Blacks are accused of voter fraud in Mississippi
The Justice Department has chosen this no-stoplight, courthouse town buried in the eastern Mississippi prairie for an unusual civil rights test: the first federal lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act accusing blacks of suppressing the rights of whites.
The action represents a sharp shift, and it has raised eyebrows outside the state. The government is charging blacks with voting fraud in a state whose violent rejection of blacks’ right to vote, over generations, helped give birth to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet within Mississippi the case has provoked knowing nods rather than cries of outrage, even among liberal Democrats.
The Justice Department’s main focus is Ike Brown, a local power broker whose imaginative electoral tactics have for 20 years caused whisperings from here to the state capital in Jackson, 100 miles to the southwest. Mr. Brown, tall, thin, a twice-convicted felon, the chairman of the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee and its undisputed political boss, is accused by the federal government of orchestrating — with the help of others — “relentless voting-related racial discrimination” against whites, whom blacks outnumber by more than 3 to 1 in the county.
His goal, according to the government: keeping black politicians — ones supported by Mr. Brown, that is — in office.
To do that, the department says, he and his allies devised a watertight system for controlling the all-determining Democratic primary, much as segregationists did decades ago.
Mr. Brown is accused in the lawsuit and in supporting documents of paying and organizing notaries, some of whom illegally marked absentee ballots or influenced how the ballots were voted; of publishing a list of voters, all white, accompanied by a warning that they would be challenged at the polls; of importing black voters into the county; and of altering racial percentages in districts by manipulating the registration rolls.
To run against the county prosecutor — one of two white officeholders in Noxubee — Mr. Brown brought in a black lawyer from outside the county, according to the supporting documents, who never even bothered to turn on the gas or electricity at his rented apartment. That candidate was disqualified. Whites, who make up just under 30 percent of the population here, are circumspect when discussing Mr. Brown, though he remains a hero to many blacks. When he drove off to federal prison to serve a sentence for tax fraud in 1995, he received a grand farewell from his political supporters and friends, including local elected officials; whites, on the other hand, for years have seen him as a kind of occult force in determining the affairs of the county.
Still, many whites said privately they welcomed the Justice Department’s lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial early next year.
“In my opinion, it puts the focus on fair play,” said Roderick Walker, the county prosecutor Mr. Brown tried to oust, in 2003. “They were doing something wrong.”
Up and down South Jefferson Street, though, in the old brick commercial district, the white merchants refused to be quoted, for fear of alienating black customers. “There’s a lot of voting irregularities, but that’s all I’m going to say,” one woman said, ending the conversation abruptly.
The Justice Department’s voting rights expert is less reserved. “Virtually every election provides a multitude of examples of these illegal activities organized by Ike Brown and other defendants, and those who act in concert with them,” the expert, Theodore S. Arrington, chairman of the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote in a report filed with the court.
For first time, 1965 act used to protect white voting rights