JACKSON, Miss.—Mississippi doesn't have a lot to brag about. It's the poorest state in the country and tops the lists of those with the highest rates of obesity, incarceration, and high school dropouts. The state still struggles with a history of racial violence and inequality. And it continues to be dogged by a reputation as the cradle of the white-supremacy movement.
Despite these bleak statistics and background, or maybe in spite of them, Mississippi does lead the country in two areas: It has the highest percentage of black voter turnout and of African-American elected officials. The growing black population has quietly become a powerful force in this Republican-controlled state, often blocking far-right policies that have prevailed in other states.
Last June, African-American pastors mobilized voters to help GOP Sen. Thad Cochran fend off tea-party challenger Chris McDaniel. In the state capital of Jackson, members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus have helped defeat more than 200 "anti-immigrant" bills in recent years.
As more African-Americans and immigrants move to Mississippi, leaders of the state's Democratic and Republican parties acknowledge that reaching out to minorities will be critical to political control in the state. Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents in the country—37 percent—and that share continues to grow as more African-Americans move south to retire. At the same time, the ratio of Latinos, though still small, has doubled from 2 to 4 percent of the population.
Joe Nosef, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, says one of his priorities this year is to diversify membership in the GOP, which is overwhelmingly white. One of his challenges is overcoming the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the party's most conservative wing.
"We certainly have people on the margins who use inflammatory language, and it makes Hispanic voters think they are not welcome in the Republican Party," says Nosef. "We need to change that."
In Jackson, black leaders have created a strong alliance with immigrant-rights groups. The Mississippi branch of the NAACP, labor unions, and African-American churches have framed the fight as a civil-rights issue, persuading black autoworkers and poultry workers that immigrants are not taking their jobs.
State Rep. Jim Evans, an African-American Democrat from Jackson, is one of the biggest allies of immigrants in Mississippi. He is board president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and has helped get the Legislative Black Caucus behind the issue.
"Whether black or brown or Asian, we have a common interest to be together," says Evans, who has traveled across the state to meet with labor leaders and church groups about the issue.
On a Wednesday in late January, Evans and his colleagues met with a group of undocumented teens at the state capitol to build support for a bill that would grant the students in-state college tuition. They are also preparing to block a handful of immigration-related bills introduced in recent weeks, including one that would deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants and another requiring employers to use the federal E-verify system. Evans says the measures are too similar to Jim Crow restrictions that African-Americans experienced in the South.
Change seems to happen slowly in Mississippi, and the state is still known for having the most racially polarized politics in the country. White Republicans outnumber black Democrats in state politics; both demographers and politicians say it could take decades for that dynamic to shift.
But in 2013, for the first time, the number of African-Americans living in the Jackson metro area surpassed the number of whites, according to Census Bureau estimates. Many white families have moved out of Jackson to suburban Rankin County, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is home to two branches of the KKK. Racial tensions persist here, and a group of teens from Rankin County recently pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges in connection to the killing of a black autoworker in Jackson. One of them is already serving a life sentence for the murder.
These convictions are seen as a civil-rights victory for Mississippi, considering the state's long history of racial violence that rarely led to punishment for those responsible.
"For once, the justice system has actively been engaged and accountable to a community after all the years that it was viewed as disregarding the rights of the black community," says Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP.
As more blacks and Latinos move to Mississippi, the state's racial composition might one day look more like nearby Scott County than Rankin County or even Jackson. Wooden shacks and crumbling homes surround modern poultry-processing plants in this rural county east of the capital. Poor whites, blacks, and Latinos live and work together in Scott County, and it's home to the highest concentration of Latinos in Mississippi—11 percent. Most of them are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who work in the poultry industry, plucking, chopping, and packaging chickens for grocery stores across the country. About 38 percent of residents in Scott County are African-American and 50 percent are white.
The challenge in Scott County is organizing workers and educating voters to demand better wages, benefits, and working conditions, says Johnson. He notes that many poor, white voters think the federal Affordable Care Act is bad for the state, even though it means they would get health insurance at work.
"We have perfected in this state a process to get working poor whites to vote against their own self-interest," Johnson says. "The defining challenge for us as Mississippians is to step beyond racial issues."
Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma contributed to this article