White Voters in Mississippi Allege Voting Discrimination

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is being used, unconventionally, to defend white voters. The Justice Department is pursuing the case in Noxubee County, Mississippi, on behalf of a group of white residents. The suit alleges that black election officials have systematically discriminated against white voters and candidates.

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In a remote part of Mississippi, federal prosecutors are using the Voting Rights Act in a new way. The 1965 law protects voters from racial discrimination. This case under the law is unique because election officials in Noxubee County, Mississippi, are black. The voters who claim racial discrimination are white. The Justice Department says this is the first time it has ever used the Voting Rights Act to defend white voters, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

(Soundbite of music)

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

There's a singer named Willie King who plays at a hole-in-the-wall blues club in Noxubee County, Mississippi. He has a song about neighboring Pickens County, Alabama. It describes some of the ways black people in the South have been wronged, and then it goes on to talk about how black people will turn the tables on whites when they're in the majority.

(Soundbite of song "Pickens County Payback")

Mr. WILLIE KING: (Singing) Well, now, we don't need no bosses tellin' us what to do. The day we see the power, put 'em on the shelf, in Pickens County...

SHAPIRO: In Noxubee County, blacks do outnumber whites by about two-to-one, and Judy Profitt(ph), the acting director of the local library, says Willie King's song describes what's happened here.

Ms. JUDY PROFITT (Library Director): I mean, just observing the kids here that come into the library, some of them, they have the attitude, `We're it. We're high above the white race,' you know? I mean, I guess they've been put down so many years that now that they've got some authority, they feel like, `OK, we're going to go with it and we're not going to let you come back up and have any authority.'

SHAPIRO: This is a rural county, more than an hour from the nearest big city. Local politics here are fierce and overwhelmingly Democratic. The man at the center of nearly every political battle is Ike Brown. He's the chairman of Noxubee County's Democratic Executive Committee. The Justice Department accuses him and county officials generally of, quote, "recent and relentless voting-related racial discrimination." That's against white voters and candidates. The suit alleges that Brown selectively enforces absentee ballot laws to reject those ballots from white voters. It says he tries to prevent whites from participating in Democratic primary elections and it faults him for criticizing blacks who support white candidates.

(Soundbite of voices)

SHAPIRO: Brown's about six and a half feet tall. He agrees that everyone in town knows him, either as a local celebrity or a local troublemaker, depending on who you ask. He sits at a place called Geneva's Kitchen with a plate of fried quail, black-eyed peas, rice and gravy, biscuits and peach cobbler. He believes this case is prompted by Republican fears about black Democratic voter mobilization.

Mr. IKE BROWN (Chairman, Democratic Executive Committee): We're so successful in what we do in getting people to vote. Let me give you an example. When I became chairman, we averaged 25, 26, 2,700 Democratic votes for president. In the last election, the number was up to 4,300; huge jump. And that's what they're afraid of.

SHAPIRO: Much of that jump was due to absentee ballots. Even Brown's supporters say his use of absentee ballots in the county is hardball politics at best. His detractors say it's not just hardball politics, it's illegal and racially discriminatory. They say Brown knows when the ballots go out, and his workers position themselves to help people vote when the absentee ballots arrive. Scott Boyd edits and publishes the local weekly paper, the Macon Beacon. He says it's especially easy to manipulate absentee voters in this county because many residents need help reading the names on the ballot.

Mr. SCOTT BOYD (Macon Beacon): Now whether they sit there and look over someone's shoulder saying, `Vote for X, X and X,' now I can't tell you that that definitely happens, but I know he and his workers have heavily involved themselves in the effort involving absentee ballots because in many of our contested races over the last 10 or 12 years have been decided just by a handful of votes. So that tells you that four or five absentee ballots could turn a whole election around.

SHAPIRO: The circuit clerk here is Carl Mickens(ph). He was named in the Justice Department suit but settled without admitting any wrongdoing.

Mr. CARL MICKENS (Circuit Clerk): No one trusts just anybody off the street with their absentee ballot. People here in Noxubee County, they take voting real serious, and it's like sacred, it's just next thing next to the Bible, you know, in some cases. And if a person assisting them, they got confidence in that person and then they want that person there.

SHAPIRO: The allegations are not limited to absentee balloting, though. Dorothy Baker-Hines says she saw voter manipulation at a polling place in her recent mayoral race. Baker-Hines lost her re-election bid to Bob Boykin, who had Brown's support.

Ms. DOROTHY BAKER-HINES (Former Mayor): I was walking by and he came in, this man. He said, `Hey, Miss Mayor,' he said, `I come to vote for you.' And I said, `Well, that's great.' I just went walking on. Now he said, `Now you're--they told me, they told me'--and there's this girl with him; he's about drunk, he's stumbling around. He said, `They told me now it's B-O-Y-K-I-N, that spells Baker-Hines, doesn't it?' I said, `No, that spells Boykin.' And this girl was with him, she said, `We didn't tell you that. We didn't tell you that.'

SHAPIRO: The suit also accuses Brown of bringing black candidates in from other parts of the state to run against white candidates when the black candidates were not qualified to run. That happened to Ricky Walker, the county's prosecuting attorney and the only white countywide elected official in Noxubee County. He's been in the post for more than 20 years.

Mr. RICKY WALKER (Prosecuting Attorney): I've never had anybody else qualify. I guess nobody wanted the job.

SHAPIRO: That changed during the last election when a black attorney from Jackson, about two hours' drive from here, tried to enter the race.

Mr. WALKER: You've been here long enough to know, it's a small community, and I was pretty sure he hadn't lived here long, if he was living here. But when I investigated, I found out that I didn't think he lived here at all.

SHAPIRO: Ike Brown had rented the man an apartment in town. When a judge discovered that there was no electric power or furniture in the apartment and the man had never spent a night there, the judge disqualified the candidate from running. The Justice Department says Brown broke the law in doing that. Brown says...

Mr. BROWN: That's my free speech right. I can recruit candidates. I can campaign with the candidate. I can do what I want to do. Now as Democratic chairman, I can't use the party's resources to hinder anybody. And that has not happened.

SHAPIRO: If this were a case about white discrimination against black voters, it might not get as much attention. But because the roles are reversed, the Mississippi civil rights community is talking about it. Leslie McLemore directs the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. He's also a Democrat on the Jackson City Council.

Mr. LESLIE McLEMORE (Director, Fannie Lou Hamer Institute, Jackson State University): If the person is discriminated against, whether he or she is black or white, the law should be applied. So I am delighted to see the law is being applied, because I don't think white Mississippians should be discriminated against and I don't think black Mississippians should be discriminated against.

SHAPIRO: Derrick Johnson, who's the state president of the Mississippi NAACP, reacted to the case differently.

Mr. DERRICK JOHNSON (State President, Mississippi NAACP): I thought it was outrageous, I mean, just blatantly outrageous.

SHAPIRO: He says the Justice Department has chosen to address alleged discrimination against white voters while ignoring evidence of discrimination against black voters in other parts of the state.

Mr. JOHNSON: There are always issues and concerns in the state of Mississippi around voter intimidations, poll workers requiring voters to show ID when we don't have a voter ID requirement, individuals who have been purged from the books without the process in which--that should be utilized for purging or simply ballot boxes disappearing or reappearing.

SHAPIRO: He says he's filed these complaints with the Justice Department.

Mr. JOHNSON: And the Justice Department in none of these situations never followed up with an investigation or did anything about it. I find it highly unusual for them to take interest in the Noxubee County case.

Mr. ERIC HOLLAND (Justice Department Spokesman): Every single complaint we receive receives proper review.

SHAPIRO: Eric Holland is a Justice Department spokesman.

Mr. HOLLAND: Career attorneys in the voting rights section review all complaints they receive. Based on the information in the complaint and further review, a decision is made about whether or not to open a full investigation.

SHAPIRO: Holland says if the Justice Department did not open an investigation after the NAACP's complaint, it's because career attorneys did not find enough evidence to show that the laws had been violated in those cases.

Mr. HOLLAND: The Civil Rights Division takes very seriously its responsibility to enforce the voting rights laws of the United States. Whether a person is black, white, Hispanic, Native American, we will make sure that their voting rights are defended.

SHAPIRO: Noxubee County is a small enough place that by now everybody's gotten to know the prosecutors from Washington. Just like Ike Brown, whether they're seen as celebrities or troublemakers depends on who you ask.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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