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Jennifer Riley Collins Could Be the First Black Woman Elected Statewide in Mississippi—If Jim Crow Doesn’t Stop Her

Jennifer Riley Collins is the Democratic nominee for Mississippi attorney general. A 1890 Constitutional provision crafted by the Legislature (in background) at the time could cause her to lose the election—even if she won the most votes. Foreground photo courtesy of Jennifer for AG; Background photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History/Wikimedia Commons.

No black Mississippian has won an election for statewide office in the 143 years since Reconstruction ended, even though the state boasts the blackest population in the country. Mississippi native and retired U.S. Army colonel Jennifer Riley Collins hopes to change that as the Democratic nominee for attorney general—now the only Democratic-held statewide office. Current Attorney General Jim Hood, who is now vying for governor against Republican rival Tate Reeves, has held the office since 2003. 

Even if Hood, Collins, and other Democrats running for statewide office manage to garner a majority of the votes, that is not the only hurdle they must overcome.

In March, Jackson Free Press State Reporter Ashton Pittman sat down with Collins for an interview in which he asked her why she believes she can break historical barriers and become not only the first black statewide-elected official since Reconstruction, but also the first woman of color to ever win statewide office.

‘Why Can’t I Break The Barrier?’

“Why do I think I can break the barrier? Why can’t I break the barrier?” Collins replied. “I will be very honest with you. I am fully qualified for the position. I think people will see that as they learn about me, and as I get a chance to share my platform across the state of Mississippi. I think what I have to say will resonate with hard-working Mississippians, and they will see me as a fully qualified candidate. So why shouldn’t I be able to break the barrier?”

Almost as if to answer Collins’ question, four black Mississippi voters, backed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, filed suit just two months later against Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. In the lawsuit, they described a 129-year-old scheme to dilute black voting power.

In the Reconstruction years that followed the Civil War, black Mississippians made great electoral strides. More than 225 black Mississippians held public office during that era, including Secretary of State James D. Lynch, whom voters elected in 1869. Mississippi also sent the first two black senators to Congress: Hiram R. Revels in 1870 and Blanche K. Bruce in 1875. This progress was not to last; soon, a white backlash would swallow it whole.

James R. Lynch, one of the black Mississippians who served in public office after the Civil War.

Conservative white Dixiecrats soon plotted to  undo the recently freed former slaves’ gains , organizing paramilitary groups to aid their cause with a campaign of racial violence and intimidation. President Ulysses S. Grant, fearing political rebuke across the union, ignored requests from Mississippi’s governor for federal troops.

“The war was fought in vain,” James R. Lynch, a Congressman from Mississippi and former slave, said at the time.

Through acts of violence such as whippings, murders, and intimidation at polls, white Mississippians managed to suppress the vote of black citizens—whereas Republicans had dominated the polls in 1874 by a margin of 30,000 votes, Democrats reversed those numbers and pulled off a 30,000 vote margin in the 1875 election. Shortly thereafter with the Compromise of 1877, the Federal government gave up on Reconstruction and withdrew U.S. troops from Southern states, effectively opening the way for white supremacy to erase all gains made by black Americans since the end of the Civil War.

Dixiecrats Sought Ways to ‘Eliminate’ Black Mississippians ‘From Politics’

Jennifer Riley Collins (right) poses with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, at an event earlier this year. Harris, the former attorney general of California, is attempting to break some barriers of her own as a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Photo courtesy Jennifer for AG.

In 1890, the then white-dominated Mississippi Legislature drafted and passed a new state constitution—one that used deceptively race-neutral language to codify barriers to voting for the black citizenry, which constituted a majority of the state’s population. Their intent, though, was undeniable. At the time, the black population was concentrated in a handful of districts, while the minority white population was spread out across the state, dominating in more districts.

One of the constitution’s framers, then-Mississippi House Rep. James K. Vardaman, was explicit about the 1890 constitution’s purpose at the time of its adoption.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics; not the ignorant—but the nigger,” admitted Vardaman, who later became governor and then a U.S. senator.

In addition to poll taxes and literacy tests, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 nullified, the new state constitution included a scheme not dissimilar from the national Electoral College system that has denied the presidency to two Democratic popular vote winners since 2000.

The white framers of Mississippi’s 1890 constitution created provisions requiring candidates for statewide office to win a majority of Mississippi House districts in addition to a majority of the popular vote.

In Jennifer Riley Collins’ race, it is possible that she could win 53 percent of the vote yet lose the election if she fails to also win in the requisite number of House districts. If that happened, under the 1890 scheme, the Mississippi House would decide the winner. She would not have the advantage of a Democratic-controlled House like Musgrove did, though; in Mississippi’s first legislative races during the Obama presidency, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in over a century—and they continue to dominate both chambers in the Legislature. Most likely, the House would choose Collins’ rival, Republican attorney general nominee Lynn Fitch, who is currently the state treasurer.

The Mississippians challenging the law, with help from former U.S. Attorney General Holder’s  National Democratic Redistricting Committee, hope to realize the idea of “one person, one vote,” which the U.S. Supreme Court described in Gray v. Sanders in 1963.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stands in front of a large Confederate flag.
An 1890 Jim Crow law could help Republican Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (seen speaking here at a Sons of Confederate Veterans gathering in 2013) beat Democrat Jim Hood in the race for governor even if he wins the most votes. Photo via R.E. Lee Camp 239 SCV Facebook group.

Judge Set to Decide

The lawsuit claims the Mississippi State Constitution’s two-tier electoral scheme “minimizes African-American voting strength, and, most glaringly, it requires an African-American-preferred candidate, on average, to obtain at least 55 percent of the popular vote in order to win a majority of House districts, while a white-preferred candidate can accomplish the same feat with only 45 percent of the popular vote.”

Holder’s team estimates that a Democratic candidate would need to win about 55 percent of the vote in order to carry a majority of House districts. Hood won his 2015 re-election bid for attorney general with 55 percent. Recent polls of the race for governor this year, though, show Hood and Reeves in a statistical dead heat, with some showing Hood leading by a few points and others showing Reeves leading by a few points.

The State alleges that the plaintiffs have no legal standing on which to base their case because the provisions “have not prevented them from electing their ‘candidates of choice’ in past elections” and cannot prove such an occurrence is “imminent.” The provision last came into play when Democrat Ronnie Musgrove won the popular vote for governor in 1999 but did not win in a majority of House districts. He won anyway with the vote of the Democratic-held House—a political luxury Collins, Hood, and other Democrats cannot rely on this year.

The plaintiffs responded in a court filing in August, claiming that “the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act (‘VRA’) ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice regardless of the electoral outcome; these protections have long been enforced by individual voters challenging laws that dilute African-American voting strength.”

Collins has considerable national support, with the backing of groups like the Democratic Attorneys General Association and Emily’s List, but she is not the only black Democrat seeking to make history as a statewide nominee. Former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree is running for secretary of state. His platform includes increasing voter participation and access by shortening the voter registration deadline to 15 days before an election instead of the current 30; increasing on-campus voting; and increasing  early voting opportunities. He also wants to institute paper ballot systems. His Republican opponent is Republican Mississippi Sen. Michael Watson.

Former Bolton, Miss., Alderwoman Addie Lee Green, a black woman, is the Democratic nominee in the race to replace Fitch as treasurer; the Republican nominee is David McRae. The same electoral provisions under scrutiny in the federal courts are at play in Green and DuPree’s races, too.

Jim Hood at the Neshoba County Fair.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is the Democratic nominee for governor in the election on Nov. 5. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Mississippi Votes Nov. 5

With just over a week until Mississippians head to the polls, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Daniel Jordan, a George W. Bush-appointee to the federal bench in the Southern District of Mississippi, has yet to rule. But in hearings this month, 128 years and 344 days after Mississippi adopted its Jim Crow constitution, the judge told an attorney for the defense that he was “hesitant to change Mississippi election law without first giving the state a chance to address the issue,” Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison reported.

Mississippi voters head to the polls on Nov. 5. Anyone who registered to vote at least 30 days before the election is eligible. Voters must bring a state-accepted form of photo ID with them to the polls. For more information on voting and voter ID, visit the secretary of state’s website at sos.ms.gov.

Send tips or comments for William Pittman to [email protected].