Diversity and Community Engagement
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Archive for March, 2021

UM Votes: Understanding Municipal Goverment

Posted on: March 31st, 2021 by elpayseu

In this blog post, Voting Ambassador Jaycee Brown, explores municipal government leading up to our local municipal elections this year. She breaks down different types of municipal government and how they function here in Lafayette-Oxford. 

Presidential Elections receive global attention, and there is usually a higher percentage of voter turnout than state and local elections. The upcoming municipal elections are critical. These
positions affect our lives daily, from the small things like how much we pay for parking to more significant issues like affordable housing. Many students are uninformed on what municipal elections encompass and the importance of them.

Municipal elections vary by the historically five governance forms. The different forms have separate approaches to the structure of government in a city or town. The forms include Council-Manager, Mayor-Council, Commission, Town Meeting, and Representative Town Meeting. You can learn more about these here.

The most prevalent governance forms in Mississippi are Mayor-Council, Council-Manager, and Commission. Municipal offices include but are not limited to the Mayor, Board of Alderman, and City Council. The Board of Alderman represents different wards or districts. For example, Oxford has six wards that include several parts of the city.

The excerpt below is taken from the City of Oxford’s webpage:

“The Board of Alderman is composed of seven members with one alderman elected at-large. Both the Mayor and the Board are elected for four-year terms. The mayor has the superintending power of all the officers, employees, and affairs of the city. Additionally, a chief operating officer and chief financial officer assist with day to day operations of the city and its staff.” The Board meets every First and Third Tuesday of the month at 5:00 pm. These meetings are live-streamed and can be found on the city’s YouTube page.

Oxford can be described as a Mayor-Alderman form of municipal government. This is synonymous with the Mayor-Council dynamic. A mayor is elected by voters as well as alderpersons, who serve as spokespersons for different regions. Responsibilities of the mayor include administrative and budget oversight. The council serves as the legislative body, and the mayor (executive branch) is tasked with carrying out the council’s policies. There are variations among the Mayor-Council government depending on the scope of authority. There can be strong or weak Mayor-Council dynamics that affect the characteristics of power/governance.

The mayor and council/alderman usually share responsibilities such as administrative duties and budget planning. They work together to come to decisions. For example, they agreed to uphold the Governor’s mask mandate lift and discussed other aspects that followed that ruling during their board meeting on March 2, 2021. They discussed the reserved curbside parking spaces and
sign ordinances. That shows how our local governments affect everyday aspects of our lives.

As noted, municipal governments can vary and confuse voters. Hopefully, this information serves as a starting point for those who want to learn more about small government functions.
Mississippi uses three general forms: mayor-council, commission, or council-manager government. The easiest way to find your form of government is to call your local circuit clerk or city hall. You may even notice the similarities between the forms mentioned and how your city, town, or village operates. It’s essential to be informed on the municipal elections because those who hold those offices shape our lives in many ways.

If you’re interested in learning more about municipal governments, feel free to reach out to our Voter Ambassadors. You can email engaged@olemiss.edu for more information.


For your reference:

Jaycee Brown

Community Chats with Patrick Perry and Senora Logan

Posted on: March 31st, 2021 by elpayseu

“You can lead from any place.” -Dr. Patrick Perry

In this episode of Community Chats, Dr. Anthony Siracusa and guest host Will Corley sit down with the directors of the Luckyday Scholars Program, Dr. Patrick Perry and Mrs. Senora Miller Logan to discuss the central tenants of the program and the community they build within their cohorts and throughout the LOU community.

Dr. Perry, director of Luckyday, began his path in higher education working with financial aid and other administrative roles. One of the things he found a “delight” when he came to the University of Mississippi 13 years ago was that he was now able to work with students individually and witness the transformation they experience when they come to college. His positions in the past kept him from working closely with students, but with Luckyday, he could experience first-hand how students’ experiences in college truly transform their outlook on community and themselves.

When Logan started at the University of Mississippi in 2001, she was working in the Office of Admissions in the operations department where she was soon promoted to coordinator of undergraduate admissions. At the time, the Luckyday Scholars Program was in its infancy, and in 2005, Logan was welcomed to the team. Here she was able to work hands-on with students beyond their admission. “It was a dream come true for me,” Logan said, “It’s been a great opportunity to get the answers to the questions I asked in the admissions office.” She was able to answer questions like “What do the students do next?” and “What challenges do they meet?” Through her position, Logan is able to address these challenges and be present for the students as they face them.

The mission of the Luckyday Scholars Program rests on four central values: scholarship, service, community and leadership. Each year, they welcome a cohort of freshman scholars that engaged not only with each other, building a community of service learning and leadership, but also with the broader LOU community through required service hours. Programs like their Peer Leadership Program and Student Advisory Council help strengthen this sense of community across the different classes of cohorts. Logan said the student leaders at Luckyday have natural leadership potential and are essential in building out these community and programs that define what it means to be a servant leader.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted plans across organizations, the Luckyday team were faced with the challenge of being able to establish that same community with incoming freshman while keeping everyone safe. Fun events like Zoom karaoke and socially distanced pumpkin painting contests allowed them to safely navigate these challenges, and emphasizing small group interaction with student peer mentors kept that connection and community that is so vital to their success.

Despite these challenges, both Perry and Logan feel a sense of pride from seeing the progress students have from their freshman year as a new scholar to graduation and beyond. Logan recalls a reluctant freshman feeling like Luckyday was not the place for her, but with encouragement and the sense of belonging that is emphasized through their community, this student was able to be successful throughout all four years of the program and even came back to talk to new students on their alumni panel. These kind of full-circle stories are what makes it all worth it for the Luckyday directors. “Even through the challneges, you get these moments that make the challenges seem smaller,” said Logan. “It’s always important to keep stepping.”

If you want to learn more about the Luckyday Scholars Program, visit their website at luckyday.olemiss.edu. You can also watch this interview and more on our Facebook page (@UMengaged), YouTube channel (Engaged UM) or listen to the Community Chats podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.


Download the full PDF transcript. (Available soon)

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Community Chats – Jaime Harker

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“We shouldn’t be afraid of celebrating the full beauty and richness of the diversity of our community.” – Dr. Jaime Harker

On this episode of Community Chats, Anthony and guest host Will Corley sit down with Dr. Jaime Harker, executive director of the Sarah Isom Center at the University of Mississippi and owner of Violet Valley Bookstore. They chat about all of the wonderful work the Isom Center is doing to create a fully diverse and inclusive LOU community. Harker’s passion for her work shines through in this conversation, so tune in to hear what the Isom Center has done to create a space for everyone, no matter their background, in our community.

Harker, originally from Seattle, has found herself all over the map throughout the years, but finally landed in Oxford as an English professor, teaching gay and lesbian literature. In 2014, she came on as the interim director for the Isom Center and immediately got to work creating a vision led by students. “Think big,” Harker said about her mindset as executive director, “Let the students set the vision and help them achieve their goals.”

Through this vision, they were able to bring noted LGBTQ+ filmmaker and author John Waters to the UM campus, an accomplishment Harker still revels in today. While on tour doing his one-man show “This Filthy World,” the staff at the Isom Center reached out to him, asking if he would be available for a stop in Oxford. He was happy to do it. They got to work raising funds and promoting the show, which took place at the Ford Center free of charge, and the rest is history. “For us, that was a really good entry point,” Harker said. It was a chance for the Isom Center to start building partnerships, creating an impact for the LGBQ+ members of our community and establish the Isom Center as, what Harker deems, an “incubator for ideas.”

The three-person staff at the Isom Center jokingly refers to themselves as Earth Wind & Fire. Dr. Theresa Starkey, the associate director, and Kevin Cozart, the operation coordinator, work with Harker to utilize their resources and networks to push the agenda of the Isom Center. “We can do a lot because we don’t try to do it all ourselves,” Harker said. The partnerships they have created allow them be actively engaged in the community and create more inclusive spaces for all community members.

Harker’s love of literature and determination to create inclusivity inspired her to open Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi at a time when many LGBTQ+ community members were feeling attacked by the state legislature. The passing of HB1523, what was deemed a “religious freedom bill,” opened the door for discrimination against LGBTQ+ Mississippians, and Harker knew there needed to be a place that was unarguably inclusive. Violet Valley Bookstore, while housing a range of genres, was established to explicitly feature queer and feminist literature. “Things kind of came together in really cool ways,” Harker said. The bookstore made national headlines, and drew in LGBTQ+ community members and allies from all over the country to donate book collections and funds.

Through her work at the Isom Center, Harker has found it difficult to push past the perception that LGBTQ+ inclusion can be taboo. While cooperation has improved, Harker says it was difficult, if not impossible, at first to get the word out about their LGBTQ+-centered initiatives. “We are an inclusive community, and LGBTQ+ folks are part of our community,” Harker said, “We should be proud of this.” Despite these barriers, Harker is fulfilled in knowing she can help make our community a better place for all students, especially LGBTQ+ students. Her upbringing and educational experience lacked that and kept her from experiencing the full richness of an inclusive and welcoming community, so being able to give a sense of possibility to young LGBTQ+ community members is a reward in itself.

As a final message, Harker praises the community for its dedication to becoming more welcoming and open to new possibilities. “This community is diverse and wonderful, so come join us,” she said, “Bring your passion. Bring your ideas. Bring your full selves.” Harker is dedicated to creating an Oxford that is “big enough for everyone” and celebrates all the people that live there.

To keep up to date on ongoing and future initiatives at the Sarah Isom Center, you can visit their website at sarahisomcenter.org and follow them on social media (@sarahisomcenter across platforms). You can also contact Dr. Harker directly at jlharker@olemiss.edu.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.

Download the full PDF transcript. (Available soon)

Watch on YouTube or Facebook.

Listen on Anchor.

Subscribe to the Engaged! Newsletter.


Community Chats – April Grayson

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

“Mississippi and its people: they’re the reason that I’m here.” -April Grayson

On this episode of Community Chats, our team sits down with April Grayson, director of community and capacity-building at the Winter Institute. As director of her team, she works hard to be responsive to communities wrestling with their pasts and guiding them as they strive for a more open and honest conversation around equity. Tune in to hear how Grayson and her team are working toward living more truthfully in the present by engaging honestly with the past.

Originally from the Mississippi Delta, Grayson came back to her home state to do documentary work for the institute after living in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, the Winter Institute was still young, and Grayson was just starting out as a volunteer. After a five-year hiatus from the institute, Grayson was offered a part-time position by the institute’s founding director, and she has since moved into the director position for the community and capacity-building team, a team focused on building trust and open dialogue in communities everywhere through a model they call the Welcome Table.

Since its founding in 2004, the Winter Institute has been supporting “movements of equity and wholeness” to end discrimination and divisions based on differences.  It has since moved off the University of Mississippi campus and formed a new headquarters in Jackson. While Grayson is still based in Oxford, the Winter Institute works with communities across the country, and even internationally since much of their dialogue can be conducted virtually now.

The youth engagement branch, led by Von Gordon, supports youth-led community efforts, and the policy and civic engagement branch, led by Jake McGraw and Jeran Herbert, works to engage Mississippians in learning about and finding solutions to some of Mississippi’s most pressing issues. “We’re small and all over the place,” Grayson said of the institute’s staff, “but we get a lot done.” Other staff members like Executive Director Portia Ballard Espy and coordinators Jacqueline Martin and Jennifer Heath work together with Grayson and the rest to pull off incredible efforts of racial reconciliation and equitable solutions for all communities.

For Grayson, the challenge in this work comes when the dialogue begins. She says that people can often be uncomfortable when talking about the issues surrounding discrimination and equity that face their communities. “We try to interrupt those assumptions about how we can engage very effectively and very collaboratively around really hard topics,” Grayson said. Grayson and her team try to extend grace to community members and learn together to work through their histories in productive ways.

On the other hand, she says that the relationships she has built with people and communities through this work are rewards in themselves. “This really is my heart’s work,” Grayson said. “It is slow work, and it is deep and multi-layered, but we can certainly make some real impacts and nurture collaborative work together.”

If you would like to get involved with the Winter Institute, or if your community could benefit from their programs, you can visit their website at winterinstitute.org and reach out to their staff there. You can also watch this episode and all others on our Facebook (@UMEngaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment and share this series as we continue to highlight community and nonprofit leaders across the LOU area.


Download the full PDF transcript. (Available soon)

Watch on YouTube or Facebook.

Listen on Anchor.

Subscribe to the Engaged! Newsletter.

UM Votes: Understanding Gerrymandering

Posted on: March 17th, 2021 by elpayseu

In this blog post, Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellow Katelyn Winstead explains gerrymandering and its effects on elections. She also shares the story of a UM alum who played a key role in addressing gerrymandering in Mississippi.

Gerrymandering: What is it and Why is it Harmful to Voters?

Following the 2020 Presidential election, the United States has stimulated tons of discussion across the nation about voting- whether the system is corrupt, whether people need easier access to voting, and everything in between. There is, however, one process that is invariably unfair, undemocratic, and hurts our voters across all states, counties, and jurisdictions: gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering?

The definition of gerrymandering, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “To manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class.

The term gerrymandering gets its name from Elbridge Gerry, who was the governor of Massachusetts in 1812. While in office, Gerry signed a bill allowing his party to draw district lines that would favor them and weaken the Federalist party. Looking at the map, the district resembled the outline of a salamander; a Boston Editorial cartoonist drew it with a head and claws and termed it the “Gerrymander”.

Source: Hawaii Public Radio

The Effects of Gerrymandering in the United States

Although both parties tend to point fingers at each other, the truth of the matter is that both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering across the nation. Most political scientists concur that the most notable states that are politically slanted in the way their districts are drawn are: Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, Wisconsin, and California.

The effects of gerrymandering on voters’ rights are detrimental. The whole process seeks to silence the voices of party rivals and amplify those of supporters- something that is all too prevalent in politics and not only confuses voters, but also basically invalidates their vote. Gerrymandering essentially punishes voters for sticking to one party, and if they are not within the party that draws the districts, then they are unlikely to be acknowledged in the voting or political atmosphere.

The problem of gerrymandering has been brought to the Supreme Court’s attention plenty of times in the past century; however, besides cases of outright racial gerrymandering, the Justices have declined to rule decisions in cases pertaining to partisan gerrymandering. Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the most recent majority opinion of the Court in 2019, stating that in order to rule partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional, the Court would require a limited and precise standard, which neither parties had demonstrated. Justice Roberts went on to say that Congress and the States hold the power to address partisan gerrymandering, but that it is out of the Court’s reach.

Many states have begun to address the issue of gerrymandering by appointing independent redistricting commissions, which use computer software to accurately define district lines without the burdens of political ideologies. In order to properly address the issue of gerrymandering, the use of independent redistricting commissions could be one of the strongest contenders.

Gerrymandering in Mississippi

In May of 2017, John Chappell, a then-sophomore student at the University of Mississippi, identified Senate District 22 on a map; District 22 was comprised of zigzagged lines, spanning 120 miles south from the Delta to the Jackson suburbs. Chappell began noting demographics of voters in this particular district and realized that there was something very wrong: the African American population was severely underrepresented relative to the immediate areas on the other side of the District 22 borderline. The zigzag lines were drawn to clearly favor the votes of white constituents within District 22.

John Chappell redistricting map

After two nights of research and redrawing lines, Chappell drew up his own map of Mississippi with fairly drawn districting lines and sent his findings to the Mississippi Center for Justice. Soon after, a lawsuit was sent to federal courts.

Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that Senate District 22 had violated the Voting Rights Act and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld; lines were to be redrawn by April 3, 2019. The new districting plan would increase the African American voting age population in District 22 from 50.77% to 58.13%.

This story of the discovery of gerrymandering by a sophomore undergraduate student shows just how much the unfair and undemocratic practice can affect the political landscape of a state; John Chappell was well ahead of his time and an inspiration for those of us that dream of political and social justice. Although Mississippi was lucky to have John Chappell at just the right time, there must be actions that will address future attempts of gerrymandering. Employing an independent redistricting commission can ultimately lead to fairly drawn district lines in which every voters’ voice matters and is not silenced by unfair and undemocratic political rivalry.



For your reference:

Community Chats – Kenorus Wilson

Posted on: March 6th, 2021 by elpayseu

“Lives depend on you.” – Kenorus Wilson

On this episode of Community Chats, Kenorus Wilson, director of the LOU Boys & Girls Club, talks with our team about his role in shaping the next generation of community leaders. His work fostering responsibility, leadership and success in the youth of our community is incredibly valuable, so tune in now!

After coming to the University of Mississippi to pursue a degree in music education, Wilson found himself as a volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club in 2013 and quickly came on staff in June of that same year. Wilson credits his position to his former director and fellow church member, Lamont Watkins, who assured him a position should one open up. “He kept his word,” said Wilson, “and I’ll always take my hat off to him.”

The old saying goes “Our youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” but Wilson and his team like to take it a step further. “We’re training them to be leaders of today in preparation for their future,” said Wilson. The mission of the Boys & Girls Club is “to inspire and enable all young people to realize their full potential as responsible, productive and caring citizens,” and through their extensive programs and initiatives, they are doing just that. Wilson hopes the Boys & Girls Club can act as a beacon of hope and a light that shines bright throughout the entire community.

The programs offered at the Boys & Girls Club center around leadership, mentorship, academic success and career readiness. For example, their Power Hour is a time for students to study, do homework and seek mentorship and is typically followed by a time for them to socialize and decompress after a long day at school. “We try to mix both,” said Wilson, “make sure we take care of business and then have fun.” Other programs like Career Launch, SMART Moves and Money Matters, among many others, teach youth life skills, ways to cope with stress, financial literacy and the importance of community.

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting school schedules, Wilson says it is a challenge to provide the regular services to those who may get out of school at a later time. “Whether they’re here for two hours, or whether they’re here for five minutes, we still want to offer that safe haven, that fun educational environment,” said Wilson. Despite this challenge, however, Wilson takes reward in knowing that he and his team our touching the lives of youth in our community each and every day. Whether that be through tutoring or by attending school events, the team at the Boys & Girls Club ensure that the safe haven felt within the four walls of the clubhouse is felt outside those four walls, as wells.

In his final message, Wilson thanks the LOU community for their continued support throughout the years and asks for anyone to reach out with opportunities for their students to serve our community. “We’re trying to teach them how to be responsible and how to give back to your community that supported you in so many ways,” Wilson said. If you would like to get involved with the Boys & Girls Club or if you have service opportunities for them, you can contact Wilson at kwilson@bgcnms.org.

Watch this episode and all other episodes of Community Chats on our Facebook (@UMengaged) and YouTube (Engaged UM), and listen to our podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Make sure to like, comment, and share this series as we continue to highlight community leaders across the LOU area.

Download the full PDF transcript.

Watch on YouTube or Facebook.

Listen on Anchor.

Subscribe to the Engaged! Newsletter.

UM Votes: Exploring the History of Voting Suppression in MS

Posted on: March 2nd, 2021 by elpayseu

In this post, UM Voting Ambassador and Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellow Caroline Leonard shares a brief history of voting suppression in Mississippi and explores civil rights around voting. 

The History of Voter Suppression in Mississippi 

Mississippi made headlines in 2020 for being one of the states with the strictest voting laws, both in light of the pandemic and for normal election standards. Despite record high turnout in the 2020 election, Mississippi still ranks low in terms of voter participation when compared with the rest of the country, due largely to limited access to absentee ballots, no early voting provisions, and strict voter identification laws. But what exactly led to these conditions? Voter suppression has a long and violent history in Mississippi, whose effects are still felt to this day. In order to understand the state of voting in Mississippi now, we need to look to the history behind it.

Landmark Legislation: Reconstruction and the 14th and 15th Amendments

Before the Civil War, Voting rights in Mississippi were limited to white men who owned property under the 1817 Constitution, and was amended under the 1832 Constitution to allow all white men over the age of 21 to vote. Following the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction in 1865, Mississippi’s efforts to suppress suffrage for African Americans were mostly thwarted by direct federal intervention into the south, and the passage of the 14th Amendment (which gave citizenship status to all people born in the United States and declared that all people are equal under the law) and the 15th Amendment (which guaranteed that a person’s right to vote could not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude). These provisions were huge in Mississippi because they theoretically gave recently freed slaves, who made up a majority of the Mississippi population, the right to vote and and all other rights granted by citizenship. Additionally, these amendments and a new federal, congressional session reduced the ability of Mississippi’s new government to enforce the “Black Codes” they had created in 1865, and forced them to draft a new Constitution in 1868.

While black voters still faced violence and intimidation when attempting to vote, Reconstruction marked a period of record high turnout and representation for the African American community. Between 1867 and 1876, at least 226 African Americans held public offices, two African American Senators were elected (Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce) and the first African American lieutenant governor Alexander K. Davis was elected. For a limited time, black Mississippians were able to engage in the government and shape political outcomes.

The Influx of Voter Suppression

However, the removal of Federal troops from the south heralded in a new era of violence and oppression towards the African American community. Mississippi created a Mississippi Plan which was a direct move to disenfranchise, terrorize, and suppress African Americans in all forms of public, economic, and civic life. It implemented poll taxes, literacy tests, and encouraged intimidation, violence, and agitation towards black voters and majority African American Republican gatherings, effectively eliminating an opposition to the all white Democratic control. It also sought to convert all white men to the Democratic Party, and to remove African American voters from any form of political party participation. These methods were adopted into surrounding states as well, and came to define the Jim Crow era voting policies across the south.

 The 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention only served to solidify these attempts at disenfranchisement, with the president of the convention explicitly saying that the goal of the convention was to disenfranchise black voters without violating the 15th amendment. Due to legislative barricades to voting and threats from communities, militia, and employers if you attempted to vote, African American registration dropped from 90% to below 6% in Mississippi between the end of Reconstruction and 1892.

The process of disenfranchisement was made easier with the addition of Separate but Equal policies throughout the country, which inevitably led to a large difference in available community resources and government funding. Furthermore, Mississippi passed legislation in 1902 that declared political primaries private, so they could segregate the event. This prohibited African American Mississippians from having access to selecting candidates for elections (at least in the Democratic Party), and removed their ability to effect change in local partisan elections. Simultaneously, this new primary system made it easier for white Mississippians to vote. In addition to legislative enforcement of disenfranchising laws, armed groups such as the Red Shirts, the Klu Klux Klan, and later the White Citizens Council who used economic and social ruthlessness, enforced segregation through violence and intimidation towards African Americans who attempted to vote. These combined efforts not only removed black Mississippians from being able to have power in school boards, public offices, and participation in juries (which were selected based on voter rolls); it installed immense fear among the population.

The passage of the 19th amendment in 1919 (which granted women the right to vote) did not ease voter disenfranchisement efforts. Many Mississippians were opposed to women getting the right to vote, and employed similar tactics to disenfranchise women as were applied to African American men. Furthermore, many white suffragettes actively advocated against including African Americans in the electorate, both to appeal to white legislators and due to their own racism. African American women were especially vulnerable, facing both racism and sexism at polling locations.

The Fight for the Right to Vote: Civil Rights Organization and the Freedom Summer

Attempts at voter registration were met with fierce opposition which only grew with the increasing attention to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Visible acts of violence and threats to central figures like Medger Evers and Fannie Lou Hammer helped to catalyze protests and organization across Mississippi, an area many civil rights activists had considered too dangerous to enter.

In 1961 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was created specifically to help voter registration efforts in Mississippi. COFO, led primarily by Bob Moses, encompassed and networked among many existing groups (such as the SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC) and was instrumental in organizing voter efforts in Mississippi. 

In response to efforts to block black Mississipians from participating in the election process and to protest the false idea that the Democratic Party had propagated that African Americans did not want to vote, COFO organized the Freedom Vote in 1963. The Freedom vote was organized on the principle of “parallel systems,” meaning organizers wanted to run a system that mirrored the one they were barred from in order to prove how the system was unfair. This vote demonstrated to residents of the state and to the broader country that black Mississipians wanted to vote, as nearly 80,000 Mississipians cast their ballots in this mock election. The organization and collaboration used to create the Freedom Vote led directly into the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Freedom Summer.

The MFDP was created to challenge the normal Democratic party in the state, and sought to be included in the National Democratic Convention as the only party elected with consent from African American Mississipians. Similar to the Freedom Vote, COFO organized meetings and events parallel to those held by the Democratic Party to campaign for and create a MFDP platform and delegation to send to the National Convention. The MFDP received overwhelming support from  across Mississippi and from other civil rights activists, however the Mississippi Democratic Party was given full seating while the MFDP was only given two of the needed 64 seats for their delegation. This was seen as a turning point for many activists, as it proved that the White House, represented by incumbent president Johnson, was not willing to provide support to Southern African Americans despite the well documented violence they received for trying to participate in elections.

Perhaps the most famous outcome of COFO was the Freedom Summer initiative in 1964, which brought hundreds of student volunteers from across the country to help register voters in Mississippi. The efforts of Freedom Summer volunteers were met with extreme violence and opposition from local governments. One of the most infamous crimes committed during this time was the murder of volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Their murder and other acts of brutality brought attention to the dire conditions in Mississippi at the time. The Freedom Summer also introduced Freedom Schools across the state. These schools served to combat literacy tests by educating students about different parts of the state constitution, and to prepare them for the harassment they would face when attempting to vote.

Other Important Legislation: The Voting Rights Act and Beyond

The Freedom Summer had low effects on increasing voter registration, but they did have an overall positive impact on voting rights in Mississippi. They helped establish freedom schools that would continue to educate Mississippians, and they brought national attention to the extreme violence in the South. Later, after the violent protests in Alabama, President Johnson was pushed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned segregation in public spaces), the 24th Amendment (which outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in regards to expanding voter access and registration to disenfranchised groups. It reaffirmed that poll taxes and literacy tests were illegal, and it once again brought federal intervention into areas with historical precedents for voter suppression by establishing the need for clearance. With this new need for clearance, regions with histories of voter suppression would have to approve new legislation regarding election procedures with the Federal Government before installing them. This policy was so beneficial that the percent of registered black voters in the south increased from 43% in 1964 to 66% by the end of the 1960’s.

The Voting Rights Act would continue to be expanded, notably to include protections for people who do not speak English in 1975 to the benefit of Native American and Latinx communities. Furthermore, other legislation like the 26th amendment would enhance voting rights nationwide by granting all 18 year olds the right to vote, and activists continued to fight enduring issues in equality presented in gerrymandering and redlining. 

What does the Future Look Like

While Mississippi voting rights have come a long way since the detrimental Jim Crow Era, the state still has low voter turnout and high barriers of access. States have been increasing restrictive voting laws nationwide, due in part to the 2013 court case Shelby County vs. Holder which struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that gave the federal government the authority to clear voter policy before states implemented it. In response to this court decision, many states immediately implemented new voter legislation. Mississippi was one of many states that passed stricter voter ID laws following the court decision.

The conversation around voting rights has shifted to a debate about election security versus open access to polling. The main concern, and often the reason for the increase in voting regulation, is potential voter fraud. A study done by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brian shows that both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have historically used voter suppression tactics to align their bases and to try and benefit from election availability. Furthermore, restrictive policies are more likely to be enacted in state governments as opposed to federal legislation (however it is important to note that the research in this article was done before the outcome of Shelby County vs. Holder) similar to how Jim Crow era voter suppression policies occurred on a state by state basis. Additionally, restrictive voter legislation (which occurred across the country in this study between 2006 and 2011) is more likely to be passed where there are increased reports of voter fraud, regardless of whether or not these claims are verified.

Mississippi in particular has limited and confusing absentee ballot policies, no early voting policies, and no online voter registration; all of which make voting more difficult. In the 2018 Statutory Report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited that stricter ID policies could often be cost restrictive to citizens, and that limited access to early voting and absentee ballots could create longer lines on election days. This may become more perilous to Mississippi residents, as the report also shows that multiple polling locations have been shut down since Shelby County vs. Holder court case. Mississippi is not the only state where election laws have become stricter since 2013, however, Mississippi is one of a few states that was frequently observed by the federal government in regards to election laws and procedures. Another concern mentioned by the Commission’s report is the use of voter roll purges (which can often erroneously remove voters for from voter rolls for lack of activity or minor spelling errors), challenges to voters at the polls (which Mississippi does allow), and barriers to access for non-English speaking voters and voters with disabilities.

However, Mississippi has also continued to improve access to voting and just recently voted to overturn a Jim Crow era election law, marking one of the first times the state had removed a disenfranchising practice left from the 1890 Constitution without outside intervention. The legislation required a state official to receive both the majority vote and the majority of house districts in order to win. Due to the districting policies in the state, this legislation often worked to prohibit the minority political party (originally Republicans and now Democrats) from winning in elections. This law was challenged in the federal court system in 2019 with the prosecution claiming it was racially discriminatory and in violation of the Voting Rights Act. While this lawsuit failed, it was added to the 2020 ballot to remove the policy, and Mississippians widely voted in favor of removing the legislation.

Mississippi has a complicated history with voting access and disenfranchisement. While we should celebrate that voter participation was at an all time high this year and that Mississippi made history by voluntarily removing a Jim Crow era policy from the Constitution, it is still important to recognize the history of voter suppression in the state and to work to bolster civic engagement statewide. The mission of the Andrew Goodman Foundation is to advocate for fair, easy, and equitable elections and to honor the memory of Andrew Goodman, one of the volunteers who was murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964. In order to do that, we must understand the history of voter suppression in Mississippi, and continue to monitor and fight laws that may impede the freedom for all people to vote. 

For your reference:

Caroline Leonard

Caroline Leonard

Meet Katelyn Winstead – Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellow

Posted on: March 1st, 2021 by crpauley

Hello! My name is Katelyn Winstead, and I am a junior transfer student from Ocean Springs, MS. I am in the process of completing a double major in public policy leadership and philosophy, and I am also a Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors Scholar. After I complete my undergrad, I plan on enrolling in a dual Public Policy and Juris Doctorate program in the hopes of continuing on to a career in the areas of law and public policy.

Civic engagement is important to me because I am a strong believer in the voice of the people; I recognize that our voices matter, and that the ways we choose to get involved have a direct impact on our society and democracy as a whole. Protecting the civil and voting rights of citizens is of utmost importance to me, because those rights are what allow us to participate in our democracy and make our needs become heard. Becoming involved with the Andrew Goodman Foundation has already taught me so much about civic processes, advocacy, being a leader, and representing the voices of voters that need to be heard. AGF has given me the opportunity not only to advocate for voting rights, but also to continuously stay engaged within the community and establish lasting impacts on campus.

My favorite part about the LOU community is the welcoming atmosphere and diverse viewpoints that students and community members bring. Starting out at Ole Miss was nerve wracking, and I was so worried that I would not make friends or be able to get involved, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. The LOU community instantly made me feel at home and, despite the roadblocks of the pandemic, provided plenty of different opportunities to get involved both on and off campus. I had complete strangers helping me find a job, giving me recommendations on which organizations to join, and introducing me to all the beauty of Oxford and the University. The sense of community and belonging here is incomparable, and I am so grateful to have been welcomed into this community with open arms.

If you are interested in getting in touch with Katelyn about all things related to voting rights and access, civic engagement, or to hear more about The Andrew Goodman Foundation, email engaged@olemiss.edu.