By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If it's good news that Senator Trent Lott is no longer majority leader, is there some reason African Americans in Mississippi should be satisfied? Not really. Unless he wraps himself in redemptive legislation, African Americans have little to gain from the rest of his tenure. Aside from his atrocious civil rights voting record, they've also been robbed on bread-and-butter issues, especially given Lott's reputation as a leader who really brings home the bacon to taxpayers.
And while Lott apologized to the country, he doesn't seem to have made any calls to those who represent African Americans at home. He may have called BET when he got in trouble but, according to Voice sources as of press time, Lott had not reached out to the state's highest-ranking black elected official, Congressman Bennie Thompson, any of the 45 African American state legislators, or any statewide civil rights organization.
"You would think he would have called, given that the Black Caucus was one of the primary voices raising this issue, and I am a member of the caucus, and from his home state," Thompson told the Voice.
"I have never known Lott to reach outin any capacity, throughout his tenureto the NAACP," said Derrick Johnson of the organization's Mississippi State Conference. Of course, Eugene Bryant Sr., president of the NAACP in Mississippi (once led by slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers), did call for Lott to step down at a December 16 rally in Jackson, saying, "Senator Lott did not get caught up in the moment, he simply got caught." Thompson spokesperson Leneir Avant said, "Trent Lott has simply not been a champion of impoverished people in Mississippi, African American or otherwise."
Stephanie Parker-Weaver, executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in Mississippi, was more colorful: "He's been whistling Dixie for far too long, playing to the bigots and fascists of this state. Well, we say this to you, Trentit's time to pay the piper. The civil rights community is the dues collector, and your bill has come due." State Senator Phillip West, chairman of the legislative black caucus, told the Voice that Lott should "do the right thing by declining any and all positions of public leadership." The most down-home judgment may have come from Jackson City Councilman Kenneth Stokes in a fiery council debate last week: "He's going to be the same person he's been over the years. We know this man. He ain't no earthly good."
When asked what Lott has done for African Americans, Johnson said, "Nothing that I know ofhe's been very non-responsive to black needs in the state. I question whether he has more than one [black] person in his office, even though the state is 36 percent black, the highest black population percentage of any state." Calls to Lott's offices were not answered.
Mississippi as a whole has a per capita personal income of $21,750, lowest in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In recent years, the state's poverty rate has ranked either third or fifth highest in the country. In 2000, the percentage of people living in poverty was 12.9, improved over the past, but still above the national average. The numbers are better in Lott's hometown: Pascagoula, a town of 26,200 residents (one-third African American), has a median household income of $32,042 and an airport named Trent Lott International. And Lott's largesse has also extended to a famous deceased resident of nearby Biloxi: During the Carter administration, he was successful in getting citizenship restored for Jefferson Davis.
"Most, if not all of what he has done, has been for the area that he is from," said West. "Ninety to 95 percent of the beneficiaries have been whitewhite businesspeople. Other things that may have occurred for the rest of the state perhaps would have occurred whether he was there or not. We have basically gotten nothing."
African American Republicans who defend Lott point to three signs of assistance to blacks: a $930 million Nissan auto manufacturing plant in Madison County, which is expected to create 4000 jobs; aid to historically black colleges; and help for rural health clinics. According to several sources, a number of minority contractors were hired for the Nissan project, but there was some controversy over the eminent domain process with the mostly black property owners in the area.
Some say the contracts may be due as much to the governor's influence as the senator's, and others say Lott simply chose which blacks would get the contracts. "Nissan was asked to do business with black people," said West. "It was like he used his influence to get black persons who were his political associates, as opposed to reaching out to help black people."
Most who talk about aid to black colleges cite the Trent Lott GeoSpatial and Visualization Research Center at Jackson State University. "These institutions of higher learning in our communities have been neglected historically," said West, "and whatever they have received has been negligible compared to white institutions. This is not about segregation. This is about a way of life that is still in his mind, and in the minds of some people here, that we are still second-class or third-class people."
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."
"The land that we own now compared to the land we owned 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, is minuscule," said West, who has seen land-fraud claims at the county level. "Most of the families who owned the land were uprooted many years ago, and the laws were geared for the state to take people's land. In many cases, fraud was involved in taking the land, and we only got the full right to vote 35 years ago. We've been robbed of everything for the most part, and now they say we're on an 'equal footing.' "
Maybe reparations in Mississippi should start with Lott's Senate seat.