Aug. 9—TUPELO — Citizens of Lee County asked a legislative committee last week to respect the voice of Black voters when developing a plan to redraw the district lines of Mississippi’s four U.S. House seats and 174 state legislative seats.
Activists, party leaders and elected officials urged the Joint Legislative Reapportionment Committee at a Friday evening public hearing at Itawamba Community College’s Belden Center to uphold the voting rights of Black voters in the state and draw legislative districts that don’t dilute minority communities.
The Rev. Charles Moore, president of the Lee County branch of the NAACP, told lawmakers that voter suppression and fair access to the political process continues to be a major issue in Mississippi and encouraged legislators to draw equitable district lines.
“The development of fair political boundaries at the local, state and federal level can help us to improve our election process by developing districts that keep our communities together and are transparent,” Moore said.
State lawmakers are required to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years based on updated population numbers found in U.S. Census data. Preliminary estimates show that some Northeast Mississippi counties gained population, while the populations of other counties shrank.
Early and unofficial estimates presented at the Friday hearing show that Lafayette, Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties gained residents. But Marshall, Benton, Tippah, Alcorn, Tishomingo, Prentiss, Itawamba, Monroe, Clay, Chickasaw and Calhoun counties all lost population.
Mississippi voters have never elected a Black statewide official and only one congressional seat in the state is a majority Black district.
Tupelo voters in June elected Rosie Jones to serve on the City Council, making her only the second Black woman in the city’s history to serve on the body. Jones on Friday told lawmakers that it took a long time “for the poor, the Black and the brown citizens to create communities” that represented their needs.
“It is always important to remember that within these maps are communities, and within these communities are people,” Jones said.
The city of Tupelo has previously faced court action over how it drew district lines for the City Council. Tupelo previously had seven ward representatives and two at-large seats for a total of nine council members.
In 2007, a federal judge ruled that the two at-large seats unlawfully diluted Black representation on the council. The court then removed the at-large seats, leaving the seven seats that remain today.
The Rev. Charles Penson, a leader in the Lee County Democratic Party, referenced this court action at Friday’s hearing, saying that he hopes such tactics won’t be needed to ensure that minority voters are fairly represented in its Legislature.
Friday’s hearing was the second of nine public hearings that will be conducted across the state. The redistricting committee held a public hearing on Aug. 5 in Meridian. Seven more hearings will take place later this month.
State Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, is chairman of the joint redistricting committee, and state Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, is the vice chairman of the committee. Both told the public that the committee would take their comments under consideration.
“We’re here for one purpose mainly and that’s to listen to you guys and for you to tell us anything we can do to improve the way that we do reapportionment,” Kirby said.
Upcoming public hearings are as followed. All meetings are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.:
— Aug. 9: Senatobia, Northwest Community College Haraway Center.
— Aug. 11: Itta Bena, Mississippi Valley State University R.W. Harrison Sports Complex.
— Aug. 12: Starkville, Mississippi State University Hunter Henry Center.
— Aug. 16: Natchez, Alcorn State University Business School Auditorium.
— Aug. 18: Gulfport, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Harrison County campus Fine Arts Auditorium.
— Aug. 19: Hattiesburg, University of Southern Mississippi Joe Paul Theater in the Thad Cochran Center.
— Aug. 23: Jackson, Mississippi Capitol, room 216.