NP Board Meeting

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 17, 2010

Recital of racial wrongs flusters trustee at meet

By Billy Davis

A Jackson-based civil rights group, established to combat white-dominated redistricting, offered its training services to North Panola School Board trustees Monday.

A spokesperson for non-profit Southern Echo, Inc. urged school board members to be prepared to redraw school district lines when U.S. Census data is released early next year.

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Mississippi, because of its racist past, is among 30 states whose redistricting must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, Marilyn Young, a field staffer for Southern Echo, told the school board.

Redistricting is done every 10 years, following the release of census data, when population figures are made public.

Inside counties and their municipalities, elected officials shift political boundaries to reflect equal populations, with the Department of Justice approving any lines that move.  

Panola County government, and the county’s two public school districts, are awaiting data that’s expected to be released in February.

Young told school board members that whites have used redistricting to manipulate black representation, using boundary lines to dilute their numbers or pack them into a district.

“Cracking, stacking and packing,” she said, reading from literature in a redistricting “tool kit” she shared with school board members.  

Boundary lines used should resemble squares and rectangles, Young said, not “crazy shapes.”

“Sometimes they will put whites with a high income in a district with low-income blacks,” Young explained, referring to that as “racial block voting.”

“That ensures that whites will vote for a white specifically because they’re white,” she further explained.

Young went on to describe legal factors used to draw boundary lines. School board members can use citizens’ political affiliations and church attendance, and where their children attend school, to determine boundaries, she said.  

“There can be no dilution of black and Latino voting strength,” she said.

Despite her rhetoric, Young told a reporter after the meeting that Southern Echo is not a race-driven organization.

“It’s not about drawing lines for black representation,” she said. “It’s about drawing lines so people can vote for who they want to.”

But Young’s 20-minute appearance was peppered with racial references, beginning with her description of Southern Echo. “It was founded to empower the African-American community,” she said.

“It took me by surprise,” Lydia Smith, the only white trustee on the school board, said after Young’s presentation before the school board.

“I really felt uncomfortable,” Smith said. “She talked about blacks not having equal representation, when I’m the minority on the board.”

School board president Rosa Wilson, told about Smith’s concern, said she was not listening close enough to Young’s presentation to comment about it.

Fellow school board member Verna Hunter, also told of Smith’s concern, said she had no comment.

Hunter has recently attended Southern Echo training sessions in the North Panola community, according to Wilson.

Southern Echo, on its Web site, describes itself as a “leadership development, education and training organization working to develop effective accountable grassroots leadership in the African-American communities”

Among its varied accomplishments, Southern Echo cites the election of a record number of black county supervisors in 1991, increasing membership in the Black Caucus in the Mississippi legislature, and defeating conservative efforts in 1995 and 1997 to weaken the redistricting process.

Young is listed on the Web site among its staff members. She is a school board member in Tunica County, where she founded Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County.

She is credited on the Web site for working, since she was a teenager, to elect black candidates in Tunica County government.  

Given its purpose, Southern Echo’s involvement at North Panola seemed unusual, since four of five school board members are black. The school district’s student population is 96 percent black.

But Young said Southern Echo is cooperating with North Panola to ensure school board members are properly trained when they redraw boundary lines. The racial makeup is not a factor, she said.

How boundary lines are drawn “is up to the community,” she said. “We don’t know who lives in what district.”

She said she also plans to present Southern Echo’s training program to the South Panola School Board.

Young informed North Panola school board members that a training session is set for January 29 in Tunica.