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Black-white race could make history in Mississippi

By Julia MaloneStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 1982

Jackson, Miss.

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.

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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.

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.''