An article in Tuesday's editions inadvertently left the impression that Rep. David R. Bowen (D-Miss.), a five-term veteran of the House, is not running for reelection because his newly realigned district has a majority of black voters. Bowen said he intended to retire after another term or two in any case, and decided to do it now because his new district would have about 250,000 new voters, black and white, which would involve a new organizational effort. His current district, which he carried by 70 percent, is 46 percent black, and he said blacks are the "bedrock" of his support. "I believe these fine people deserve the opportunity to select a congressman who will be able to represent them for as long as I've served the present congressional district," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, SEN. HENRY KIRKSEY . . . "enhances the chance"; Picture 2, REP. JIM SIMPSON . . . "very seldom no undercurrent"; Picture 3, LESLIE McLEMORE . . . "only the rhetoric has changed"; Picture $, REP. TOMMY CAMPBELL . . . "just can't find enough"; Map, MISSISSIPPI CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING 1882-1981, BY Richard Furno--The Washington Post
Seventeen years after the Voting Rights Act promised them a voice in who went to Washington, blacks in Mississippi have failed to elect one of their own to Congress from a state that is almost 40 percent black.
Mississippi voters elected their last black U.S. representative in 1884.
Civil rights leaders and Justice Department lawyers say it is an uphill battle against white state legislators who once used the poll tax and literacy tests to disfranchise black voters. Now, these groups say, Mississippi has resorted to the more subtle, yet equally effective, weapon of racially gerrymandering congressional district lines to break up concentrations of black voters, maintain white incumbents' status quo and keep blacks out of Congress.
Mississippi redistricting, 1980s-style, is more than a story of the underside of the New South. It is a fight for black congressional seats now being waged with the help of unlikely allies: Republicans, who could also stand to gain.
The state's 1981 reapportionment plan was rejected by the Justice Department in March because, like a plan 16 years ago, it diluted black voting strength by dividing the heavy concentration of black voters in the delta region into three districts.
Vowing to take on the federal government one more time, the Mississippi legislature has appropriated $250,000 for legal fees and hired the Justice Department's civil rights division chief of the Nixon administration, Jerris Leonard, as its Washington point man. Injunctions have put congressional primaries on hold, and the matter now sits in the lap of federal judges here and in Washington.
The fight has a turbulent history. When the Voting Rights Act passed Congress in 1965, blacks accounted for 65 percent of the residents of the northwest delta district, rich bottom land along the Mississippi River from the Tennessee border to Vicksburg, an area settled by former slaves from cotton plantations.
Blacks represented a majority of the voting-age population, but few were registered to vote. Still, many saw the dream of their own congressman on the horizon.
A year later, however, just as blacks were starting to register, the state legislature redrew the congressional map. The delta, a geopolitical entity since 1882, was carved into three slices, giving all the state's five districts white voting majorities. Then, a state legislator reportedly said such measures were required to "maintain our southern way of life." Today other white state legislators concede that was the intent.
"Any reasonable person would have to assume racial motivations were paramount because it happened shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed," said white state Rep. Jim Simpson. "Very seldom there's an issue in the legislature where there's no undercurrent of racial feelings. It's part and parcel of all deliberations."
Since the 1966 remap, blacks have been pushing to recreate a majority black district in the delta.
But racial compromise has never come easy in the nation's poorest state. And the dream of a delta district with enough black voters to send a black to Congress has been further complicated in recent years by an exodus of poor black sharecroppers from the delta in search of jobs.
At the same time, the fight has sparked debate among Democrats over how best to realize black dreams without jeopardizing colleagues in Congress who depend on the pivotal black vote to turn back Republican challengers. The debate threatens the delicate coalition of Dixie Democrats, labor and blacks.
State Rep. Tommy Campbell, 49, a lawyer who chaired the joint legislative committee on reapportionment, said there is no way to create a district with a substantial black voting majority without "robbing" white districts of so many black voters that incumbent Democrats like Wayne Dowdy, David R. Bowen and Jamie L. Whitten would be vulnerable to Republicans.
He said blacks would be better served as strong minority voices, rather than by bunching up into one district simply to elect "a black face."
"It's a choice between visibility and impact," he said, fielding calls in his office in Yazoo City from rural clients trying to settle estates.
"We're accused of violating the laws of the land for not giving them what they want, as if what they want is the law of the land. But the Constitution can't be chased around by what their desires are. A black in Congress would be fine, but we just can't find enough of them."
Studies suggest that a black congressional candidate from Mississippi would have a hard time getting elected from any district that is less than 65 percent black, because of racial bloc voting and low black turnout.
But a mostly black district is hardly likely to come from the Mississippi legislature, which opted for as little change as possible on the 1981 map after lawyers assured them of probable court victories. Largely a rural body, the legislature defeated a plan to establish a public kindergarten system this year because, Campbell explained, most of his less moderate colleagues didn't cotton to the idea of a "baby-sitting service for Negroes."
"The legislature just isn't inclined to indulge in affirmative action," Campbell said.
A congressional district akin to the old delta district nowadays would be only 54 percent black because so many blacks have moved away, Campbell said. The figure drops to 47 percent of the voting-age population. Of 22 majority black counties in Mississippi, down from 29 in 1960, 19 are in the "black belt," as the delta is called.
Meanwhile, other southern states are creating the illusion of compliance with the Voting Rights Act by creating 51 percent to 55 percent black districts, which holds white voting majorities because so many blacks are below voting age, said Steve Suits, director of the Southern Regional Council, a private civil rights watchdog group based in Atlanta.
Of the 18 blacks in Congress, only two are from the South.
In Mississippi, the legislature rejected a plan developed by Sen. Henry Kirksey that would have created a 65 percent black district in the delta by adding 110,000 blacks from northern Hines County outside Jackson. He said his plan, favored by most black leaders, merely "enhances the chance to get a black elected but anyone who thinks it will be easy even with a 65 percent district is a nut."
Robert Clark, 50, the first black state legislator who was elected in 1967, said, "It's worth the sacrifice of losing some influence with white congressmen" to try to get a black elected to Congress from a Kirksey-style district.
Others fear such a delta district would cut into Rep. Dowdy's strong black support in the 4th District by taking away blacks from the Jackson suburbs, and open the door to another conservative Republican like Jon Hinson.
Dowdy, a former small-town mayor, recaptured the seat for the Democrats last year when Hinson resigned after being arrested on a morals charge in a Washington men's room. Liberal Democrats like Claude Ramsay, president of the state AFL-CIO, believe a large black district would spell disaster for Democrats, labor and blacks.
"I don't blame blacks for feeling the way they do because they've been screwed pretty bad down here," Ramsay said. "But with a district like the Kirksey plan, we could wind up with one black congressman and four damn Republicans."
A black district has become such a hot potato the state Democratic Party chairman declined to comment on matter. But local Republicans have not been so reticent. Former state GOP chairman Mike Retzer of Greenville said he had been lobbying the Justice Department on behalf of Mississippi blacks and Republicans to reject the legislature's redistricting plan. The seeds of the fight were planted 20 years ago when the legislature took revenge against Rep. Frank Smith, a white congressman from the delta, after he came out for John F. Kennedy. In the 1962 reapportionment, Smith's 3rd District was married to Whitten's 2nd District, forcing a showdown between two incumbents. The conservative Whitten won, and the new giant 2nd District became the state's largest. It was 59 percent black.
After the legislature sliced up the district in 1966, blacks filed suit against the plan as discriminatory in U.S. District Court and the case went before a three-judge panel headed by J. P. Coleman, a former Mississippi governor.
As governor, Coleman had vowed to maintain "the separation of the races at all costs." And in a 1959 speech he declared, "A handful of my political adversaries have tried to destroy my place in the affections of my fellow Missisippians by claiming I am a 'moderate.' Apparently, these people cannot tell a moderate from a successful segregationist."
Coleman ruled the 1966 redistricting plan constitutional and dismissed charges of racial discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed without a full hearing, and the Justice Department now says it erred in failing to review the case in 1966 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to determine whether it was discriminatory, and later in 1972, when it signed off on a plan modeled on the 1966 map.
"The history of this case is a travesty," said Frank Parker, director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed suit against the plan. "This is a case in which the legal system and the Voting Rights Act and legislation designed to protect minority voters simply broke down."
In a March 30 letter, Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds objected to Mississippi's 1981 reapportionment plan because the "east-west configuration" fails to recognize the delta "as a community of interest and suggests to us an unnecessary retrogression in the position of black voters in Mississippi."
While a three-judge panel in Washington entertains Mississippi's lawsuit asking the case against it be dismissed, a group of blacks has asked a U.S. District Court here to come up with its own plan.
Black leaders say the Voting Rights Act has brought about dramatic change in Mississippi, where 420 blacks hold elective office, including 17 of 174 state legislators. But blacks say they are kept from holding any real power by the mostly white state legislature that draws state and congressional district lines and dispenses funds.
"Only the rhetoric of white politicians has changed since 1950," said Leslie McLemore, 41, a black political science professor at Jackson State University who ran second behind Bowen two years ago. "If you're black and want access to the political process in Mississippi, you're just whistling Dixie."