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Analysis: Mississippi's Alice Harden was unapologetic in beliefs

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Democrat Sampson Jackson was a brand new member of the Mississippi Senate in the early 1990s when lawmakers embarked on redistricting.

There were only three black senators in the 52-member chamber at the time. More than 35 percent of Mississippi residents were black, and serious efforts were under way -- by some lawmakers, at least -- to increase the number of majority-black districts.

Jackson, who's from Kemper County, recalls he fussed when mostly black Noxubee County was drawn out of his district. He feared the change would hurt him politically, even if it meant electing an additional black senator.

Democratic Sen. Alice Harden of Jackson, a Legislative Black Caucus member with more seniority, firmly put Jackson in his place.

"She told me, 'Shut up and sit down and you'll be OK,'" Jackson recalled.

He smiles at the memory now, saying he shouldn't have been surprised that the longtime educator knew how to be stern. But he was steamed at the time: "I didn't speak to her for two days."

Harden died Dec. 6 after a lengthy illness. She was 64.

With her election in 1987, Harden became the first black woman in the state Senate. Her Jackson colleague, Democratic Rep. Alyce Clarke, had become the first black woman in the Mississippi House only two years earlier.

Harden's death leaves the Senate with no black women as members now. (Democratic Sen. Barbara Blackmon of Canton was elected in 1991 and served two terms.)

Friends and colleagues remember Harden as an advocate for education and champion of programs she believed would help women, children and people of modest economic means.

"If Alice told me she was going to support something, I didn't have to worry. I knew she'd do it," recalled Clarke, who's still serving in the House, along with several other black women.

Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, met Harden about 20 years ago through their work in the Democratic Party. In 1988, Harden was elected to the Democratic National Committee. She held the post 12 years.

"Whatever she was involved in, she gave it her very best," Harrison said.

In 2006, the Mississippi House, which then had a Democratic majority, passed a bill that would've nearly banned abortion, had it become law. Some male House members argued it would be wrong to force a girl to carry a baby to term if she were raped by her father or uncle. But even after saying that, at least two of the men voted for it.

Harden strongly opposed the measure. She said Mississippi shouldn't ban most abortions, any more than it should ban other medical procedures. Harden also said she resented abortion opponents labeling people with her beliefs as "anti-life."

"I can be pro-life and for choice, but I don't have to be for this bill," Harden said.

In early 2011, when Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant was running for governor, he said Mississippi shouldn't have to get federal approval for its redistricting plans. The approval of redistricting and other election changes is required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, because of Mississippi's troubled racial history.

Harden responded that federal oversight is needed.

"It may not be 1965, but there are those who still act as if we are living back in the '60s," Harden said. "I would like to think that at some point in our history, that we will get beyond having to submit everything that we do as far as voting to the Justice Department. But the reality of the situation is, we're not there -- not at this point, we're not."

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

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