Yes, My Mom grew up in a no-stoplight, courthouse town buried in the eastern Mississippi prairie. And it really is as dreary as it sounds.
MACON, Miss., Oct. 5 — The Justice Department has chosen this no-stoplight, courthouse town buried in the eastern Mississippi prairie for an unusual civil rights test: the first federal lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act accusing blacks of suppressing the rights of whites. The action represents a sharp shift, and it has raised eyebrows outside the state. The government is charging blacks with voting fraud in a state whose violent rejection of blacks’ right to vote, over generations, helped give birth to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet within Mississippi the case has provoked knowing nods rather than cries of outrage, even among liberal Democrats.
The Justice Department’s main focus is Ike Brown, a local power broker whose imaginative electoral tactics have for 20 years caused whisperings from here to the state capital in Jackson, 100 miles to the southwest. Mr. Brown, tall, thin, a twice-convicted felon, the chairman of the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee and its undisputed political boss, is accused by the federal government of orchestrating — with the help of others — “relentless voting-related racial discrimination” against whites, whom blacks outnumber by more than 3 to 1 in the county.
His goal, according to the government: keeping black politicians — ones supported by Mr. Brown, that is — in office.
To do that, the department says, he and his allies devised a watertight system for controlling the all-determining Democratic primary, much as segregationists did decades ago.
Mr. Brown is accused in the lawsuit and in supporting documents of paying and organizing notaries, some of whom illegally marked absentee ballots or influenced how the ballots were voted; of publishing a list of voters, all white, accompanied by a warning that they would be challenged at the polls; of importing black voters into the county; and of altering racial percentages in districts by manipulating the registration rolls.
To run against the county prosecutor — one of two white officeholders in Noxubee — Mr. Brown brought in a black lawyer from outside the county, according to the supporting documents, who never even bothered to turn on the gas or electricity at his rented apartment. That candidate was disqualified.Whites, who make up just under 30 percent of the population here, are circumspect when discussing Mr. Brown, though he remains a hero to many blacks. When he drove off to federal prison to serve a sentence for tax fraud in 1995, he received a grand farewell from his political supporters and friends, including local elected officials; whites, on the other hand, for years have seen him as a kind of occult force in determining the affairs of the county.
Still, many whites said privately they welcomed the Justice Department’s lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial early next year.
“In my opinion, it puts the focus on fair play,” said Roderick Walker, the county prosecutor Mr. Brown tried to oust, in 2003. “They were doing something wrong.”
Up and down South Jefferson Street, though, in the old brick commercial district, the white merchants refused to be quoted, for fear of alienating black customers. “There’s a lot of voting irregularities, but that’s all I’m going to say,” one woman said, ending the conversation abruptly.
The Justice Department’s voting rights expert is less reserved. “Virtually every election provides a multitude of examples of these illegal activities organized by Ike Brown and other defendants, and those who act in concert with them,” the expert, Theodore S. Arrington, chairman of the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, wrote in a report filed with the court.
Mr. Brown is coolly dismissive of the case against him. He has no office at the white-columned Noxubee County Courthouse, but that is where he casually greets visitors, in a chair near the entrance. A loquacious man, he both minimizes his own role and portrays himself as a central target. Far from being the vital orchestrator portrayed by the government, “when I was in Maxwell prison in ’95 and ’96, the show went right on,” he said.
There are so few whites in the county, Mr. Brown suggests, that the tactics he is accused of are unnecessary to keep blacks in office.
“They can’t win anyway unless we choose to vote for them,” he said with a smile. “If I was doing something wrong — that’s like closing the barn door when the horse is already gone.”
He sees the lawsuit against him as merely the embittered reaction of whites who feel disenfranchised, and he scoffs at a consent decree signed last year in which county officials agreed not to harass or intimidate white candidates or voters, manipulate absentee ballots, or let poll workers coach voters, among other things. “I wouldn’t sign my name,” Mr. Brown said.
But the Justice Department is pressing ahead with its suit, and wants to force Mr. Brown to agree to the same cease-and-desist conditions as his fellow county officials.
The state’s Democratic establishment has hardly rallied around Mr. Brown; privately some Democrats here express disdain for his tactics. Instead, he is being defended by a maverick Republican lawyer who sees the suit as an example of undue interference in the affairs of a political party.
“To do what they want to do, they would virtually have to take over the Democratic Party,” said the lawyer, Wilbur Colom, adding that Mr. Brown’s notoriety had made him the focus of the investigation. “I believe they were under so much pressure because of Ike’s very sophisticated election operation. He is a Karl Rove genius on the Noxubee County level.”
In Jackson, though, a leading light in Mr. Brown’s own party, Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark, a longtime moderate in state politics, refused to endorse him.
“Anybody who tries to prevent people from voting is breaking the law,” Mr. Clark said. “I certainly suspect some of that has been going on.”
Back in Macon, in the shadow of the courthouse green’s standard-issue Confederate monument, Mr. Brown spoke of history: “They had their way all the time. They no longer have their way. That’s what it’s all about.” The case is “all about politics,” he said, “all about them trying to keep me from picking the lock.”
But Mr. Walker, the county prosecutor, insisted the past had nothing to do with the case against Mr. Brown. “I wouldn’t sit here and pretend black people haven’t been mistreated,” he said. “I hate what happened in the past. But I can’t do anything about it.”