As the current election season heats up, Mississippi is turning into an unexpected political battleground. The solidly conservative state has recently seen changes to several racist or biased laws and policies, and the new legal landscape in Mississippi has the potential to empower the state’s significant Black electorate, with potentially major consequences for representation within the state and in Washington.

Rolling back anti-Black state laws

With its history of racial oppression, it is perhaps not surprising that the Mississippi state constitution, written in 1890, includes provisions originally designed to uphold white supremacy. One of those rules required candidates for governor or other statewide offices to not only win a majority of votes overall but also to win a majority of the state’s voting districts. Since most of those districts are white — partially due to intentionally drawing lines that concentrate Black voters into a limited number of districts — critics argued that this Electoral College-like system was meant to prevent nonwhite candidates from winning. In 2020, voters overwhelmingly chose to eliminate the rule, and the Confederate Flag was removed from the state’s flag that same year. Earlier this year, a federal judge struck down another portion of the 1890 constitution which imposed a lifetime voting ban on people convicted of committing certain felonies in the state. The ban, and the specific crimes covered, had initially been designed to disenfranchise Black voters, and critics argued that the rules still served that purpose. The ruling is currently under appeal, and the case may make its way to the Supreme Court.

Elvis' cousin hopes to represent Black voters as governor

These new changes to state law have been eyed as potentially empowering Black voters in the state and giving an opening to the Democratic Party, which Black Mississippians support overwhelmingly. The first major test of those ideas will be this year’s race for governor. As detailed in a recent New York Times story, Democratic candidate Brandon Presley — a white politician and relative of Elvis — is putting significant effort into mobilizing Black voters to support him. Though the state tends to lean heavily Republican, Black people make up 40% of Mississippi’s voters — more than any other state — and thus can have a huge impact on the election. Seeing the opportunity, the NAACP has nearly doubled its election funding from the last governor’s race, and Presley has targeted Black voters through media campaigns and appeals regarding issues such as restoring hundreds of millions of dollars to funding to Alcorn State University and other HBCUs that have been underfunded by the state for decades.

Challenges remain for Black people in Mississippi

Even with this optimism, the political atmosphere in Mississippi remains hostile toward Black voters in several ways. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case arguing that the state’s congressional districts were drawn to limit the number of Black representatives elected to Congress, a potential violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, the appeal to the federal ruling on felony disenfranchisement could potentially restore the rule ahead of the next election. And policies ranging from a recent ban on so-called critical race theory to continued commemoration of Confederate heritage present a state that seeks to whitewash or even celebrate its racist past.

These challenges aside, there remains hope and excitement, mixed with skepticism, that Black voters will be able to impact Mississippi elections more than they have in years. This year’s governor’s race and 2024’s national elections will demonstrate how much of that hope is justified, and they serve as useful measuring sticks for how far the state has come and how far it needs to go.