DISPATCH FROM MISSISSIPPI
Alleged Voting Rights Violation With Twist Goes to Trial
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
MACON, Miss. -- Over the years, Ike Brown has earned a reputation in rural Noxubee County as a wily political boss, and his election triumphs have time and again aroused suspicions of impropriety. But talk of his tactics never carried much farther than this small community of sawmills and catfish ponds.
Today, though, Brown, who is African American, is scheduled to go on trial in federal court in Jackson, where he will face charges from the Justice Department that he violated the political rights of Noxubee's white minority. It is the first time that the 1965 Voting Rights Act has been used to ensure white rights.
About two-thirds of the 8,700 adults in Noxubee County are black, and Brown, the local Democratic committee chief, has been criticized for urging people to "vote black" while engaging in an array of electoral shenanigans.
At issue is whether Brown, 52, has directed "relentless voting-related racial discrimination" against white voters and white candidates through fraudulent election tactics, as federal lawyers say, or whether he was merely operating aggressive political campaigns in a milieu that has long been split along racial lines.
The case is being closely watched, not only for its contrasts to the historic struggle for civil rights here, when the Voting Rights Act was a key legal weapon on behalf of blacks, but for signs of the Bush administration's commitment to minority issues.
Critics view the case as a symbol of the way that the administration has veered away from the traditional mission of the civil rights division at the Justice Department -- eliminating discrimination against African Americans -- in favor of reverse discrimination and religious discrimination matters.
"I played tough, but I played fair," Brown said last week. Whites "stole elections from us for decades and nothing was done about it. Now the slightest inconvenience for the establishment is cause for the Justice Department to come down here."
Brown, a lanky single father, has been a figure of political controversy here for years, but not a flashy one. A former tax preparer, he served a prison sentence in the mid-1990s for preparing fraudulent returns. Now, aside from his political work, he also operates a one-man scrap metal business. He makes less than $30,000 annually all told, he says, and his Macon home, in a predominantly white neighborhood, is assessed for $127,000.
Wil Colom, the prominent black Republican lawyer who has taken Brown's case on a pro bono basis, describes his client and his aggressive tactics as a product of the long and sometimes bitter quest for black representation in Noxubee County.
Brown has run dozens of campaigns here, and Colom traces the fight for black representation in the county to 1971, when, despite the numerical superiority of blacks, no one on the board of supervisors was African American. It was not until the early '90s that African Americans won a majority of seats. Now, four of the five county supervisors are black.
"Majority rule came to South Africa before it came to Noxubee County," Colom said.
In the battle for political representation, he said, Brown fought like "a guerrilla" and his legal troubles stem now from the fact that he did not recognize that he was now in power and did not build coalitions with those he had vanquished. As a result, Colom said, "whites feel alienated."