Finally ... Purple Reigns in Mississippi

Drew Lefmann & Jarrius Adams, proud progressives. Oxford, Mississippi

Drew Lefmann & Jarrius Adams, proud progressives. Oxford, Mississippi

A day after the November 6, 2018, mid-term election, as I counted up the counties won by the top two voter winners in Mississippi, my ninth-grade art class came to mind. Thirty-eight blue counties and forty-one red ones. Blue and red make purple. A mathematician from Princeton first published a “purple map” of the United States after the 2000 elections, in part to refute the superficial observations of the pundit world of a polarized and divided America. Since the backlash to civil rights advances in the nineteen sixties and the “Southern strategy” that effectively transformed the “Solid South” from reliably Democratic to Republican, Mississippi has been defined and described as a red state, completely lacking in political nuance.

This characterization has never been true. As Reverend William Barber observed in this election cycle, "Mississippi isn’t a red state, it’s an under-organized state.” A widely-cited study of three decades of voting trends found that Mississippi has the widest turnout gap between self-described conservatives and self-described liberals in the country. There are deep-seated racial and socioeconomic reasons for depressed Democratic turnout, which continue to be exploited by Republicans through voter suppression tactics such as Voter ID. GOP leaders have also reinforced barriers to voter registration. Approximately 416,000 of the state’s eligible voters are unregistered. For reference, Trump’s 18-point victory over Clinton had a margin of 215,000 votes. Demographic and cultural trends are working in favor of Democrats.

The mid-term results reflected this growing potential and put the run-off outcome in play, aided by unforced errors by the Republican candidate, whose public comments caught on video tapped into the state’s violent racist history. Running against a respected African American candidate, as the November 27th run-off approached, polls tightened, forcing Republican strategists, monies and volunteers to respond to Mike Espy’s growing advantage. It was always going to be an uphill strategy. And yet, despite losing the race, Espy “lost forward,” expanding the electoral map for Democrats in remarkable ways.

As noted by the candidate himself in an e-blast, “From scratch- in a short eight months, combining “old-school” methods with tech-savvy means, we were able to build the largest grassroots organization in Mississippi’s history; we unearthed and persuaded over 140 thousand new Democratic voters to turn out; we measurably increased Democratic turnout within the three weeks between election day to runoff; we hit all of our internal targets, garnering more votes than Hillary Clinton in all 82 of Mississippi’s counties- and more than President Obama in 55 of those 82 counties. Nine counties that had voted for Trump in 2016 were flipped from red to blue; we made significant inroads in garnering white crossover votes in the Mississippi “suburbs”- and in residual benefit, the massive turnout helped to elect AA judges across the state.” And Republicans had outspent Democrats in the state by four to one to secure their ultimate outcome.

While many dismissed these results as typical, wiser and more observant pundits outside the state noticed the tremendous change. Within the state, the progressive community is ecstatic and eager to build on these results.

We still have an uphill battle. This is the Mississippi I've come to know in the last 22 years. I know that of the over 720,000 children in the state, 30% of them live in poverty. And 86% of Black, 81% of Hispanic and 62% of White 4th grade public school students cannot not read at grade level. I know that 62% of business leaders in the state believe that their children will have to leave the state to get a good job. I know we are largely last in every indicator that gauges the well-being of our people.

In our culture of immediate gratification, we expect difficult cultural change to occur in an instant, by fiat or tweet. It never has and never will. There are no shortcuts to the everyday process of building inclusive relationships and trust in order to change mindsets and actions. An election is not a movement. 

A movement for liberation requires long-term commitment. It requires truth-telling and courage and patience. And a movement should celebrate moving the needle, as Mississippians did. And that work didn't just happen in the last six months. We must not let the forward movement of the Espy campaign obscure the grassroots leadership across the state over the last 60 years and especially since the 2016 election that made his strong showing possible.  

That year, a small group of women in north Mississippi began having regular lunches every Friday. Hesitantly, one Friday one of the women confessed somewhat timidly that she was a Democrat. One by one, the remaining women shared that they, too, were Democrats. It has been beaten into our psyches for so long that Mississippi is so reliably red that the words "progressive" or "liberal" became shibboleths in the state. But the more we declare our belief in justice and equality, in compassion and mercy and love, the more of us we see live here. This election was simply one more invitation to come join this movement for liberation.

In his now iconic essay, "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates calls for the "full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences." He elaborated, "What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag."

If we spend the next two years focusing all of our attention on the political races in 2019 and 2020, we will have failed our state (and our nation). We need a full reckoning. In one community in the Delta right now, they're pondering how a landmark civil rights case from 1969, which ordered that municipal services must be distributed equally in black and white neighborhoods. It's almost 50 years later and they're still not. I know of one community in east MS whose white Baptist Church built a new basketball court but fenced it in because they didn't want black kids to play on it. And my neighbor across my backyard ravine, who flies a U.S. flag just above a Confederate flag, somehow doesn't have a psychological break down every time he looks in his backyard and sees the flag that represents folks who seceded from and tried to destroy the constituency represented by the other flag, all over being able to own and exploit other human beings. You can't be a "Confederate American." But if we work hard, we might be able to use what is best about being Southern to redeem what is worst.

We must have a state reckoning in Mississippi that leads to a spiritual renewal. We must honestly engage the sordid racial histories of every single town and learn how to repair the breaches created by those divides. It starts with relationship and trust-building, because that work allows us to hear hard truths without shutting down. Blaming and shaming are not effective in this "politics of invitation." Listening to understand allows new ideas to emerge, ones we may not even be able to imagine right now. And it would serve all fifty states to do this work; in many ways, as the poet said, "We are all Mississippians."

So, my friends and I will be working hard on getting folks registered to vote and on encouraging new folks to run for office. But we must dig deeper than that, into changing mindsets and cultural attitudes based on fear. We all must find our roles, using our unique gifts. And I hope some of us will take up the work of reparation, which means acknowledgement, atonement, amends and absolution.

On December 3rd, Oxford, MS, held its annual Christmas parade. For the first time in their history, the Lafayette County Democratic Party created a float with a progressive Christmas list of wishes. We’ve gone from quietly and sometimes timidly sharing with trusted friends our political dreams to declaring them in the public square. We move forward with hope.

Written by guest blogger Dr. Susan M. Glisson. Susan is co-founder of Sustainable Equity, LLC. She has worked for more than 20 years to change conditions that have created a legacy of inequities. Mississippi is her home.