Like many Americans, I have been riveted by the frequent television reflections on the lives and fate of the three brave civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in Mississippi 50 years ago this month for attempting to register African-Americans to vote.
In the years since, the American public has become accustomed to Black Mississippians being elected to office. Today, there are Black mayors, state senators and members of the Legislature. Even Charles Evers, the elder brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was elected mayor of Fayette, Miss.
But in the days of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, the very idea of an African-American going to the polls—and particularly encouraging others to register—was fraught with peril and danger. Mississippi was the last and most vicious bastion of state-sanctioned apartheid. In most cases, the effort to deny Black citizens the right to vote through intimidation and even death was sanctioned and abetted by law enforcement officials themselves in conjunction with the Ku Klux Klan.
Given that bone-chilling history, it seems particularly unsettling that the tea party’s major concern in the recent United States Senate Republican runoff election between incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel was to monitor the Black vote that would come out for Cochran.
McDaniel, a harsh and strident conservative, narrowly lost the Republican primary to Cochran, but neither achieved 50 percent, forcing matters into a runoff. And under Mississippi election law, Democrats may vote in the Republican runoff so long as they didn’t cast a ballot in the primary. That opened the door for Cochran to court a wide swath of Democrats, particularly African-Americans.
The result from McDaniel’s camp was eerily steeped in the politics of the 1960s. McDaniel called for conservative groups to unleash what they called a “voter integrity project” in Mississippi, which included Freedom Works and the Tea Party Patriots. Their mission was to deploy observers to stalk Black voters in areas where Cochran recruited Democrats.
If anything dramatizes how little things have changed in the 50 years since the deaths of the three courageous civil rights workers and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it is this blend of intolerance and condescension with regard to the Black vote in Mississippi. It is as though the McDaniel camp was incredulous that these Black citizens would have the gall to vote in the Republican election, although the state’s rules clearly allow it. And if they were indeed going to cast a ballot, McDaniel’s forces seemed to be saying that they were to be intimidated to the extent allowed by the world of 2014.
It is a bitter legacy for the sacrifice of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. McDaniel, who has not yet conceded although he lost the runoff race, should be condemned by people of all parties in Mississippi and beyond. In the meantime, Cochran needs to make clear that he doesn’t condone such political techniques of the past and will forge a new and helpful relationship with the Black constituents who were crucial to his political survival. It would not only honor those voters, but the memories of those who paid such a high price for those citizens being able to cast ballots in the first place.