The Post has invited me to share some of my reactions and impressions as a result of my recent trip through the Mississippi Delta region. My first instinct was to decline, respectfully, because such an essay is so obviously vulnerable to the cynicism of our time. On reflection, however, it seems to me that some of my thoughts deserve a public airing to help forge a better understanding about the trip and its implications.
The question that has been asked most often by members of the press is "Why did you go?" Implicit in the question is the suggestion that the trip was a public relations maneuver. Perhaps it is our collective good fortune that motivation is never so clear-cut or precisely defined as the hindsight of others would have it. In any event, my motives were not nearly so one-dimensional as suggested.
I went to Mississippi because there are blacks in the Delta region who claimed they were not being heard in Washington.
I went to Mississippi because there is a concerned and caring administration in Washington that is not being heard in other parts of the country.
I went to Mississippi because there are people in positions of responsibility in America today doing a lot of talking about the same social problems and not hearing each other.
I went to Mississippi because one of the most effective "hearing aids" that a democratic system of government offers is that most precious right to vote, and it is my sworn duty and proud obligation to ensure that no individual is separated from that right by reason of race.
In enforcing the civil rights laws, I have made other trips to other places in order to participate in on-site investigations of discrimination complaints, but my excursions have not brought me to the Mississippi Delta before. Several things leap out.
The region is very flat and largely rural; the richness of the soil is more than matched by the impoverishment of most black families living there. On the outskirts of virtually every city or town are public housing projects, built within the last decade, occupied by blacks who had left the city in search of better housing. They receive and pay for the full range of city services at the going rate, but they cannot vote in municipal elections, and their petitions to be annexed have been ignored or denied.
As we moved across the Delta, stops were planned at black community centers, churches and local diners. The crowds were small, generally quiet and politely curious. To try to form any lasting impressions about the underlying attitudes and feelings of those I met, spoke to and joined hands with would be unrealistic.
My traveling companions were, after all, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Leslie McLemore, chairman of the political science department of Jackson State University, and Victor McTeer, an able and experienced civil rights lawyer from the Delta; we were joined on several stops by Dr. Aaron Henry, state president of the NAACP. When they entered the room, all would rise respectfully and greet them with warm applause. As we took our leave, the applause was more enthusiastic and the people gathered closer.
Under these circumstances, it is easy to say that I was well received, and I certainly was. But I came away from the Delta believing that the cordial reception was heartfelt. Those I met were told that I had come to listen, and they took me at my word. We had too little time to get to know one another personally, but a common thread of understanding was present at every stop: we had come together with a mutual interest in ensuring that every citizen in the Delta region has the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the electoral process.
Their interest was fed by years of frustration at being unable, in many localities, to elect a single black official, notwithstanding a black population majority well in excess of 65 percent. My interest was driven by an abiding commitment to end racial discrimination in voting matters through vigorous enforcement of the federal law. The centerpiece for all of us is the same: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as recently amended. Mention of that statute brought instant recognition in every assembly.
Lawyers often have an unfortunate tendency to obscure their principal point in complicated legal jargon, and I readily confess to being no less guilty of that infirmity than others. In this instance that danger can be avoided simply by refraining from discussing the legal questions raised by the conduct brought to my attention. It would be premature in any event to make such judgments without first listening to those who have not yet spoken.
What can be said, however, based on the things I saw and heard is that many blacks living in the Mississippi Delta continue today to be unable to participate freely and openly in municipal and statewide elections. For that reason I authorized federal examiners to go immediately to five Delta counties to supplement registration opportunities.
On specific complaints I heard, it is likely that there are many explanations ranging from the perfectly legitimate to the not so legitimate. Mississippi is no longer mired in the racial animosities of the past. It has accomplished much in the area of race relations and deserves the respect and admiration of the entire country for the civil rights gains that it has made.
The focus of bright TV lights on our trip through the Delta should not blind anyone to the state's strides foward in desegregating its schools, work places and public accommodations. Nor would it be accurate to conclude that racial discrimination runs rampant across the state in matters pertaining to voting. That simply is not so.
But Mississippi's progress in the fight against discrimination also must not mask difficulties that may linger.
The right to vote has accurately been described by our president on numerous occasions as our most treasured right. It belongs equally to blacks and whites, rich and poor. It separates from all others the democratic form of government forged and defended for us by our forefathers. And its preservation depends above all else on ensuring that all voices wishing to be heard have the unfettered opportunity to speak as loud as the rest at the ballot box. That is the cherished promise of the Voting Rights Act.
That is what the Mississippi trip is all about. Blacks in the Delta region have been heard in Washington. Hopefully, there are those outside Washington who have heard that we heard--and who better understand the administration's civil rights commitment. And those of us who participate in the public debate on the many sensitive issues of this area are hearing each other better.
That is why I went to the Mississippi Delta. I am glad I did.