April 11, 2019 10:45:23 AM
Fifty years ago, the entire Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus could have met in an elevator and still have room for more.
When Robert Clark of Holmes County was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in November 1967, he became the first black member of the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction. For the next 10 years, Clark was the only black person in the 174-member Legislature.
When the current session of the Legislature convened in January, 51 black legislators represented communities throughout the state.
At the end of the session, the Legislative Black Caucus elected its new leaders and that leadership will have a distinct Golden Triangle flair. Sen. Angela Turner-Ford of West Point is the new chairman while Rep. Kabir Karriem of Columbus is the vice chair and Rep. Cheikh Taylor of Starkville is sergeant-at-arms.
All three legislators said the history of the LBC is a reminder of the important work they do as a group.
"When it was formed, there was a need for people to rally together," Turner-Ford said. "One of the things I definitely would like to do is have more of a community presence and bring more visibility to the (caucus). I'm not sure a lot of people even know we exist."
Karriem said Robert Clark's story is a reminder of the long struggle for black Mississippians to have a voice in their government.
"When Robert Clark was elected, the Legislature didn't want to seat him," Karriem said. "In fact, the desk that he was supposed to share with another member was sawed in half so he wouldn't be seated with the rest of the legislators.
"Now, 51 years later, there are 51 African Americans in the Legislature, representing 1.2 million African Americans all across the state," he continued. "The Legislative Black Caucus isn't just the conscience of the Legislature, but also the voice of those 1.2 million African Americans."
Taylor said that while the LBC is focused on being a "listening ear" and advocate for policies that benefit the state's black population, its work benefits other citizens, too.
"Politics in America has been there to benefit corporations, the wealthy, the powerful," Taylor said. "But when there people in the Legislature who make sure issues that affect blacks, poor people and other people of color, those policies help the middle class, local businesses, both black and white. Trickle down economics gets turned on its head and the poor and middle class are helped. It's the rising tide that lifts all ships."
Turner-Ford said the LBC is considering holding town halls over the summer and fall, not only to bring more exposure to the LBC but to hear from constituents.
"We want to know what's on their minds, what their issues are, how we can help," she said. "We want to make those connections where they don't exist and make them stronger where they do."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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