JACKSON--In the year and a half that I have lived here, I’d never seen so many Mississippians gathered together here for a cause other than religion, alcohol, livestock, or some combination of the three. But at the Jefferson-Jackson-Hamer Day dinner on Thursday, an annual event organized by the Mississippi Democratic Party, hundreds of well-heeled party donors and activists crowded into Canton’s livestock show center, its dirt floor covered in hastily strewn gray carpeting, for some roasted catfish and barbequed pork. The star of the night--second only to a fuchsia-and-rhinestone clad Miss Mississippi belting out the “Star Spangled Banner”--was Hillary Clinton, given a rodeo welcome by State Senator Willie Simmons: “This wife! This mother! This leader! This fighter!" he thundered. Her stump speech was welcomed with hoots and whoops from the crowd, particularly her promise to never, ever repeat the Bush administration’s response to natural disasters, eliciting a spirited "You go, girl!” from a trio of women in cowboy hats and boots standing behind my table. Hillary left the stage to chants of “Yes she can!” and was immediately engulfed by the secret service and a mob of autograph seekers. One woman held a sign that read “Hillary ’08, Please God.”
The candidates’ efforts in Mississippi have been frantic. Hillary’s strategy has been to blitz the state with Clinton family appearances (Bill spoke in Tupelo, Chelsea came to Millsaps College, and Hillary made a second stop in Hattiesburg) and then rely on a 300-person steering committee and their personal networks to handle the rest. The handful of volunteers present at Hillary's Jackson headquarters when I visited on Friday seemed vaguely bored, and there was even confusion over whether I should be allowed in or not. (I chatted with a few of the volunteers before a communications director, in from New York, hinted that I should leave.)
Barack Obama, who appeared at Jackson State University accompanied by Russell Simmons on Monday night, is focusing more attention on the grassroots. His local campaign headquarters was buzzing with self-identified first-time voters and first-time political activists when I visited there on Friday. Students from a local black college huddled around the volunteer desk to receive canvassing routes. Two young white political science majors from American University told me that they made the trek down from Washington, D.C. in a rented PT Cruiser to stump for Obama, going door-to-door telling potential voters to register--before realizing that the deadline for voter registration in Mississippi passed weeks ago.
Needless to say, this is the most excitement the Mississippi Democratic Party has had in a long time. Though there is no breakdown of the party's demographics in the state (Mississippians do not have to reveal their party affiliation or ethnic categorization when they register to vote), the state's population is almost 40 percent black (the largest ratio in the country, according to the 2006 census), and African Americans form the core of the party. While there is certainly momentum for Obama among this community, it tends to be concentrated mostly amongst younger black voters. Many older black voters I spoke to were cynical about Obama’s prospects, and looked forward to voting for the wife of "American's first black president," as I have heard time and again down here.
On Saturday, I tagged along with Theresa, a young graduate of Jackson State University, as she canvassed an old, slightly ramshackle, mostly black neighborhood around the not-so-clublike Country Club Drive. She is a community activist who has often canvassed neighborhoods looking for jobs for recent high school graduates, but this was her first time canvassing for a political campaign. “[Obama] gives me goose bumps,” she said.
But as we walked through what most people would peg as Obama territory, we ran into many staunch Hillary supporters, such as one elderly woman who, upon seeing the Obama flyers in Theresa’s hands, declared that although she was born in 1928 and had lived through the worst of Southern racism, her vote lays firmly with Hillary. “Sexism is as bad as racism,” she said from behind her screen door. Was she registered? Yes. Would she be out on Tuesday? Yes.
Later that day, we walked up to a middle-aged black man on our route. “Where’d Barack come from, man?” he asked. “Senator Clinton should have had a chance to run unopposed. Where’d Barack come from? The only change he’s going to bring is a cosmetic change. ... He’s taking us for granted, the African Americans, because he can do that.” Theresa was undaunted. “Obama just speaks to my heart,” she told him me as we walked on to the next house.
Nientara Anderson, a former arts editor at the Jackson Free Press, is a writer based in Yazoo County, Mississippi.
By Nientara Anderson