By SID SALTER
Comedy Central “news” host Jon Stewart’s factually challenged, sloppily reported and downright false attempt at painting all 3 million Mississippians with the same broad brush of backward racism, ignorance and insularity is much like the legal arguments many attempt to make in defending no change whatsoever in Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide the future of Section 5 —which requires that places in America with a history of preventing or impeding minorities from voting get federal “preclearance” of any changes in election laws or procedures — during arguments scheduled this week.
Supporters of Section 5 argue that the dangers of discrimination have not been sufficiently eliminated to remove the protections the Voting Rights Act extended more than a half-century ago. Opponents argue that substantial change has come to the electoral process in those venues and that the Section 5 venues should not be subjected to the expense, trouble and delay that Section 5 exacts on governments in those venues.
In short, it’s an argument that “times and circumstances have changed” versus “times and circumstances will never change” in those venues.
States included in the “covered jurisdictions” identified by the Voting Rights Act are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. There are also parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota as well as some cities in Michigan and New Hampshire that are included.
Regardless Mississippi’s laudable status as the state with both the highest percentage of black voters in the country and the largest number of black elected officials, Mississippi election law changes are still subject to Section 5 federal preclearance — just as they are in the rest of the “covered jurisdictions.”
Despite those gains, Mississippi still has to absorb the increased costs, delays and trouble of asking the federal government’s permission to conduct our own elections.
The argument that Mississippi can never and will never outgrow the need for Section 5 enforcement resonates even louder as Jon Stewart this week became the latest comedian to make Mississippi the target of a routine based on the perpetuation of the stereotype that Mississippi as backward, insular, racist and ignorant.
This time, Stewart went after the fact that while Mississippi lawmakers voted unanimously in 1995 to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but a mistake in former Secretary of State Dick Molpus’ office led to the ratification paperwork not being delivered to the Office of Federal Register. Because of that, Mississippi’s official ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t occur until a scholar found the mistake after the film “Lincoln” was shown earlier this year.
Stewart pilloried Molpus, then later made an on-air apology to him after it was revealed that Molpus had a long and distinguished record of fighting the good fight on civil rights in Mississippi to his own political detriment.
In short, reality often doesn’t matter when the topic of discussion is civil rights in Mississippi. The stereotype blots out reality, obscures it and makes it difficult for those who want to move the state forward. Stewart’s apology was correct and even a bit magnanimous. But the damage was already done.
Many of those same stereotypes will haunt the Section 5 debate in the Supreme Court.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org .