JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – In 1965, the late Mississippi Senator Henry Kirksey made history by filing a lawsuit that changed the way African-American votes impacted Mississippi elections.
The lawsuit challenged district lines and highlighted the “one man, one vote” doctrine.
Kirksey’s victory against the State of Mississippi and Hinds County created opportunity for more African-Americans to hold seats in the legislature.
“He found where all of the pockets were where there was a concentration of blacks throughout the state. And as a result of that, he determined that we could win some of these positions,” District 38 Representative Tyrone Ellis said.
In 1979, Senator Kirksey and Representative Tyrone Ellis were two of the first African-Americans elected to the Mississippi Senate and House after reconstruction.
Representative Ellis is now one of the longest serving African-Americans in the legislature, with nearly 40 years of experience.
He says even with their new positions of power in the late 1970’s, it was clear the black caucus wasn’t welcomed by all.
“We couldn’t even get recognized to even introduce our constituents from the gallery. They didn’t even recognize us. They didn’t put us on any money committees. They would put us on committees that had no relation to what our professional or educational careers were like…[They’d] just put you in a corner and say be still,” Ellis recalled.
Representative Alyce Griffin Clark was elected in 1985, “Being the first black woman elected, they said well maybe we ought to be kind of nice to her…But there was not a bathroom on this floor for women of color. When Diane Peranich got elected, they came out and said ‘Representative Peranich, here’s your key to the bathroom.’ And poor me, I said ‘It’s never been locked when I was down there.’ And I noticed the expression on my colleagues faces. I said something’s not right…And the next day I drove on campus, I was met by a guard who said ‘Representative Clark, here’s you key to the bathroom.’ I said ‘thank you, but I don’t need it.'”
Decades after Ellis and Clarke’s stories of struggle, newcomer Representative Chris Bell says his battles are more partisan related.
“There were a lot of things that I wasn’t used to. There was just straight out meanness…There was even a rumor that they were told not to speak to use. But as time rolled on, you had the ice breaking. You had a few members that started to speak with each other. And now, it’s totally different than it was last year,” Bell said.
All three agree that African-Americans have made large steps within the walls of the capitol. With Kirksey’s inspiration and their constituents to motivate them, they says progress will continue.
“We’re survivors. So we know that we have to continue to fight, regardless of the obstacles that are placed before us. We still have to fight. So we fight,” Ellis said.