Reaction to the fact that black voters were either invited or influenced to take part in a Mississippi Republican second primary vote has run the gamut from histrionics to humor, but the fact is that the history of electoral entanglement between blacks and the Mississippi GOP is in great measure coming full circle.
The 2014 Mississippi Republican Senate second primary is far from the first time that black voters have been involved in Republican politics in Mississippi. The historical record on that involvement is documented and fairly rich in detail.
After the Republican Reconstruction government established in Mississippi in 1865 and led almost exclusively by black public officials was deposed by Mississippi Democrats in the 1875 elections, the GOP fell on hard times. The push was called “the Mississippi Plan” and is defined by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as: “The Mississippi Plan was devised by Mississippi Democrats to overthrow Republican rule through intimidation, violence, and paramilitary groups. Disturbances occurred throughout the state as Democrats won state elections.”
After 1875, the Republican Party in Mississippi faded into irrelevance for a time. University of Southern Mississippi historian Neil R. McMillen in a 1982 article in The Journal of Southern History entitled “Perry W. Howard: Boss of Black-and-Tan Republicanism in Mississippi, 1924-1960” offered a succinct account of what happened next: “For some two decades thereafter, largely through a peculiar arrangement known as the ‘fusion principle’ – under which white Democrats and black Republicans in a half dozen black-majority counties cooperated to elect biracial and bipartisan slates of candidates – the party remained an active if increasingly minor force in state politics. Following the adoption of the constitution of 1890, under which all but a bare fraction of the state’s Negro citizens were disenfranchised, it virtually ceased to exist as a political party. Thereafter, few Republicans ran for office and none were elected.”
But in 1924, enter an ambitious young black attorney from Ebenezer, Mississippi, named Perry Howard who would dominate the Mississippi Black-and-Tan Republican Party for the next 35 years.
Mississippi authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart chronicled Howard’s leadership of the state’s GOP in their book “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008.” In that account, Nash and Taggart wrote: “Republicans in Mississippi during this time rarely fielded candidates for office, spending more time fight among themselves than in recruiting candidates for public office.”
Between 1927 and 1960, Howard’s Mississippi Black-and-Tan Republican Party battled for recognition from the national GOP with so-called “Lily-White Republicans” – a battle eventually won by the Lily-White faction led by Mississippi Republican pioneer Wirt Yerger Jr. While the old Black-and-Tan GOP in Mississippi was about little more than controlling and brokering GOP patronage, Yerger’s group was all about growing a viable, credible alternative to the state’s monolithic Democratic Party.
So from the end of the Civil War forward, through Reconstruction and the early days of the civil rights era almost a century later, black voters have played a consistent and undeniable role in evolution of the Mississippi GOP – despite a marked and precipitous decline in black participation after the 1960 GOP national presidential convention.
The “big tent” Republicanism preached by in Mississippi by Ronald Reagan and later by one of his staffers, Haley Barbour, certainly wasn’t a novelty in the 2014 GOP Senate second primary. Neither was the hardball politics that many find distasteful.
Republicans, like Democrats in Mississippi, have over our state’s history engaged in more than our share of rough-and-tumble politics in which race and factional interests took center stage. Like it or not, the true history of the state’s GOP reflects that not a lot new happened in this hotly contested 2014 primary.
Somewhere, old Perry Howard must be shaking his head at the current fracas that grips Mississippi GOP.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Sid Salter is syndicated across the state. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)