It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Ike Brown came out of a side door in the carport that leads to a shaded driveway at his home in Macon, Mississippi. He had an ajar LG flip phone in his flannel shirt pocket. He moved slowly down the concrete stairs and dragged his feet until he got to the middle of the driveway. He is a tall man, but stood slouching a bit to one side. Brown, 64, had a stroke six years ago.
"My daughter got the smartphone, all I want is for it to ring, let me answer," Brown said one warm and sunny day in March. "I'm old school."
Brown thinks about his birthday in the context of historic events. He was born on April 19—the same day as the start of the Revolutionary War three centuries ago—and in the same year the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. With a life seemingly destined for politics and conflict, Brown has been registering Mississippians to vote since he was 17.
In 2000, Brown began his tenure as the chairman of the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee. That body handles voter registration, voter roll maintenance, the voting process, canvassing, and certifying elections in the rural eastern Mississippi county where Macon is the seat. Since Brown's stroke, he does a lot of that work using his flip phone.
As Brown spoke about his life and work, a tufted titmouse sang in a loop from the trees in his yard. There are huge trees all around Brown's home, which has a brick foundation, cream-colored vinyl siding on the second story, and green shutters on the windows throughout. His daughter and 6-year-old grandson, whose netted trampoline sits in the grass on the other side of a brick divider between the driveway and the yard, live there with him.
For the last 15 years, Brown has returned to that house on good and bad days, including after a two-week trial in January 2007 that resulted in a historic ruling against him.
"They called it 'reverse voter rights… reverse discrimination,'" Brown explained. "Said I was discriminating against white folks."
The U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush brought a civil case against Brown in 2005 for discriminating against white voters in Noxubee County. It was the first time that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most important legislative outcomes of the civil rights movement, was ever used to benefit white people.
Back in 1965, Noxubee County was 70 percent Black and 30 percent white, but 100 percent of the elected officials were white. Forty years later, when the DOJ sued Brown, the racial demographics remained the same, but 93 percent of the elected officials were Black this time.
"The court is convinced that Ike Brown, and the NDEC under his leadership, have engaged in racially motivated manipulation of the electoral process in Noxubee County to the detriment of white voters," reads the opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Tom S. Lee.
Lee came to the conclusion that Brown had used oppressive tactics, similar to those that whites used to preserve their power post-slavery, to get Black people into office. Brown and his lawyers maintained that nothing he did was illegal and expressed outrage that for years the DOJ did not address practices that kept Black people out of public office in Noxubee until the 1970s.
"What is relevant, in the court's view, is not white voters' historical successes at the polls, but their more recent experience," Lee wrote in the June 2007 opinion.
Prosecutors clarified that they didn't believe Brown acted out of a "specific racial animus against whites" (because he has white friends), but rather from the viewpoint that Black people, being the majority, should hold all of the elected offices in his county.
Lee asserted that Brown's outward pro-Blackness, coupled with his political role, led to systemic voter discrimination. He cited testimony from county officials and residents, as well as Brown's own words in letters and editorials, including a 1995 letter addressed to "The Black Voters of Noxubee County" that prosecutors said Brown authored while in federal prison for income tax fraud. "Keep Hope Alive Vote Black in '95," the letter says.
Although Brown did not deny that the letter more or less reflected his views, he said he did not write this letter, which included a list of Black candidates who recipients were encouraged to support.
Ultimately, Brown was found liable for violating white voters' civil rights by attempting to bring in qualified Black candidates from outside of Noxubee to run against white candidates, manipulating voter rolls, tampering with absentee ballots, and even rejecting those from white people. Lee issued a court order prohibiting him from participating in electoral work through 2011, and appointed a "superintendent of elections" to oversee Noxubee's electoral process.
Reading Brown's court records in today's political climate, the case clearly foreshadowed the racially coded paranoia about voter fraud that echoes coast-to-coast in the President Donald Trump era.
We heard accusations of voter fraud from Roy Moore after he lost a hotly contested Senate race in Alabama, and before that, when Trump formed an advisory committee to investigate illegal voting during the presidential election, even after he won. Trump folded his committee eight months later, when it failed to substantiate his claims that 3 to 5 million people had fraudulently voted in the 2016 election. And you may recall Trump's accusations about votes for Mitt Romney being changed to votes for President Barack Obama during the 2012 election.
Communities of color have been accused throughout history of committing voter fraud, particularly during moments of political ascension. One case that predated Brown's involved now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was working as a U.S. Attorney in west Alabama during the 1980s when he launched a lawsuit accusing Black activists of voter fraud.
One of those activists, Albert Turner, served as the Alabama field secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, registering Black voters during and after the civil rights era. He had an uphill battle in communities with open wounds from the legacy of Bloody Sunday and Klan intimidation at the polls. Turner also had to compete with white people voting absentee. White politicians would send letters to white people who had moved away but still owned local property, reminding them to send in their absentee ballots.
Turner complained to the Department of Justice about the flood of white out-of-town votes, and the lawyers he spoke to suggested that Turner learn to use the absentee-ballot process himself. Turner attended workshops at the Alabama Attorney General's office and by 1982, Black candidates filled elected seats throughout Alabama's Black Belt region. Turner and other organizers had made voting easier and more accessible to Black people who couldn't make it to the polls.
Before the 1984 primaries, a local district attorney asked Sessions to investigate the surge in Black votes. Sessions eventually indicted Turner, his wife Evelyn, and Spencer Hogue (known as "the Marion three") on 29 counts of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit voting fraud, and voting more than once in January 1985. They were all ultimately acquitted, but theirs was a rare victory.
The Turner case was part of a backlash to the spread of Black electoral power in the South. Many organizers suffered similar persecution, like Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman. An all-white jury sentenced the women to an Alabama state penitentiary in 1981 for charges much like those the Marion three faced. Intense protest got their sentences dialed down from four to five years behind bars to a work-release program in Tuskegee instead. A federal judge overturned the ruling in 1985—the year the Marion three went to trial.
"Until the day I die, I will believe that our arrests were because of our successful political activism and were designed to intimidate Black voters and dampen Black voting enthusiasm," Evelyn Turner wrote in 2017, when Trump nominated Sessions to become the U.S. Attorney General.
Ike Brown's case also hinged on the use of absentee ballots. Lee wrote that the "most serious charge" against Brown and the NDEC relates to "racially motivated abuses of the absentee ballot process in Noxubee County" designed "from start to finish" to "minimize white voter participation."
Communities of color have been accused throughout history of committing voter fraud, particularly during moments of political ascension.
"The whole thing is they wanted to stop Black people from doing absentee ballots—that's what the whole trial was about," Brown said.
Mississippi state law specifies who can make use of absentee ballots, namely people over the age of 65, people with health issues, people with work and school demands, and members of the military. There is no early voting in the state and mailed-in ballots have to be notarized. Court documents say that Brown hired notaries and sent them into the Black communities in Noxubee County to collect ballots from voters. The DOJ alleged that the notaries had a hand in getting people to vote for the candidates of Brown's choice and that sometimes the notaries completed the ballot without the consent or knowledge of voters.
In Brown's case, the sheer volume of absentee voters also convinced Lee that something unlawful was going on. An expert witness for the DOJ testified that the normal rate of voting absentee ranges from three to six percent. In Noxubee County, the rate had been 20 to 23 percent, which "cannot happen except when you're generating absentee ballots on a fraudulent basis," according to the expert.
Brown denied wrongdoing and testified that establishing notaries in Noxubee County was part of a legitimate effort to turn out as many Democratic voters as possible in the 2002 congressional race. To this day, Brown's absentee voter program is his shining jewel. In his driveway in March, Brown said that white people had inspired him to use absentee ballots to win elections. He recounted witnessing a Black county supervisor lose an election to a white candidate once poll workers counted absentee ballots.
"In Mississippi that's all they did—white folks," Brown said, referring to using absentee ballots. "When Black folks started doing it, it was a problem—it was fraud and everything else. As long as they were doing it it was alright."
Brown's lawyer, Will Colom, credits Brown with pioneering the use of absentee ballots to turn out high numbers of Black voters in Noxubee County. Getting people out to vote on election day, especially in rural counties, can be tough.
"Ike figured out, 'why don't I get votes before Tuesday?'" Colom said. "That way, on election day itself, he could focus on people who did not vote early."
Brown calls it the Amazon Prime of voting—it's convenient and comes straight to your door, guaranteed. It's also an effective political strategy to get people off the sidelines and into the voting game. Brown only targeted the people who voted how he liked.
"If they're not in favor of what you want, you skip them," Brown said. "Let somebody else get them. But nobody else will get them. It's real simple."
Brown calls this an "art." Lee called it fraudulent and racist.
Colom recalled the struggle of preparing Brown for trial because he lacked "diplomacy," tended to say whatever he wanted about white people, and unapologetically sought to flip the power structure.
"His mouth made him a target," Colom said. "The whole perception of him being this puppet master of absentee ballots was always a fiction."
Though Brown lost his case—and later an appeal to a higher court—he takes joy in the fact that it cost the federal government nearly $200,000 to monitor Democratic primary elections in Noxubee County through November 2011. After that, they decided not to renew the terms of Lee's ruling. Things went back to the way they were. Brown had been re-elected chairman of the NDEC in 2008, and resumed his duties once the ban on his participating in electoral work was lifted.
"His mouth made him a target," Colom said. "The whole perception of him being this puppet master of absentee ballots was always a fiction."
But the voter fraud hysteria in Noxubee was far from over; Brown's case laid the groundwork for a more recent trend—purging voter rolls—that would have national implications.
In 2014, J. Christian Adams—one of the DOJ lawyers who prosecuted Brown—teamed up with the American Civil Rights Union (a right-wing Virginia-based group) on a campaign to purge voter rolls in counties throughout the South, including Noxubee. In 2015, Adams and the ACRU filed a lawsuit against Noxubee County. County officials knew they couldn't afford to fight the lawsuit, so they entered a consent decree, promising to take dead people off the rolls, strike voters who moved, and remove others who were ineligible for various reasons.
Adams had worked in the DOJ beginning in 2005; he was part of a wave of conservative lawyers that the former DOJ Civil Rights Division head, Bradley Schlozman, hired to advance his agenda. A report from the DOJ inspector general in 2009 found that Schlozman made illegal hires based on partisan views, but at that point he had left the DOJ, and now works as an attorney in the private sector.
Adams left the DOJ two years after Obama was elected president and penned a book called, "Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department." He began building a reputation among conservatives as a "crusader" against voter fraud, and would eventually serve on Trump's election integrity committee.
Brown scoffed at 2015 lawsuit Adams and the ACRU brought against Noxubee County, claiming that he had raised the issue of inaccurate voting rolls himself.
"Wasn't nothing crooked going on, people was just lazy," he said, chuckling. "Ironically, when I raised the issue, it was because it was a lot of whites that was on the book that were voting that had moved… But they didn't do nothing about it. Now when the Blacks started winning, they fussin'."
But unsubstantiated theories about voter fraud, like Adams', are having a big impact. In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio's voter purge law, which removes people from the voter rolls when they miss two federal election cycles and do not respond to a mailer asking for address confirmation. The ruling weakens the National Voting Rights Act of 1993, which protects against voter purges. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote an independent dissent saying that the ruling "appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate."
"Now when the Blacks started winning, they fussin'."
It's the starkest rollback of voting rights since 2013, when the high court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The VRA required federal oversight of states, mostly in the South, that have a history of voter suppression. The 2013 ruling nullified that requirement, giving nine states full range to make changes in voting procedures or to redraw electoral districts. Since then, states across the nation have introduced restrictive Voter ID requirements that make it harder for Black and immigrant communities to vote.
Conservatives, like the majority of the Supreme Court and Adams, believe such provisions are necessary protections against fraud.
"As to the greatest threat to the integrity of elections? There are many, but non-citizens who wittingly or unwittingly register to vote and vote in the broken registration process certainly ranks up there," Adams said in an email. Adams would not agree to a phone interview for this story and declined to answer many emailed questions about the legacy of his case against Brown, deferring to the Office of Public Affairs at the DOJ instead.
Adams now serves as President and General Counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which published the reports "Alien Invasion" and "Alien Invasion II" in 2016 and 2017. The latter made the frenzied claim that more than 5,000 undocumented immigrants were removed from Virginia's voting rolls after nearly 2,000 had cast ballots. Election law experts countered that the PILF's shoddy methodology likely led the group to count people who accidentally checked the wrong box in response to a question about their citizenship status on forms at motor vehicle departments.
A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that approximately 24 million voter registrations in the United States—one of every eight— are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito cited the study when he authored the majority opinion upholding Ohio's voter purge law. But he failed to acknowledge that the study didn't find fraud, rather mismanagement, like Brown said. Other conservatives, including a Trump spokesperson, have misleadingly used the study to make incendiary claims about undocumented immigrants casting ballots.
"I constantly hear these allegations that foreigners are voting. When you look into all the smoke, nothing's there," said Colom, Brown's lawyer. "I think [Brown] was the early victim of that hysteria."
In the center of Macon, on a Saturday afternoon showing the first signs of a Mississippi spring, the town was bustling in some pockets and closed in others. The county courthouse is right in middle of the town's main street. There was a shuttered check-cashing place to the west of it, and the Family Dollar to the east was packed. To the north of the courthouse, local Girl Scouts were selling cookies in the parking lot of an insurance business. The troop mothers knew of Ike Brown.
Taking advantage of the nice weather, people rode through Macon in souped up town cars on 22-inch rims, windows down, blasting hip-hop music with bass lines you could feel from across the street. A white, stone monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers stood in the front lawn of the courthouse, peering down at the drivers and people on the street.
A man across from the courthouse drinking a 40-ounce beer in a paper bag knew Brown, too.
"I met Ike, he cool, ain't low-down dirty or nothing," he said, taking a break from his beverage.
A 39-year-old man named Kent in a brown t-shirt and shell necklace was sitting in his car with his door open and feet on the pavement as he spoke to the man with the beer. Kent knew of Brown too.
"He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, I know that," Kent said. "He helps a lot of people get to vote. He's sickly now though," he added later.
Some women having a benefit fish-fry on the street behind the courthouse had some things to say about Brown, too.
"Ike Brown? Oh shoot, you can go to Paris and ask if people know Ike Brown—the answer is going to be 'yes,'" said a 58-year-old Black woman who declined to give her name. She didn't want to say much about him, but she did hint at the fact that she didn't care for him.
"My daddy told me if you can't say anything good…," she trailed off without finishing the rest of that phrase, deciding to literally not say anything else at all, as the old saying goes.
Brown is the antithesis of that adage. Colom said Brown used to say provocative things openly. Colom recalled Brown saying the only white people he would try to get to the polls were Mennonites—members of a Protestant sect who typically do not vote.
"I would say, 'Ike, you just don't have to say it that way,'" Colom said. "But, that just isn't Ike's style."
Not much has seemed to change in terms of Ike's manner.
Colom recalled Brown saying the only white people he would try to get to the polls were Mennonites—members of a Protestant sect who typically do not vote.
"No whites will win unless we want them to win," he said as he leaned up against a station wagon in his driveway, not far from the town center. "It ain't no discrimination, it's just a voting thang."
Macon is only 50 miles away from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the KKK conspired with police and other locals in 1964 to murder three voting-rights activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Their murder was the catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
After a nationally publicized FBI investigation, the three were found in an earthen dam on Edgar Ray Killen's property. In 2005, the same year Killen was ultimately sentenced to 60 years in prison for three counts of manslaughter, the DOJ filed suit against Brown.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act specifically "prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups." Looking at the Act in a vacuum, it does not specify which race it aims to protect. But undeniably, it came into fruition to allow Black people full participation in voting without risking intimidation or death.
Before the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression took the form of literacy tests and poll taxes that restricted registration for Black, poor, and immigrant voters, as well as racial terrorizing intended to deter would-be Black voters.
But Lee minimized that context, treating discrimination of Black voters and the supposed discrimination of white voters as equivalent. Throughout the ruling he acknowledged the systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters in Noxubee, and then pivoted to protecting the white vote.
"Thus, whereas whites were historically in power in this majority Black county, the tables have turned," Lee wrote in his ruling. "The court does not doubt that similar discrimination against Blacks continues to occur throughout this state, perhaps routinely… If the same facts were presented to the court on behalf of the rights of Black voters, this court would find that Section 2 was violated."
When Brown's lawyer, Colom, gave opening arguments, he challenged the false equivalency between discrimination against the voting rights of white people and Black people. He noted that there had been complaints filed with the DOJ about voting discrimination against Black people in Noxubee County as early as 1971 and again in 1975.
"The only time we saw the Justice Department was when whites were losing power," Colom said.
Lee declined to go into the details of those alleged complaints and instead said the court could not be certain "one way or the other" if the DOJ ever "satisfied its obligations" in responding to reports of voter discrimination against Black people.
"The only time we saw the Justice Department was when whites were losing power,"
"But even if [the government] may not have been as responsive as defendants believe it should have been," Lee wrote, "this court cannot overlook a proven violation of Section 2 against white voters on the basis that the Government may have failed to press the rights of Black voters."
Colom considers himself to be an "extreme moderate," but he agreed with Brown on some fronts, especially when it comes to race. He could not ignore the irony of Noxubee County being the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit concerning the voting rights of white people, when there were no Black elected officials until 1979. Considering that white people had had the power for, say, 200 years, he knew there would be no easy way to flip the script.
"How could you have changed the system without conflict?" Colom said about Brown's boldness.
You can tell a lot about a person who chooses to use a flip phone in 2018.
Opting out of the app world requires a certain level of self-assuredness. It means retreating from social media, news notifications, and GPS with no feeling that life could be better with newer tools.
Like Brown's LG phone, his home of Macon, Mississippi, has an undeniable old-school flair, seemingly existing in a world that time has no effect on, like many rural towns in the Bible Belt.
Except now Brown and his county are notorious. National media helicoptered in 10 years ago, filing stories about a zero-stoplight town at the center of a reverse racism federal lawsuit, and labelling Brown as "coolly dismissive" in one reporter's account, and a convicted felon in others, referencing the time Brown spent in prison for tax fraud.
"If [national media] had an agenda, they got what they wanted," Brown said. "Just the idea of a Black man, you gotta understand this, a Black man doing something the white folks [have been doing] is just off the chain—the idea of that. Because it goes against the culture."
Perhaps it's the old age, or the fact that he is still Democratic chairman, running elections and winning them, or it's the cockiness Colom described that never went away, that brings Brown to rise above the lawsuit and the other media hoopla. Or it could be that growing up in the deeply segregated South taught him to discern what fairness and power mean, and to never waver from that knowledge.
"Fairness depends on which end of the stick you're on," he said. Brown halfway broke out into the rhythm of a song before turning to go back inside the house. "Mm-hmm we got the power… It's who's got the power."