MACON, Miss., Dec. 28, 2005 — -- In overwhelmingly black and Democratic Noxubee County, Miss., everybody knows local Democratic Party Chairman Ike Brown.
Officials at the U.S. Justice Department know Brown too; they're suing him.
Using the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the government has alleged that Brown and local elections officials discriminated against whites. It is the first time the Justice Department has ever claimed that whites suffered discrimination in voting because of race.
"When I read the letter, it was junk, you know, bogus," Brown told ABC News.
The Justice Department says Brown and local elections officials disenfranchised whites -- challenging their voting status, rejecting their absentee ballots and telling voters to choose candidates according to race.
Brown says he has merely tried to keep white Republicans from voting in Democratic primaries. He says the lawuit is all political -- an attempt to discredit him because the Democratic Party in eastern Mississippi has been doing so well at bringing new voters to the polls, which may mean someday soon that Mississippi, a red state, could turn blue.
"The Justice Department's become an arm of the RNC," Brown said.
The Justice Department would not comment, but county prosecutor Ricky Walker is a potential witness for the government. Walker was surprised when Brown recruited a black candidate who didn't even live in the county to run against him. Walker, after all, is a Democrat.
"Mr. Brown seems to favor black candidates," Walker said. "He's always encouraged blacks to vote strictly for the black candidates."
Brown is unapologetic.
He says some local white Democrats aren't "true" Democrats.
"We support the black candidates because we're sure they're going to vote in the liberal interest," Brown said.
The case takes on added complexities given the state's turbulent history during and after the civil rights era, especially those struggles having to do with voting. Mississippi is where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered, as were the three civil rights workers looking to register blacks to vote, as depicted in the film "Mississippi Burning."
The president of the Mississipi NAACP, Derrick Johnson, says there is still plenty of discrimination against black voters in the state, and he questions the Bush administration's priorities in bringing this suit.
"We've had several issues over the years of what appeared to be racial discrimination against black voters and the Justice Department has yet to come in and do a thorough investigation," Johnson said. "And for them to take on this case is highly unusual and very suspect."
But others in the civil rights community take a more circumspect attitude in the case against Brown.
"Voting is precious. It's a right that people sacrificed for for years and years," said Leslie Burl McLemore, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. "There is a way to encourage participation, and it can be done without having to discriminate against another set of voters."
Like so many things in Noxubee's Macon community, opinions about the case divide along racial lines. Residents opined at Geneva's Kitchen, a local restaurant, over soul food and sweet tea.
"I think Ike's a pretty good man," local resident Alonzo Phillips told ABC News.
"I guess he do target, you know, the Republicans, and they are white. Most of them," said Geneva, the restaurant's owner.
On Main Street, whites express different sentiments: "I think Ike Brown is a racist," said a white man.
"I think we're getting a little dose of our ancestors' medicine, if you want to know the truth," said another.
Those ghosts from civil rights battles past have never left Noxubee County, and they continue to influence the way the case against Brown is viewed. But guilty or innocent, the Justice Department wants this case to be about Brown, not the state's historical disenfranchisement of black voters.