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By EMILY W. PETTUS
JACKSON â Democrat Sampson Jackson was a brand new member of the Mississippi Senate in the early 1990s when lawmakers embarked on redistricting.
There were only three black senators in the 52-member chamber at the time. More than 35 percent of Mississippi residents were black, and serious efforts were under way â by some lawmakers, at least â to increase the number of majority-black districts.
Jackson, whoâs from Kemper County, recalls he fussed when mostly black Noxubee County was drawn out of his district. He feared the change would hurt him politically, even if it meant electing an additional black senator.
Democratic Sen. Alice Harden of Jackson, a Legislative Black Caucus member with more seniority, firmly put Jackson in his place.
âShe told me, âShut up and sit down and youâll be OK,ââ Jackson recalled.
He smiles at the memory now, saying he shouldnât have been surprised that the longtime educator knew how to be stern. But he was steamed at the time: âI didnât speak to her for two days.â
Harden died Dec. 6 after a lengthy illness. She was 64.
With her election in 1987, Harden became the first black woman in the state Senate. Her Jackson colleague, Democratic Rep. Alyce Clarke, had become the first black woman in the Mississippi House only two years earlier.
Hardenâs death leaves the Senate with no black women as members now. (Democratic Sen. Barbara Blackmon of Canton was elected in 1991 and served two terms.)
Friends and colleagues remember Harden as an advocate for education and champion of programs she believed would help women, children and people of modest economic means.
âIf Alice told me she was going to support something, I didnât have to worry. I knew sheâd do it,â recalled Clarke, whoâs still serving in the House, along with several other black women.
Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, met Harden about 20 years ago through their work in the Democratic Party. In 1988, Harden was elected to the Democratic National Committee. She held the post 12 years.
âWhatever she was involved in, she gave it her very best,â Harrison said.
In 2006, the Mississippi House, which then had a Democratic majority, passed a bill that wouldâve nearly banned abortion, had it become law. Some male House members argued it would be wrong to force a girl to carry a baby to term if she were raped by her father or uncle. But even after saying that, at least two of the men voted for it.
Harden strongly opposed the measure. She said Mississippi shouldnât ban most abortions, any more than it should ban other medical procedures. Harden also said she resented abortion opponents labeling people with her beliefs as âanti-life.â
âI can be pro-life and for choice, but I donât have to be for this bill,â Harden said.
In early 2011, then Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said Mississippi shouldnât have to get federal approval for its redistricting plans. Harden responded that federal oversight is needed.
âIt may not be 1965, but there are those who still act as if we are living back in the â60s,â Harden said. âI would like to think that at some point in our history, that we will get beyond having to submit everything that we do as far as voting to the Justice Department. But the reality of the situation is, weâre not there â not at this point, weâre not.â