 p.m. on election day. These were his voters.

In 2009, Bland had lost to white Republican Cheri Barry in a city that is 62 percent black. While he needed white support for the rematch last month, his 990-vote margin came from predominantly black wards where his campaign registered voters, called them and even offered rides to the polls.
“All that work was paying off,” Bland said.

The federal Voting Rights Act enabled Bland’s election by guaranteeing blacks proportionate power, yet it didn’t foster a coalition that bridged the races or prevent accusations of bias and intimidation. The campaign illustrates the unfinished legacy of the 1965 law, which enfranchised millions of African-Americans — and whose core element the U.S. Supreme Court threw out three weeks after Bland won.

The judges ended a requirement that the U.S. Justice Department approve districts and election rules in Mississippi and all or part of 14 other states, most in the South. The court said that the law, prompted by the killings of a Meridian native and two others trying to register black voters in 1964, was made obsolete by its own success.

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