Mississippi Republicans Charge Ahead With Jim Crow Redux

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Last week, the Mississippi Senate majority—a solidly white bloc of Republicans—voted to move forward with legislation that bears an unmistakable likeness to laws from the state’s notorious Jim Crow era.

The legislation first garnered national attention as it moved through the House, because it sought to create a new and distinct criminal justice district containing all of the whitest neighborhoods within the capital city of Jackson—America’s second blackest city—which would be overseen by an unelected and unaccountable white power base.

While the original version of HB 1020 has since been amended, purging some of its most controversial provisions, the legislation approved by the Senate still allows for a white conservative takeover of majority-black Jackson’s courts and policing. In other words, as Mississippi-based writer and activist Makani Themba told me, there’s still plenty about the bill “that turns Jackson into a colony.”

In fact, the changes to the law seem merely aesthetic when examining how the details lay the foundation for white power seizure. Yes, the expanded Capitol zone—the “city-within-a-city” proposed by HB 1020—has been scrapped, and with it, language that would have numerically expanded the ranks of the Capitol police force.

But the bill now vastly expands the same department’s powers, giving the Capitol force jurisdiction over an entire city already policed by the Jackson Police Department. That gives ultimate authority to white Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, an appointee of ultra-conservative Republican Gov. Tate Reeves.

And while the Senate bill eliminates the two supervising judgeships that were to be filled by Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph, it still tasks the conservative white jurist with picking five judges to serve in Hinds County’s courts, alongside the four elected judges already on the bench. Those five appointed jurists—three of whom would handle both civil and criminal cases, and two who would solely decide criminal matters—would ostensibly be temporary, according to the Senate statute, serving until the end of 2026. But even when their tenure is up, the law empowers the legislature—which is to say, the white conservatives who dominate Mississippi’s state house—to decide if majority-black Jackson deserves to add a permanent elected judge to its courts.

The paternalistic white power takeover of Jackson, thus, remains afoot in the Senate bill.

For at least the next three-and-a-half years, the majority-black populace of Jackson will be the only Mississippians whose criminal and civil concerns are decided by a slate of unelected judges they were never allowed to vote upon. What’s more, Jackson’s overwhelmingly black population will be doubly policed—by both the JPD and the Capitol force—the latter being a state-backed entity with no accountability to city leaders or residents, and which lacks an oversight board or established requirements for public transparency following shootings.

It’s no wonder that Arkela Lewis, whose son Jaylen was killed by Capitol police in one of the seven shootings committed by its officers over the last six months, has said an expansion of the department’s powers will “be a horrible thing for the city of Jackson, for people of color in Jackson.”

“There are definitely issues around policing without accountability and not answering to any real constituency,” Themba, who is also chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, told The Daily Beast. “There are also issues around the other precedents that it sets up. For example, when we wanted to protest in the capitol area—and oftentimes we are protesting the governor—we would go to the city for a permit. Now we have to go to the Capitol Police. What will that do to our right to protest? To our right to speech? My sense is that it’s going to be very different than what it was like working with the city around those kinds of things. So, there’s all kinds of ways in which our constitutional rights are being undermined.”

State Rep. Trey Lamar, the white Republican who penned the House bill, has insisted there’s nothing racist about the law in its original or revised form. The lawmaker has said his only goal is to drive down Jackson’s crime rate, which has increased in recent years, and to address the related backlog of criminal cases in the Hinds County’s courts. (Lamar recently pulled a Trumpian “fake news” accusation of sorts, telling local CBS affiliate WJTV that “most everybody here, including Republicans and Democrats, regardless or in spite of what the national news is portraying, are in lockstep that we’d like to see a safer capital city.”)

Lee Yancey, a Republican House member who not only voted for Mississippi’s 2022 ban on so-called “critical race theory,” but also proposed a failed bill to provide grants for teaching “patriotic education,” also spoke in favor of HB 1020, while criticizing opponents’ for accusing Republicans of anti-black racism.

“It’s terrible the way things are in Mississippi now. You basically have a white Republican Party and a Black Democrat Party, and no longer can you have a debate about policy. Every single thing is about race…I understand that people who are of African American race have a perspective that I don’t have and I try to put myself in their shoes,” Yancey stated on a local radio show. “The fact of the matter is, people are scared to go to the city of Jackson because of the crime rate, because of the murders, because of the carjackings, and something has to be done.”

Everyone wants to feel safe in their home city. But few Jacksonians seem to believe the way to achieve safety is for white conservatives to swoop in, usurp the power of the city’s elected Democratic black lawmakers and judges, disenfranchise the city’s black denizens, and send in a militarized police force.

Again and again, public safety and fear-mongering around crime has been wielded by white conservatives to seize control of cities from black lawmakers.

In St. Louis, Missouri, the legislature is currently considering a bill that would disempower local leaders, including the city’s black mayor, Tishaura Jones, allowing the state to take over the city’s police—reinstating a rule originally instituted in 1861 by the state’s pro-slavery governor. Kansas City’s black Mayor Quinton Lucas and other local lawmakers are currently trying to regain control of the city’s police department from the state, which took over law enforcement during Reconstruction to tamp down emancipated black folks’ rights.

Likewise, multiple members of Jackson’s black leadership class have identified crime as a “Trojan Horse” used by those who seek, as a white delegate of the state’s 1890 Convention put it, to ensure “white supremacy.”

HB 1020 is one of a slew of bills that would give the state authority over Jackson’s local matters. Another bill filed by Lamar, HB 1168, would dictate how the city uses a percentage of its sales tax revenue; SB 2889 would have given the state oversight of $800 million in Biden administration federal funds to repair Jackson’s water system. For now, it looks like the latter bill may be dead in the water, and the feds have appointed a manager to ensure those funds are used as intended.

But in that bill and others like it, Themba is reminded of how the Mississippi legislature often spent money earmarked for Jackson in whiter areas, without consequence. After decades of ignoring Jackson’s leaders’ requests for investment in the city, they’re now blaming black officials for the inevitable end result.

“Because of the completely egregious behavior of the state, after 50 years-plus of the diversion of funds, the folks in the Biden administration finally said, ‘You know what? If we want this to actually be fixed, we’re going to have to give it directly to the cities.’ So, this is also due to a federal system that does not have the legal and procedural accountability mechanisms in place to hold these states to what they said they were going to use the money for,” Themba said.

“If the state would allow money that is directed to Jackson to flow directly to Jackson, we’d have a whole different kind of situation. They really owe a debt to the city—they basically need to pay reparations for the money that was diverted,” she added. “With all infrastructure, the one thing that’s just a given is that you’re going to have to fix it. If we’d gotten the money on time, we could’ve fixed things on time. Now we have a situation that’s way worse and that costs more money to deal with because of their behavior. Jackson should not have to bear that alone.”

Volunteers help to carry bottles of water at a water distribution site as the city of Jackson is to go without reliable drinking water indefinitely after pumps at the water treatment plant failed, leading to the emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people, in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., August 31, 2022.

Eric Cox/Reuters

In addition to that seeming disregard, there are outstanding questions about whether or not crime and court backlogs are unique to Jackson, as Republicans maintain. Attorney Cliff Johnson, who heads the University of Mississippi Law School’s MacArthur Justice Center, told Mississippi Today that the state’s online portal, the only source for assessing caseload numbers, suggests other counties have far more pressing problems than Jackson—but there have been no bills filed to take over those cities.

“As we began running reports on criminal dockets, it appeared to us that the backlog in Hinds County was not significantly worse than many other places in Mississippi. In fact, our research showed that” other counties had more outstanding cases than Hinds, Johnson told Mississippi Today. “Our conclusion at this point is that the legislature could not have made the decision to appoint five temporary judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court based on any meaningful analysis of that court’s dockets as compared to the dockets in any other circuit.”

“From the beginning, that has been the idea driving this bill—that black folks need white oversight.”

Above all, if Lamar and his colleagues cared at all about what’s best for Jackson, they might have spoken with any black residents or officials.

Black Democrats have noted that Lamar did not solicit input from a single member of their delegation, as is standard. At a special hearing held by Jackson Democrats just last week, the black assistant chief of the city’s police, Joseph Wade, stated the meeting was “the first time that we’ve been invited to the table to discuss this bill.” Gail Lowery, Hinds County’s black public defender, testified her office had never been asked “about what our real needs are or to paint a picture about what we’re struggling with to provide constitutional protections to the accused.” District Attorney Jody Owens stated he does not support either version of the bill, because without funding more prosecutors, Jackson police or the state’s long financially-strapped crime lab—which was granted just $300,000 under the current bill—court delays will continue.

Lamar claims he reached out to Jackson’s black mayor, Chokwe A. Lumumba, but received no response. Lumumba rejects that contention.

“It simply means that my feedback as mayor of the City of Jackson just wasn’t valuable enough,” Mayor Lumumba told Mississippi Public Radio in February. “When [Lamar] talked about the reason why he thought judges should be appointed, he said ‘Well we want to get the best and the brightest.’ That statement represents that we’re just not smart enough, we’re not aware enough of what we need and what our concerns are.”

From the beginning, that has been the idea driving this bill—that black folks need white oversight. It is the only assumption that could make such legislation, and the brazen effort to install white power where it has neither been elected nor requested, seem like the right move.

Not to mention that in their haste to overthrow Jackson’s leaders and stake their claims on the capital city themselves, Mississippi’s white Republicans seem to have been willing to violate the state’s constitution, inviting lawsuits from the NAACP, Legislative Black Caucus, and the ACLU—among various other groups.

Perhaps because they have been largely unstoppable in the recent past—decades of rigorous gerrymandering and voter suppression having concentrated their power—the state’s Republicans can afford to be shamelessly transparent, engaging in what Themba calls a politics of “extraction.”

It’s a strategy that hurts black Mississippians most of all, but in the end, keeps the state as a whole at the bottom in areas from education to healthcare. This seems like more of the same.

“Mississippi has an issue with investing in its residents, in terms of the state legislature. They tend to do things that benefit a few. And it’s not just black residents they diss. They diss poor white folks, too. And they use these weird social policies as a way to curry favor,” Themba told me. “If they could just take a moment and see this place, and us, its people, as assets, and not just something to be taken apart and sold for parts, it could be a whole different reality. But, of course, they’d have to recognize us as co-residents in this state. And they’d have to see us as human beings.”

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