MISSISSIPPI – In 2021 and there are still many firsts yet to be made in Mississippi politics.
Many local government bodies have never had a female elected and certainly not an African-American female.
“It is shocking,” says Panola County State Representative Lataisha Jackson.
Jackson says it goes back many generations.
“The reality is we are not there yet. We still have the concept of individuals believing that power should be segregated or that power should be dominated by particular male individuals,” says Jackson, who is one of just a few African American women now serving in the Mississippi Legislature.
When Jackson first sought office in 2013, reality hit her in the face.
“I never will forget when I was canvassing one particular day I had a neighbor male that I grew up around her in Como, and I never will forget when he said the things you have been doing in the community I noticed them and you are doing great, but I just don’t think a woman should have that position. I think it should be a man,” says Jackson.
It’s one reason she wanted to run for office and why many other African-American women are joining her.
“I ran for Mayor. Four years later I ran for Mayor again. I ran for Alderman,” says Mississippi Representative Hester McCray. She had a lot of campaigns under her belt before she won the State Representative seat from Horn Lake, the first African American woman to win that seat.
McCray says with the city being 40% African American, it was time.
“The representation doesn’t look like Horn Lake. Let’s put it like that. And I think it’s important that we look like the city we stay in,” says McCray.
McCray won by only 14 votes and then was faced with claims of improper voting and fraud.
“I don’t think they was expecting me to win I guess,” says McCray.
McCray held the reigns and was eventually sworn in and that resolve to create change has pushed others African American females to step up.
Teresa Isom is the President of the Desoto Marshall County Democratic Federation of Women, an organization helping women realize they can run for office and can win.
“We have about 10 women that are running for positions here in Desoto County and previously it hasn’t been as many. But now, because we are getting more active, trying to make it happen, the women are stepping up,” says Isom.
That push helped first time candidate Pam McKelvy, a former WREG News Anchor, take the leap into politics.
She is vying to be the first African American female elected to the Board of Alderman in Southaven.
“I was like, what I do I need to do it because it’s not about me, it’s about the future for others. I mean my own son, and other young people from Mississippi told me they can’t wait to get out of the state. That’s not a good thing for the future of Mississippi. So I decided to run,” says McKelvy.
McKelvy says gerrymandering has made it hard for African Americans to get enough votes to win and she is running for a seat that has traditionally been Republican.
“People in this area, and I’m knocking on doors tend to tell me that they vote for their party regardless of the individuals,” says McKelvy.
McKelvy’s opponent in the race is incumbent Raymond Flores who has served in office 8 years.
Flores declined to be interviewed but said in a statement:
“As the first elected Hispanic Alderman in Southaven, I have represented Ward 6 with transparency, honesty and integrity and over 8 years I’ve gained valuable knowledge and experience which continues to make me the best candidate for this position.”
Teresa Isom believes there is role for more African American women in MS politics. It’s why she is now running for Alderman in Olive Branch, facing another female, Pat Hamilton, who did not respond to our request for an interview.
“Everyone deserves a voice and there needs to be diversity here in Desoto County,” says Isom. “It is not easy at all. You just have to keep walking the pavement, getting the calls done and asking people to vote for you.”
And it can be done. Lashonda Johnson is the first and only African American female now on the Horn Lake Board of Alderman.
“This position represents diversity for me and for our city. Even though you may not see others that look like you, with me being here I think it eases some of the confusion or some of the question marks about some of the things that happen in our city,” says Johnson.
She won office in 2017, after a failed bid four years earlier.
“We can hold these positions. We can lead our cities. As we all know now, we can lead the country as well,” says Johnson.
The history of pioneers like Mississippi’s Fannie Lou Hamer, who pushed for voting rights for blacks in the 1960s and tried to break the glass ceiling in the Mississippi Legislature inspires these women, giving them motivation to continue to push for change.
“Fannie Lou she was sick and tired. We are sick and tired too. We gotta keep that going on. We gotta keep the dream going,” says Representative McCray.
“I think about Fannie Lou Hamer despite all that happened to her in her dying years, still fighting for those in Mississippi who were disenfranchised,” says McKelvy.
“Ladies, we certainly are important and our voices are here to be heard,” says Johnson.
“When you have that urge to run, run! With the tenacity and the courage that you are the winner,” says Representative Jackson.