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Mississippi: Rightwing, White and Poor


The US and Confederate flags fly side by side over the National Guard building in Jackson, Mississippi. According to Lindsey Lemmons who works there, that patriotic institution is appreciated by all, “unlike the Jackson police”. Lemmons, who is white, and describes herself as “fairly traditional”, jogs every morning with a handgun in her pocket — not your typical anti-capitalist protestor. Yet she is a member of Occupy Jackson, the local chapter of Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Last autumn, she and 20 others camped on-and-off for two months in Smith Park in downtown Jackson. She came across the campers when she was jogging and decided to join. “I’m not a leftist, unlike some of my friends in the movement. But like them I’m against the greed the banks and multinationals show, against the impunity they enjoy and the hold they have on this country’s politics.” Is that the view of the so-called 99% OWS claims to represent? In Mississippi, the poorest state in the United States, but also the most conservative, that is not a given.

When Lemmons goes home after work or campaign meetings, she drives past service stations, evangelical churches and shopping centres, on roads apparently designed for leaving the city centre fast rather than entering it. Downtown Jackson with its Capitol and business centre fades, and you no longer see the gutted streets and dilapidated houses where it is easier to find methamphetamines than a coffee shop, and one in four lives below the poverty line. In north Farish Street, where anti-segregation marches were held 50 years ago, only one building still functions — a club, F Jones Corner, where the beat of the Delta blues attempts to drown out the desolation until the early hours.

A golf course marks the entrance to Brandon, the suburb where Lemmons lives: “The white population of Jackson left after the end of racial segregation and many settled here.” The local council profited from that incoming wave in 1964, because the whites who moved to Brandon were prosperous. According to the last census, the average per capita income in Brandon (87% white) is nearly twice that of Jackson (81% black). Some people think the population is too mixed. “Some of my neighbours complain there are more and more blacks in the neighbourhood, nearly 30%,” said Lemmons. “They’re afraid it’s going to push house prices down.”

‘God made us’

How they count their African-American neighbours is a mystery. The outlying district of Evergreen Estates is mostly houses scattered in the woods, but the old segregationist spirit is as tenacious as the residents’ concern for their property. A recent survey revealed that 46% of Mississippi’s Republican voters believe inter-racial marriage should be banned (1). “I believe God made us a different colour for a reason and should be honoured by not marrying outside of the race that God picked for me,” wrote a woman in an email to the survey institute (2). Rick Santorum’s 13 March victory in the Mississippi Republican primaries showed that the Bible and the gun are still a winning combination here (Santorum is a Catholic with socially conservative views, and strongly anti-abortion). Yet one of Lemmons’s neighbours said that as a committed Republican and Christian, she supported abortion because “it mostly eliminates the poor and the blacks.”

A century and a half after the civil war, the Deep South has still not come to terms with its defeat, which nearly half the Republican voters in Mississippi regret. Mississippi differs from other southern states such as North Carolina and Georgia, where a massive influx of migrants from the North in the past decades has toned down nostalgia for the past (3).

Visitors find the history of slavery as presented on local monuments disconcerting. In Vicksburg, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River, where the Secessionists suffered one of their worst defeats, the Old Court House Museum devotes a room to Jefferson Davis, the only president of the short-lived Confederate States of America. A quotation attributed to one of his slaves is posted in large lettering: “Every coloured man he ever owned loved him.” A notice explains that Davis “had a special relationship with his slaves. He was not only their master, but their friend.” Slavery as kindness — that is not how Richard Wright presented it in his autobiography Black Boy, in which he describes his poor childhood in 1920s Mississippi and his terror of white people: he knew “all the whites in the South thought they were the Negroes’ friend” (4).

Bill Sanders, a bankrupt farmer turned agricultural mechanic, who spends his spare time in the museum enlightening tourists, said: “You hear a lot of stupid things about slave owners, about how they were cruel and racist and all that, but the truth is blacks were better treated then than they are now. Board and lodging in exchange for work is better than crack on welfare, believe me.” Sanders said he earned $2,300 a month: “Peanuts when you have kids who want to go to college and you pay $500 in rent and $500 on top of that for medical insurance.” Wall Street? “Thieves — all Obama’s buddies.” He was not about to occupy any public parks “with communists who want to disarm our troops.” Sanders doesn’t hold with Republicans “and their tales”, but quite likes Santorum. “He’s an honest guy who believes what he says.”

Lost cause 

Sanders seems typical of Mississippi where the median annual per capita income is the lowest in the US at $35,000, as compared with $65,000 in New Hampshire. Despite that, for the past 40 years the “Magnolia State” has voted Republican at every presidential election and is seen as a lost cause for the Washington Democrats — to the extent that Obama’s team struck it off his campaign tour.

That was not always the case. Historically, the white majority in Mississippi (now 60% of the population against 37% black) supported the Democrats, who were identified with the “Southern model”, rather than the abolitionist Republican Yankees. It was only after Franklin D Roosevelt was elected in 1933 (with 95.98% of the vote in Mississippi), and black voters in the Northern states became a vital component of the New Deal, that the Democratic Party began its long transformation, culminating 30 years later in its official support of the Civil Rights Movement. Abandoned, the Southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats”, tried to save their segregationist preserve against the “traitors” from the North before tearing up their membership cards and joining the traditional enemy. Since then, the Republican Party has been the guarantor of the “Southern Way of Life”. In Mississippi, the 1972 presidential elections consecrated this reversal with a landslide (78% of the vote) for the Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

Ernest Camel, a young black activist from Occupy Jackson, described the local political landscape: “It’s simple here: the whites vote Republican and the blacks vote Democrat because they always have, because their neighbours do, because the TV ads or the preacher say they should. Since the whites outnumber the blacks two to one, the Republicans win, except in certain local elections, like Jackson. In any case, people in the US, whether they are black or white, rarely vote for anyone who defends their interests.” Camel does the layout for the Jackson State University magazine. The students there are almost exclusively African-American and the job barely pays his bills. He claimed not to suffer much from racism — less than his father did when he worked in Kentucky.

Camel’s father had an accident at work but receives no compensation or benefits and depends on family solidarity. Camel’s grandmother Margareth, 72, worked all her life to raise her eight children and between odd jobs managed to train as a nurse in a Baptist university. Her fees were reduced but in return she was required to take a religious instruction course: “I didn’t have enough money to buy a single book.” In 2005 she fled New Orleans after hurricane Katrina destroyed her house, and moved in with her family in Jackson. She took with her a wheelchair provided by Medicare, the federal social insurance programme for the over-65s. But a few weeks later Medicare decided Margareth was no longer entitled to her wheelchair, perhaps because she did not have additional private health insurance or was considered too well-off, despite losing her home and the use of her legs. A team from Medicare knocked on her door one morning. “They said ‘the wheelchair costs $6,000’; but I don’t have that kind of money, so they took it away.”

Since then she has learnt to walk again, with difficulty. Her house in New Orleans was not rebuilt but the State has provided her with a new one. I went to inspect it. There was mildew on the walls, the smoke detector dangled on a wire from the ceiling, the electric sockets were placed randomly and the heating didn’t work: brand new, but already uninhabitable. “Welcome to the United States,” said Camel with a sigh.

‘Less State, more responsibility’

Quentin Whitwell is a lawyer from a family of lawyers, the only conservative and one of only two whites on the Jackson city council, where the Democrats are in the majority. He is also one of the Republican Party’s hopefuls and has set up a lobbying firm called Talon Group, to defend the interests of big businesses in Mississippi and Louisiana — for which his position as a council member must be an advantage. I asked how he thought the city’s poverty should be tackled. “We need less State and more responsibility. We need to attract businesses, create jobs and get rid of the benefit mentality.” People should follow his example. “I was blessed in life certainly but success wasn’t handed to me on a plate, I built it up.” Whitwell handed me a copy of his novel If by Whiskey, whose cover claims it is in the literary tradition of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright. Wright did come to mind when Whitwell stressed that he had “a lot of sympathy for African-Americans”.

Whitwell’s mantra has already been tried and tested. In the last decade, dozens of multinationals such as Toyota and Rolls-Royce have rushed to Mississippi. On its website, the state development authority vaunts the “very favourable climate” for investors, as well as the presence of a “large, skilled and non-unionised” workforce. This red-carpet treatment seduced Nissan Motors, part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. In 2000, spurred by its new chairman and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, the group chose Mississippi for its third US production site. “A Godsend”, ran the headline in the local paper The Clarion-Ledger, referring to 4,000 new jobs (5). Nissan’s blessing came in the form of a $363m state subsidy, a range of tax benefits and 32 hectares of land in Canton, 30km north of Jackson.

Unions not welcome

The real advantage of the Deep South is its long-standing dislike of unions. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is not even listed in the phone directory. The UAW had a million and half members in the 1970s and still claims 700,000 today. It seemed to have written off the Nissan plant in Canton; if anything the reverse was true. An African-American worker told me from his car window: “Get unionised, me? You must be crazy! I’d be fired within minutes,” and roared off.

“Everyone is scared,” confided another worker. “If you make one mistake or say something they don’t like, you’re out the door right away. The work’s hard and there’s a high turnover. Guys on my production line don’t stay long. I’ve held out for two years now.” He earns $12 an hour, about half what his fellow workers get in Ohio or Michigan where there is a strong UAW presence. “I don’t know much about the UAW. All I know is that they’re not welcome here. As far as I’m concerned, $12 is better than the $8 I was earning before at Wendy’s. Fast food is really a bad job. As long as I can stay at Nissan I’m happy.”

UAW’s last public appearance in Mississippi was in February 2005 when it held a two-hour meeting in a Jackson hotel to inform a handful of representatives, pastors and NGO workers about Carlos Ghosn’s aversion to unions. The issue was raised of Mississippi becoming a destination for multinationals seeking cheap labour, and establishing a “delocalised tax-free zone within US territory”, to use the expression of a labour law specialist, but nothing seems to have happened since then.

A search did find an unofficial UAW representative, but Charles Rice claimed he was no longer involved in any “real union activities”, which was why he did not want to discuss the subject of the Nissan plant. He agreed to put me in touch with a mysterious comrade who could tell me more. I had no better luck with him: “Sorry, I don’t talk to journalists. Too dangerous.” A year ago if UAW, from its Detroit headquarters 1,500km away, threatened a campaign against any car manufacturer flouting union rights, businesses got out the tar and feathers. “We know about UAW’s insane demands, which lose jobs for the workers they claim to represent. It’s time we explained that we don’t need a car union in Mississippi,” said a spokesman from Nissan (6).

In some of the most conservative areas there are employers who think that paying employees is going a bit far. Vancleave, near the Gulf of Mexico coast, is a depressingly tidy town of 5,000, where nine inhabitants in ten are white and Republican. Sally Bevill is white, and a pastor at the local Methodist church. Yet she voted for Obama in 2008 and intends to do the same this year. “I used to work in Biloxi, on the coast. It was better. But one day in 2005, I opened my church to homeless people whose houses had been destroyed by Katrina. The Church hierarchy posted me to Vancleave as a punishment, the most reactionary parish in the area — which is saying something!”

Bevill made things worse for herself by helping the exploited South American immigrants working on chicken farms, Mississippi’s main source of revenue since the decline of cotton. Her sympathy for the Latinos shocked her congregation but some saw it as an opportunity to recruit workers without paying agency fees. “One day a farmer came to see me to ask if I could provide him with a couple of Latinos to work as servants. He told me that he would house them and even feed them.” When she asked about working hours, the farmer shrugged and said the work would require “a great deal of availability”. She enquired about wages. “He stared at me and said, ‘Wages, what wages? I told you I would give them board and lodging, you want me to pay them as well?’ A lot of people here are like that. They still have a slavery mentality.”

Reassessing the 99%

Occupy Jackson may need to reassess its definition of “the 99%”. Lemmons said: “The problem, apart from the 1%, is the 30% or 40% who think they are part of the 1%.” But her fellow protestors do prove even die-hard determinists can suddenly switch sides. Ed Yorum, a Vietnam veteran, suffers from a rare kind of leukaemia as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. He was a conservative for years, but the 2008 crisis and the government bank bailout made him angry. “In the old days we used to hang speculators — now we give them bonuses! I don’t want that kind of America.”

None of the campers who held out for eight weeks in the middle of this pedestrian-free city, matched the description in The Clarion-Ledger of “a Marxist training camp”. There were working class people alongside impoverished middle class, whites and blacks, young people holding down two or three part-time jobs, and elderly people who still needed to work. None of them had ever been activists before. Some 200-300 sympathisers stopped by to support them from time to time. But that’s not 99% of the population in a state of three million people.

Did their protest achieve anything? In February the group besieged the Jackson city council. They wanted council members to sign an OWS petition demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs FEC) of January 2010 which, in the name of a loose definition of freedom of expression, authorises companies and lobby groups to finance the campaigns of their pet candidates (7). In response to this legalisation, which will “open the floodgates for special interests”, the Saving American Democracy Amendment states: “We call on all leaders of all the states to amend the United States Constitution to state that corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people. Corporations are subject to regulation by the people. Corporations may not make campaign contributions. Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign finances, and money is not a form of freedom of expression.”

The Jackson councillors were divided. Among the six Democrats, one supported OWS’s (symbolic) initiative but the others hesitated. They did not see the point just to please 20 “lefties”, but they did not want to give voters the impression they were defending big business. They postponed a vote on several occasions. Whitwell the Republican lobbyist, who described the occupation of Smith Park as “stupid”, refused to have anything to do with a petition that would displease his clients.

With the support of local OWS groups, the rebel resolution is gaining ground in the US. By March, it had been signed by 100 municipal councils, including Los Angeles, New York and the New Mexico legislature. A site on the net marks those places that have adopted the resolution, and it has had 300,000 hits. A map marks municipalities that have signed with green flags. They are mainly in the North, and especially the Northeast; south of a line from California to North Carolina, with the exception of Florida, there are few or none. It’s still Yankees versus Confederates. On 6 March, amazingly, the Jackson city council passed the resolution by six votes to one. Occupy Jackson was jubilant; a green flag had been hoisted in the Deep South. Not yet over the National Guard building. 

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