Where were you at 4:30 p.m. on March 18, 2004? I know where I was. I was sitting at my desk in the House Chamber, listening to Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, rail against a bill, House Bill 1435 to be exact. My colleague, Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, had introduced 1435 to make sure that affidavit ballots were counted in a election by making them, essentially, same-day voter registration forms. Sounds like a good idea, right?
Well, it was a good idea, and a good bill, until Rep. Jim Ellington, R-Byram, and Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, successfully added an amendment concerning voter identification. That is what riled Bailey and led to his impassioned plea to kill the whole bill. After that, a few Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus members stood to speak against the bill. That seemed inconsequential at the time, for it looked like the decision had been made to send the bill as it was to the Senate.
I made a motion to reconsider the vote in which the amendment passed, which would have saved the bill by taking the voter identification provision out. That motion was defeated by the same margin as it took for the amendment to pass. That is when the "come to Jesus meeting" started.
Virtually every member of the Black Caucus in the House took their turn at the podium, expressing the frustration of an oppressed people, and some battle-weary legislators. One after one they came, telling personal stories and a collective history of the struggle for African-Americans to receive their right to suffrage, about the barriers that have historically been placed between blacks and the polls in the state—history that explains why voter identification is a repulsive idea to so many African Americans in Mississippi. Members, who had never gone to the well of the House other than to handle a bill for their committee, got up and spoke eloquently, telling their stories, their friends', their family's.
Emotions were running high, but in a good way, for I believe this was the first time many white members truly understood our pain and indignation. Some members, like Ellington, seemed unmoved, but the overwhelming majority of the House, including the speaker, were moved and visibly shaken. So much so that some members who voted for the amendment felt compelled to speak up for their position and deny any racist intent. Under normal circumstances, there would be an incredible amount of cynicism about those claims, but these were not normal circumstances. It is my belief that the debate was genuine and the members who spoke were sincere and upfront with their positions. It was a momentous occasion.
The end result, after four hours of debate, was that many white Democrats who voted for the amendment joined with the black members and voted to kill the bill. Many of the members, white and black, male and female, Democrat and Republican, were wiping back tears as the vote was cast.
Following the vote, a motion was made to adjourn the session in the name of a Pearl River County resident who had died earlier that day fighting in the war in Iraq. That seemed appropriate, for it reminded us that the reason why we were able to have that glorious debate was because of the sacrifice of many individuals. It also reminded us that we have to vigorously defend those rights that were gained by blood.
March 18, 2004, may have been of little significance to many people outside of the State Capitol, but to me, it will be remembered as a watershed day in the history of Mississippi politics. People from different backgrounds and political philosophies came together, listened to each other, articulated the issues and voted with a clear conscience. More importantly, a dialogue was started. Hopefully, that dialogue will not be repressed for another 40 or 50 years.
I am honored that I had the privilege of being in the House Chamber that day. I pray that I am right in how historic that day was.
Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Hinds, represents District 72 in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Mr. Fleming, this is a great column. Thanks for reminding us all of our collective history, and reminding those of us who take voting for granted that not everyone sees the issue this way. I've talked several times with people who just don't understand why voter ID is such a huge issue. But most people get it, especially when you remind them that many of the people who fought for the vote are still alive, and carry vivid memories with them.
The Clarion-Ledger doesn't get it, though. Note how they're summarizing what Rep. Fleming wrote about above in their editorial today. Very different versions, eh?
The Mississippi House shouldn't be allowed to bury a bill on voters being required to show identification at the polls, no matter how divisive the issue may be. After a lengthy and emotional debate last week failed to provide a bill to give to the Senate, the matter was referred to the Apportionment and Elections Committee under the chairmanship of Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston.
Reynolds is already backpedaling, saying he's not sure if there's enough time for a bill to be crafted this session. That's baloney. The voter ID issue has been rattling around the Legislature for years and a bill should have passed in the 2003 session when the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 required it. Making a decision is overdue. ... Requiring identification is a normal part of most people's lives now. It should be no different for voting.
I can understand how Black Mississippians would be upset with the bill. However, I never got the chance to vote when I lived in Mississippi for those 13 months. What way is there to ensure that voters don't vote twice if not through official ID?
Sid Salter put a decidedly different spin on a session he clearly didn't attend in this column:
In separate Web site reports, Democratic Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, and Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, confirmed that a number of black state legislators spoke eloquently against the amendment, citing fears of voter intimidation and recounting personal experiences of racism and disenfranchisement.
But the debate took a decidedly partisan turn. Black lawmakers ó a key member of the tenuous coalition of Black Caucus Democrats, rural white Democrats and white Republicans that keeps both the Democratic Party in general and Speaker McCoy and his kitchen cabinet specifically in power ó sent their fellow white Democrats a less-than-subtle political message.
The message was plain: There would be political consequences for white Democrats who abandoned black Democrats in their opposition to HB 1435.
"We must realize there are three different factions in this body and today it is driven home," said black state Rep. Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson. "From now on, whoever comes to this podium, I can assure you, I will vote on it from a merit standpoint and not a party standpoint."
This spin strikes me as extremely cynical, especially coming from someone who says in the column that he is basing what happening on Web site reports. It is certainly one way to look at what seems like an amazing move toward putting aside partisanship and moving toward understanding. Of course, if there was no partisanship left, political columnists such as Salter wouldn't have much left to write about. I'd be interested to hear how Rep. Fleming would respond to this column.