LAUREL, Miss. –
The largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history has caused panic among Hispanic families in this small southern Mississippi town, where federal agents rounded up nearly 600 plant workers suspected of being in the country illegally.
One worker caught in Monday's sweep at the Howard Industries transformer plant said fellow workers applauded as immigrants were taken into custody. Federal officials said a tip from a union member prompted them to start investigating several years ago.
Applauding as your fellow workers are arrested - their only crime to sneak into this country hoping to provide for their families?
One person snitching is one thing. Other people complacent, I could understand. But standing there like someone who has no clue what his or her own real place is in the world - with no clue that the bosses only distinguish between workers to the extent that they can get away with screwing some of them more than others - with no intuition born of long, hot days, let alone historical knowledge, that workers have always been helpless when disunited - and banging your hands together like a buffoon, as if they were doing all this for you? As if your birthright were being reclaimed, when your status as a wage slave is simply being confirmed?
In Mississippi, things used to be all black and white - literally. If you were white, you could speak out; if you were black, you kept your head down to stay alive. Mind you, if you were white and you didn't agree with any of this, you were well advised to keep your mouth tightly shut.
Immigration, on any sizable scale, is a pretty new thing in Mississippi. Like most of the South, it historically received far fewer immigrants than the rest of the country. But historically, and still today, it has the highest percentage of African-Americans in the country.
Despite that, it's one of the most Republican states, because the whites vote so overwhelmingly for the party of Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.
It wasn't always like this. Back in the days of the one-party Democratic South, Mississippi was the second-most Democratic state in the country (after South Carolina). This started changing in 1948, when Truman came out for civil rights, but as late as 1960, no Republican presidential candidate had secured even 40% of the vote in Mississippi since 1872 - back during Reconstruction, when Black people could actually vote.
Then came 1964. Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection after shepherding the historic Civil Rights Act through Congress, banning most forms of racial segregation and discrimination. The Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, who had led the opposition to the bill.
Johnson won 61.1% of the national popular vote - the highest percentage since they started tabulating a national popular vote in 1824. Goldwater got only 38.5%.
In Mississippi, however, Goldwater got 87% of the vote.
Now, bear in mind that in those days, black people pretty much couldn't vote in the state. Because of literacy tests and other laws designed to disenfranchise them, administered by racist registrars, plus the ever-present threat of violence, the black registration rate in Mississippi was only 5%.
Johnson, after winning his landslide reelection, got the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Black voter registration stunningly went up to 70% in time for the 1968 election. Democrat Hubert Humphrey got 23% of the Mississippi vote - almost all of it from blacks - while segregationist George Wallace romped to a landslide victory with 63.5%. Richard Nixon, en route to the White House, came in third with a mere 13.5% of the Mississippi ballot.
The Republicans have been winning the state ever since, presidentially, and, more recently, on the Congressional and state levels as well. They can't get 87% of the vote any more - the Voting Rights Act saw to that. In the delta region along the Mississippi river, where African-Americans have been the majority population since slavery days, most local offices have passed from ultra-racist whites to blacks since the civil rights movement. But statewide, racist, Confederate-sympathizing whites can still outvote anyone of a different hue or persuasion.