Forty-two years ago in Noxubee County, Mississippi, all elected officials were white and the population was 70 percent black. Now, more than four decades after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent massive black-voter registration, almost all county officials are black. In the 1960s, white officialdom kept blacks from voting and being elected to county office. At the turn of the 21st century, though, it was a black power structure found to be engaging in systematic fraud — this time, to dilute the white vote and keep whites from being elected. What a role reversal.
For five decades, the federal government would only go to court representing blacks in voting rights cases. But an historic June 29 ruling with broad implications for the Voting Rights Act by U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee of Mississippi declares: “It is manifest that Section 2 broadly protects the voting rights of all voters, even those who are white.” This decision, United States v. Brown, marks the first time the Justice Department has brought a lawsuit to protect white people under the Voting Rights Act.
For all the faults of President Bush’s administration, all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to a handful of courageous political appointees overseeing the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for this application of equal justice under the law. During the last year of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s tenure, constitutionalists overruled the department’s left-wing career lawyers in order to file charges and bring the Mississippi miscreants to justice.
The judge was blunt: “The court has not had to look far to find ample, direct and circumstantial evidence of an intent to discriminate against white voters which has manifested itself through practices designed to deny or dilute the voting rights of white voters in Noxubee County.” An April 3, 2006 USA Today story on Ike Brown, the Noxubee County Democratic Party chairman, quoted friends describing him as “a street fighter,” “a character” and — in the words of his lawyer — simply “a tough politician.” During the court case, the true picture emerged of Mr. Brown and his one-man rule over Noxubee County. The party chairman had a “racial agenda,” the judge wrote, which led him to recruit black candidates for offices which he knew they were not qualified for under state residency laws.
Judith Ann Ewing, a Democratic court bailiff, testified that Mr. Brown once entered a polling place and in a loud voice declared: “You’ve got to put blacks in office, our candidates.” The court further agreed with “the most serious charge by the government” — Mr. Brown’s “involvement in racially motivated abuse of the absentee ballot process.” The court found:
Recruitment of unqualified black candidates for county office, due to residency issues.
Mr. Brown called a black member of the board of supervisors a derogatory name during a board meeting because the supervisor supported the firing of a black employee for stealing.
Publication of advertisements falsely claiming white public officials were involved with marijuana cultivation.
Mr. Brown engaged in systematic fraud to dilute white votes: “What is most striking about absentee voting in Noxubee County is the sheer volume of absentee ballots cast in relation to the number of qualified electors,” the court said. Over 20 percent of the ballots in the 2003 primary were absentee compared to 3 percent to 6 percent statewide. The court concluded there was “no explanation other than voter fraud.”
Ballots cast by blacks with defects on their face, such as non-matching signatures or ineligibility to vote, were counted. At the same time, ballots cast by whites with identical defects were rejected. Mr. Brown was even found to have placed yellow “sticky notes” on the ballots of whites with orders to reject the ballots during the count.
Mr. Brown’s poll watchers would not allow poll workers for white candidates to exercise their legal rights, such as lodging ballot challenges.
The county sheriff and deputies joined with Mr. Brown in coordinating anti-white discrimination by threatening white candidates with arrest for campaigning near polling places, while allowing black candidates to engage in the same behavior.
Mr. Brown held secret precinct caucuses and kept their location from white Democrats. (“Brown’s handling of the 2004 precinct caucuses represents one of the most blatant abuses of [his] position as chairman,” the judge wrote.)
Mr. Brown engaged in fraud by casting ballots for individuals over the protests of poll watchers.
Philip McGuire, the chairman of the Macon Democratic Executive Committee, who is white, once asked his fellow chairman why he made inflammatory anti-white statements over the years. Mr. Brown responded that he used race “to get the job done.” Mr. Brown has something in common with the old white segregationists: “To the winner go the spoils, so long as another winner is not strong enough to take them away.”
With this seminal federal court ruling, Noxubee County and all of America are forcefully reminded that voting rights are supposed to be colorblind. In fact, in an unprecedented move, the judge ordered Mr. Brown not to participate in any local election activity. Imagine the national media uproar if this party boss was a white Republican who discriminated against black voters.
Phil Kent is an author and Atlanta media consultant.