Mississippi’s Democratic Party traces its origins to the early nineteenth century. Before the Civil War the Democratic Party consisted mostly of rural white residents who opposed most government activity. Their hero was Andrew Jackson, who opposed large federal structures like national banks while supporting policies to move American Indians off lands desired by US citizens. Wealthy Mississippians, mostly white and from plantation areas along the Mississippi River, tended to support the Whig Party. After the Civil War almost all of the state’s whites joined forces in support of the Democratic Party. During the Reconstruction period, the Republican Party, primarily a combination of African Americans and northerners, dominated the state’s elected offices. With the withdrawal of federal troops in 1876, the Democrats regained their prominence, and by the 1890s Mississippi had become a one-party state. Most political battles were fought between Democratic Party candidates who represented the state’s two ideological groups. These contests were often oversimplified as the Delta versus the Hills, with wealthier planters pitted against poorer farmers from the Hill and Piney Woods regions.
After the Second World War, cracks in the Democratic Party facade began to show in presidential elections. In 1948 the States’ Rights Democrats (the Dixiecrats) won Mississippi’s electoral votes. In 1964 Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater adopted a states’ rights stand on civil rights and did not support the Civil Rights Act of 1964; he, too, carried Mississippi. In the ensuing five decades, only one Democrat, Georgia native Jimmy Carter in 1976, has won the state’s electoral votes.
Until the 1970s whites held almost exclusive control over the Mississippi Democratic Party. Black Mississippians were largely disenfranchised immediately following the end of the federal occupation, and as recently as 1960 only about 7 percent of black Mississippians were registered to vote. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, black Mississippians began to register in numbers not seen since Reconstruction. Many wanted to align themselves with the Democratic Party because of their fondness of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s support of the civil rights movement. The Democratic Party leadership was not eager to admit the newly enfranchised African Americans into the party. In 1964 black Mississippians frustrated at their exclusion from the delegate selection process for the national convention formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and sought to have an alternate slate of delegates seated. National party leaders devised a compromise that would have seated members of both the regular and Mississippi Freedom Democratic groups, but both sides rejected the deal.
The tension between the two groups persisted for several years, and the Democratic Party became divided between the Loyalists (almost exclusively African Americans) and the Regulars (almost exclusively white). At the 1968 and 1972 Democratic National Conventions, delegates selected by the Regulars were not recognized, while Loyalist delegates were seated. At the state and county levels, however, Loyalists were generally excluded from the party’s business and nominating process. By 1976 the two factions united under the Mississippi Democratic Party label when a black man and a white man were chosen as party cochairs. The party returned to a single chair in the late 1980s after an agreement was reached under which the membership and chairs of party committees would reflect the state’s racial makeup. In the twenty-first century the Mississippi Democratic Party consists of a biracial coalition that varies from moderate to liberal in its ideology. This pragmatic flexibility allows white Democrats to have moderate beliefs while black Democrats in the Delta tend to be more liberal.
Over the past few decades the party’s ability to send members to Congress has weakened. By the 1990s both of the state’s senators and many of its representatives hailed from the Republican Party. However, state-level offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, and state auditor have until recently been competitive between the state’s two dominant parties.
Democrats do best in the Delta. With its heavily black population, the Delta sends the state’s only African American representative to Congress. Support for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates is also strong in this region. The Hills and Piney Woods regions typically support Democrats for local offices while backing Republicans for Congress and president. The coastal region has a history of supporting Republicans at all levels of elected office. Party identification in the Jackson metropolitan area is similar to that found in many metropolitan areas throughout the United States. The inner city of Jackson, mostly black, supports Democratic Party candidates, while the mostly white suburbs support Republicans.
Two primary factors explain why the Democratic Party does well in local politics but has less success sending its members to Washington, D.C. First, 36 percent of Mississippi’s population is African American, and African Americans are especially supportive of the Democratic Party’s candidates both in the state and in the country as a whole. Because Mississippi has the nation’s largest proportion of African Americans, Democrats will continue to occupy a large number of municipal, county, and state legislative offices. Second, local-level Democrats have often been able to avoid the liberal label that Mississippians often give to national Democrats. In Mississippi, which is one of the country’s most conservative states, being viewed as a liberal, especially by members of the white community, is often the political kiss of death. Local Democrats who succeed must quickly master the ability to distance themselves from the party’s national liberals.
- Bradley G. Bond, Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830–1900 (1990)
- Dale Krane and Stephen D. Shaffer, eds., Mississippi Government and Politics: Modernizers versus Traditionalists (1992)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2006 (2006)
- James A. Newman, Stephen D. Shaffer, and David A. Breaux, American Review of Politics (Summer 2003)