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Johnson said segregation is exactly what it's about. "It's interesting, there are not many segregationists who do not support black colleges," he said. "Strom Thurmond was a strong supporter of black colleges. It means fewer blacks going to white schools. It supports their view of separate schools."
Rural health clinics? "The delta is probably in the top five of the poorest areas for medical needs," said Johnson, "and though Trent Lott was majority leader since the Republican revolution, that has not changed. There is no substantive medical system in place in rural Mississippi in general, or for black Mississippians in particular."
"People in the delta want the same things that people on the Gulf Coast want," said Avant. "People on the Gulf Coast want to make $25 an hour, so do people in the delta."
Well, one black Mississippian got help from Lott. Isadore O. Hyde Sr., who was running a small security-guard business with his wife, Celestine, in Pascagoula at the time, met Lott in the 1970s. Lott helped the couple qualify for the Small Business Administration program that gave them access to federal minority set-aside contracts. In the '80s they got SBA loans, according to a 1997 Atlanta Journal and Constitution article, and Hyde became a Republican, serving as a delegate to the national convention in 1984. That year, Lott pushed NASA officials to award Hyde's business a $4 million contract for security at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.
Hyde became an enthusiastic Lott man. Two weeks after getting the contract, he hired Lott's mother, Iona, to do personnel work. According to the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mrs. Lott was 71 at the time she was hired, and "a Lott spokesman denied a claim that her job was fictitious." Hyde made a $4000 contribution to Lott's political action committee, partly with NASA money; billed NASA for providing security officers at a Lott rally; and paid the rent for a Lott campaign headquarters site, also in part with NASA dough. In 1988 Hyde made a TV endorsement spot for Lott. Needless to say, NASA had some questions about Hyde's billing, and he and his wife went to prison in 1993 after convictions for the false billings. They also wound up owing the IRS about $2 million. Though a wider investigation into Lott never got off the ground, Lott sent lawyers to see the Hydes in prison and ask what they may have said about him to the grand jury. Celestine Hyde remembered one of them advising her, "You can't go back to Mississippi." Hyde is now deceased and she resides in Alabama.
These days, coverage of Trent Lott's contributions to Mississippi often compares present-day Mississippi with the pre-civil rights era. This tends to make him look good in the light of work done by a movement he fought tooth and nail. For instance, Time noted that in 1958 only 3 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in the state, whereas now registration is at 74 percent. There are 897 elected African American officials in Mississippi, more than in any other state, but, in reality, there should have been similar representation long ago. The 1960s civil rights movement was necessitated not only by segregation, but by slavery and the brutal suppression of blacks by Southern planter Democrats during Reconstruction. If only three percent of blacks voted in 1958, time was they were the state's largest voting bloc.
In 1870, when suffrage for African American males was ratified, blacks were the majority population in Mississippi, and nearly half a million former slaves were eligible to vote. Although they did not in any way control Mississippi during the time, the state did elect two black senators (Hiram Revels, first black U.S. senator and heir to Jefferson Davis's seat, and later, Blanche Bruce); a congressman; lieutenant governor; secretary of state; state superintendent of education; and 64 state legislators. Racist violence and intimidation wiped all that out, and quickly. Try calling a black senator now.
During Reconstruction African Americans worked to buy their own land, and continued to gain until the1920s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi was second in the country in the number of farms owned by blacks in 1900 and 1910. In 1920, "negros [sic] and other non-whites" owned more farms in Mississippi than in any other state, and they outnumbered white farm owners.
According to a 2001 Associated Press study, "In 1910, black Americans owned more farmland than at any time before or sinceat least 15 million acres. Nearly all of it was in the South, largely in Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas. . . . Today, blacks own only 1.1 million of the country's more than 1 billion acres of arable land." Black ownership has declined 2 1/2 times faster than white ownership, says the AP. Violence and fraud are widely credited for this phenomenon. Loss of the vote and family farms when farming was Mississippi's major employment are two reasons devastating poverty hit African Americans and stayed.
"If you look at the past 50 years, blacks in Mississippi have made political gains," said Avant. "Those gains have yet to manifest as economic gains. People in the delta who try to bring about change are operating within a system that was designed to make sure that the delta remained home to the cheapest labor in the state."