Black-white race could make history in Mississippi

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Trailers piled high with cotton inch down the narrow roadway, leaving behind a dusting of white fluff looking strangely like snow in the hot Indian summer. It is harvest time in the Mississippi Delta, a land whose soil is rich and whose people are among the poorest in the nation.

It is place where change comes slowly. But this election year something new is happening.

Veteran state legislator Robert Clark, a Democrat, is going up and down the Delta, stopping at town squares, shaking hands with merchants, lawyers, bankers, and townspeople, asking for their votes. If elected, he would be the first black Mississippi congressman since Reconstruction.

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For decades white Democratic candidates have gone to the black community asking for votes. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Although the newly drawn district in the Mississippi River Delta has a majority black population, the registration rolls are about 56 percent white, mostly Democratic voters.

On the surface, race is not an issue in the election, although Democrats have complained about the ''He's one of us'' campaign slogan of Republican Webb Franklin, who is white. Mr. Franklin, a former circuit judge from Greenwood, counters that the slogan was written long before Clark entered the race. ''I can't help what people assume,'' says the Republican, who argues that the real issue in the campaign is political philosophy.

''History is in the making,'' Franklin told a group of Rotary Club members in the central Mississippi town of Moorhead, but he did not cite race. The new event, according to the Republican, is that Mississippi Democrats have nominated a candidate who ''shares the liberal view of the national Democratic Party.''

So Franklin is underlining his own conservativism. He decries a long list of developments, ranging from court rulings on abortion and school prayer to homosexuals and women going ''out in the street holding up signs.'' He notes that he has the backing of groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce and other conservative business and professional groups.

However, his opponent, state Representative Clark, does not sound exactly like a liberal either. On a recent swing through Madison County, just north of Jackson, he blamed Reaganomics for cutting back funds to Mississippi, and proposed a regional commission to create jobs in his poverty-stricken district. But he also talked of balancing the budget and said that the regional commission should use ''private enterprise.''

''I've listened to you very carefully, and I can't decide if you're a Democrat or a Republican,'' commented Joe Fancher, attorney for the all-white Madison County Board of Supervisors, after Clark addressed the board.

''I've always looked upon myself as a responsible, progressive candidate,'' Clark responded.

Clark's biggest asset is his experience in the statehouse, where in 1967 he became the first black elected in Mississippi in modern times. He overcame the open scorn of his colleagues to gain widespread respect.

In the early days, recalls Clark, the lawmakers would pull out a bag of parliamentary tricks to keep him from gaining the floor. If he did speak, they would ''start to talking to each other'' or retire to the cloakroom, he says. He learned a ploy of his own in those days: ''I would start to close (the speech), and they would come back, and I'd start anew.''

Today Clark, a former educator who lives on a small farm at Ebenezer, chairs the education committee in the Mississippi House. He has won the endorsement of top Democrats in the state and declares that many of his former opponents are now his friends. Although not a polished speaker, Clark has gained widespread praise for his integrity.

''He knows how to work in the legislative system,'' says state Rep. Joseph L. Blount of Union, a fellow Democrat.

More than perhaps any other black politician here, Clark has built up support among whites. In Canton, a town with a history of bitter racial strife, he finds a warm welcome at the Bank of Mississippi branch office, where board chairman W. B. Brannan worries aloud about Reaganomics, shop closings, unemployment (19 percent in the town), and farm foreclosures. He says he hopes Clark will go to Congress and help solve those problems.

At Iupes Department Store, which faces the town square of Canton, Jeanne and Joe Iupes opened their shop to the campaigning Clark. ''Mississippi has come a long way,'' says Mr. Iupes of the Clark candidacy.

But whether this means voters can look beyond race is not certain.

In Itta Bena, population 2,904, town hall employee Vicki Hawkins says she's a Franklin supporter because she knows him through his work as an attorney. She says she has voted for a black candidate, and that a black alderman in the town is well respected. But she concedes that some whites will vote by color.

''Let's face it,'' she says of the white and black societies that occupy two distinct parts of town, each one keeping to itself, ''they have their things, and we have ours.''

A retired contruction worker in the town has no hesitation in telling this reporter that he will vote for Franklin because he just doesn't like black people.

Meanwhile, Jessie Warren and Jessie Gary, both black, prune oak trees in the town square and seem amused when asked how they'll vote. ''Clark,'' they say, adding that everyone in the black community plans to do the same. ''I know they will,'' said Mr. Warren.

For blacks, the main question is how many will vote at all. The Democrats have already run a major voter registration drive in the black community, where voter turnout is usually low. One Clark aide remarks that the November election will be a test to see whether blacks will come to the polls.

Even more, Nov. 2 will be a test for Mississippi Democrats, who only six years ago merged white and black factions. ''If the Democrats don't win this race, it'll be a tremendous gain for the Republicans,'' says Ferr Smith, a black lawyer in Canton. He warns that if white Democrats can't vote for Clark, blacks will run as independents, dividing the vote and making it much easier for Republicans to win in this once solidly Democrat state.

''I think it's crucial in that regard,'' says state Representative Blount, who is directing the reelection campaign of US Sen. John C. Stennis, a Democrat who has strongly endorsed Clark.

Already the Democrats lost a US Senate seat when Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran won a three-man contest in 1972. And Democrat Wayne Dowdy, a freshman Congressman elected with the help of black voters, is facing a tough race for reelection largely because he faces both a Republican and a black independent in his Jackson-based district.

A Clark loss would signal more such three-way races, while a win would mean that the black-and-white coalition in the Mississippi Democratic party is holding.

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