Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Barbour cites Waller, Pickering as early signs of racial changes in Mississippi

From an opinion piece in today's USA Today, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour writes about how the South and Mississippi has changed regarding race relations, and notes the changes have been coming for a long time.

Mississippi today has more African-American elected officials than any other state, 1,075. The percentage of African Americans in our state registered to vote compared with the black voting-age population is 90.2%, compared with 62.1% in New York, and turnout among African Americans has exceeded that of whites in recent elections.

While these achievements occurred at a somewhat evolutionary pace, it is unrecognized that many white Southerners accepted them rather quickly.

After Medgar Evers was murdered 50 years ago, his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was prosecuted by a young district attorney from Jackson, Bill Waller. When the first jury failed to reach a verdict, Waller tried Beckwith again. The second jury hung as well, and Beckwith was not convicted until the early 1990s.

Conventional wisdom held that Waller would be politically ostracized. Instead, Bill Waller was elected governor in 1971. His son, Bill Waller Jr., is currently chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

During the same period, Laurel, Miss., prosecutor Charles Pickering testified in the 1966 criminal trial against Sam Bowers, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. Pickering was soon elected to the state Senate, became Mississippi Republican Party chairman and served as a federal judge.

If Mississippi had not already begun to change those 40 years ago, these elections would not have resulted as they did. While evolutionary overall, political changes began in my state much sooner than is often recognized, and positive changes in other areas of race relations have continued apace.