Charles Evers still giggles like a kid when he tells how, as youngsters, he and his brother sat spellbound in a rural town square, listening to the fiery segregation rhetoric of former governor Theodore G. (The Man) Bilbo, archracist of Mississippi politics.
"We was scared to death," Evers says, laughing. "Old Bilbo looked down and pointed that bony white finger at us and yelled: 'If you white folks don't wake up, these two little niggers right here are gonna be representing you in the Legislature some day.'"
It is 40 years later and Mississippi, a state that resisted the civil rights movement as determinedly as any, has 343 black elected public officials. rNo state has more.
Charles Evans, in his third term as the first black mayor of Fayette, is one of the state's most powerful politicians. Countless small towns, particularly in the northwest Delta area, have governments run by the same blacks who once were refused the right to eat or attend school with white people, let alone vote.
Of Mississippi's black officeholders, some of the most promising for the black community are among the 17 sworn in Tuesday as members of the Mississippi Legislature.
The swearing-in reeked with symbolism. The second blackest Legislature in the nation (Georgia has 23 black lawmakers) took the oath of office from gravel-voiced, cigar-chomping Secretary of State Heber Ladner, 77, once a Bilbo protege.
Among the black freshmen was pharmacist Aaron Henry, a civil rights activist who has been chained to a garbage truck, jailed on trumped-up homosexual assault charges, and force-fed laxatives in a solitary confinement cell with no toilet.
Another newcomer was Fred Banks, a civil-rights lawyer once called a "chimpanzee" by a white judge because he objected to a courtroom mural depicting blacks as cotton-chopping slaves.
And there was Henry J. Kirksey, who helped make the increased black legislative presence possible by filing a suit to force reapportionment 14 years ago.
Kirksey's suit resulted in a federal court-order requiring single-member legislative districts. A succession of federal judges had found that the old system worked to dilute black voting strength (four to 10 Mississippians are black) by pairing heavy black precincts with heavily white precincts.
Kirksey and the other black legislators were later honored at an emotional ceremony in the Old Capitol Musuem in the same House chamber in which the 1861 Legislature voted to become the second in the nation to secede from the union.
The Old Capitol was chosen for the ceremony because it was there that 40 blacks served in the Reconstruction Legislature. It also was the site of the 1890 constitutional convention that disenfranchised newly freed black voters.
The election of black lawmakers is of particular significance because Mississippi's Legislature may be the most powerful in the country. The state constitution, written in 1890, is designed to strip the governor of power, except for the limited patronage and federal grants he controls.
Legislators, meanwhile, serve on numerous executive-branch boards and commissions and propose, write and adopt the state budget. Few governors since Bilbo have managed to avoid having their programs chewed up and spit out by an increasingly independent Legislature.
But it requires only a cursory look at the legislature leadership to conclude that it will take many more black legislators than 17 (there are 157 white legislators) to translate the political gains of the last decade into meaningful economic change for the masses of impoverished blacks scattered throughout Mississippi's small towns and farms.
Both House and Senate are controlled by men who were in the forefront of the battles against intergration. Some are privately wary of the black legislators, particularly because they have organized into a black caucus to press their programs.
Black legislators will find out just how difficult their task is the first time they are forced to chose between the confrontation tactics they used to get to the Legislature and the need to "play ball" with its powerful leaders, which they must do to build enough influence to pass laws.
Aaron Henry, in fact, predicts that it will take 20 years for blacks to gain enough influence to really affect the day-to-day plight of Mississippi's poor blacks.
"I will have to speak out no matter what the consequences from the leadership," Henry says. "My constituents back home would expect me to do that."
Already, the tactics of the black legislators have drawn fire from their own ranks.
Evers, who lost a race for the state Senate to a white opponent, called a press conference Monday to say that the organization of a black caucus would alienate white legislators.
"Politically, it's going to kill us," Evers complained. "I don't think we can win a political game with 17 against 157. We elected them to bring us some bacon home -- not to keep bringing us the fat."
Yet, a number of white legislators and businessmen in Jackson say that open warfare isn't likely to break out between the black and white legislators. o
"The state has grown up too much for that," says the chief executive of one of Jackson's largest banks. "Like Birmingham, we remember how it was in the old days and we've put that behind us out of necessity. This state has got to have racial peace if it's to keep growing."
"The race situation held us back before," says Claude Ramsay, president of the state AFL-CIO. "People didn't want to invest their money with that type of situation going on here. Now we're able to recruit and train black people in skilled trades. We have a lot of potential."
The changes in Mississippi in the last decade have been staggering.
The state, which lost close to 20 percent of its population between 1940 and 1970, is growing swiftly as blacks and whites return to what historian James W. Silver described only 16 years ago as "The Closed Society," where race permeated virtually every economic issue.
Jackson, which had a population of 75,000 in World War II, has grown to 250,000 and become a regional center for insurance and banking interests.
Blacks serve in the once all-white highway patrol. Eighty percent of the state's white students remain in public schools, compared with 50 percent who stayed during the early years of desegregation. Attendance in segretated private academies that still dot the countryside is declining.
Blacks work in virtually every store in downtown Jackson and a black man, Rep. Robert Clark of Ebenezer, is chairman of the House Education Committee.
Yet Henry Kirksey, Aaron Henry and Frank Parker, the civil rights lawyer who won the 14-year battle to reapportion the Legislature, are quick to remind visitors that many of the changes were imposed by the federal judiciary. Parker, for instance, points out that while the highway patrol, state prison, Agriculture Extension Service and schools are integrated, in each case it was due to a court order.
"The grudging acceptance of what has occured is pretty much complete," says Hodding Carter, former editor of the muckraking Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and now the principal spokesman for the State Department. "But if you write that given a little help from Washington, we wouldn't revert pretty damn fast, you'd be wrong. The medicine [of integration] is being taken, but a great number of people still think it's medicine."
C. B. (Buddie) Newman, Mississippi's House speaker and probably the single most powerful man in state government, insists, however, that he expects no animosity between white and black legislators.
Newman, a rural Issaquena County cotton and soybean farmer who once supported the segregationist programs of former governor Ross Barnett, says, "White Mississippians have been working with black Mississippians all our lives. I was raised to respect black people. If we can work with black people on our farms and in our businesses, we can work with them in the Legislature.
"I think most white Mississippians in their hearts are still segregationists. But they know it's a part of the past. They don't expect to go back to a segregated society."