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‘Only in Mississippi’: White representatives vote to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America

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‘Only in Mississippi': White representatives vote to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America

A white supermajority of the Mississippi House voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white officials.

If House Bill 1020 becomes law later this session, the white chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would appoint two judges to oversee a new district within the city — one that includes all of the city's majority-white neighborhoods, among other areas. The white state would appoint four prosecutors, a court clerk, and four public defenders for the new district. The white state public safety commissioner would oversee an expanded Capitol Police force, currently by a white chief.

The appointments by state officials would occur in lieu of judges and prosecutors being elected by the local residents of Jackson and Hinds County — as is the case in every other municipality and county in the state.

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Mississippi's capital city is 80% Black and home to a higher percentage of Black residents than any major American city. Mississippi's Legislature is thoroughly controlled by white Republicans, who have redrawn districts over the past 30 years to ensure they can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Every legislative Republican is white, and most Democrats are Black.

After thorough and passionate dissent from Black members of the House, the bill passed 76-38 Tuesday primarily along party lines. Two Black member of the House — Rep. Cedric Burnett, a Democrat from Tunica, and Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia — voted for the measure. All but one lawmaker representing the city of Jackson — Rep. Shanda Yates, a white independent — opposed the bill.

“Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this … where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people,” Rep. Ed Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton, said while pleading with his colleagues to oppose the measure.

READ MORE: Hinds County forces unite against bill to create unelected judicial district, expanded police force

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For most of the debate, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba — who has been publicly chided by the white Republicans who lead the Legislature —looked down on the House chamber from the gallery. Lumumba accused the Legislature earlier this year of practicing “plantation politics” in terms of its treatment of Jackson, and of the bill that passed Tuesday, he said: “It reminds me of apartheid.”

Hinds County Circuit Judge Adrienne Wooten, who served in the House before being elected judge and would be one of the existing judges to lose jurisdiction under this House proposal, also watched the debate.

Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, who oversees the Capitol Police, watched a portion of the debate from the House gallery, chuckling at times when Democrats made impassioned points about the bill. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the only statewide elected official who owns a house in Jackson, walked onto the House floor shortly before the final vote.

Rep. Blackmon, a civil rights leader who has a decades-long history of championing voting issues, equated the current legislation to the Jim Crow-era 1890 Constitution that was written to strip voting rights from Black .

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“This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again,” Blackmon said from the floor. “We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can't govern themselves.'”

The bill was authored by Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican whose hometown of Senatobia is 172 miles north of Jackson. It was sent to Lamar's committee by Speaker Philip Gunn instead of a House Judiciary Committee, where similar legislation normally would be heard.

“This bill is designed to make our capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, a safer place,” Lamar said, citing numerous sources who have covered Jackson's high crime rates. Dwelling on a long backlog of Hinds County court cases, Lamar said the bill was designed to “help not hinder the (Hinds County) court system.”

“My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar said, adding the capital city belonged to all the citizens of the state. “Where I am coming from with this bill is to help the citizens of Jackson and Hinds County.”

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Many House members who represent Jackson on Tuesday said they were never consulted by House leadership about the bill. Several times during the debate, they pointed out that Republican leaders have never proposed increasing the number of elected judges to address a backlog of cases or increasing state funding to assist an overloaded Jackson Police Department.

In earlier sessions, the Legislature created the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which covers much of the downtown, the state government office complex and other areas of Jackson. The bill would extend the existing district south to Highway 80, north to County Line Road, west to State Street and east to the Pearl River. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people within the area.

Opponents of the legislation, dozens of whom have protested at the Capitol several days this year, accused the authors of carving out mostly white, affluent areas of the city to be put in the new district.

The bill would double the funding for the district to $20 million in order to increase the size of the existing Capitol Police force, which has received broad criticism from Jacksonians for shooting several people in recent months with little accountability.

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The new court system laid out in House Bill 1020 is estimated to cost $1.6 million annually.

Democratic members of the House said if they wanted to help with the crime problem, the Legislature could increase the number of elected judges in Hinds County. Blackmon said Hinds County was provided four judges in 1992 when a major redistricting occurred, and that number has not increased since then even as the caseload for the four judges has exploded.

In addition, Blackmon said the number of assistant prosecuting attorneys could be increased within Hinds County. In Lamar's bill, the prosecuting of cases within the district would be conducted by attorneys in the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is white.

Blackmon said the bill was “about a land grab,” not about fighting crime. He said other municipalities in the state had higher crime rates than Jackson. Blackmon asked why the bill would give the appointed judges the authority to hear civil cases that had nothing to do with crime.

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“When Jackson becomes the No. 1 place for murder, we have a problem,” Lamar responded, highlighting the city's long backlog of court cases. Several Democrats, during the debate, pointed out that the state of Mississippi's crime lab has a lengthy backlog, as well, adding to the difficult in closing cases in Hinds County.

Lamar said the Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to create “inferior courts,” as the Capitol Complex system would be. The decisions of the appointed judges can be appealed to Hinds County Circuit Court.

Democrats offered seven amendments, including one to make the judges elected. All were defeated primarily along partisan and racial lines.

“We not incompetent,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “Our judges are not incompetent.”

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An amendment offered by Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, to require the Capitol Police to wear body cameras was approved. Lamar voiced support for the amendment.

Much of the debate centered around the issue of creating a court where the Black majority in Hinds County would not be to vote on judges.

One amendment that was defeated would require the appointed judges to come from Hinds County. Lamar said by allowing the judges to come from areas other than Hinds County would ensure “the best and brightest” could serve. Black legislators said the comment implied that he judges and other court staff could not be found within the Black majority population of Hinds County.

When asked why he could not add more elected judges to Hinds County rather than appointing judges to the new district, Lamar said, “This is the bill that is before the body.”

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Today

On this day in 1952

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April 14, 1952

Ralph Ellison wrote “Invisible Man” for Random House. Credit: Courtesy of Random House

Ralph Ellison's only novel, “Invisible Man,” confronted many issues facing Black Americans and became the first by a Black author to win the National Book Award.

Ellison told The Paris that Black history “is the most intimate part of American history. Through the very of came the building of the United States.”

Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Ellison's father, who loved literature, died two years after he was born. Feeling they would have a better in the North, the moved to Gary, Indiana.

Ellison applied twice to the Tuskegee Institute and was finally admitted when the orchestra lacked a trumpet player. While he studied music there, he wound up spending time in the library, where he read James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” and Dostoevsky's “ and Punishment.”

Before graduating, he moved to Harlem, hoping to study sculpture. Instead, he met author Richard Wright and wrote a book review for him. Wright encouraged him to write fiction, and he did, first with a story inspired by hopping trains to get to Tuskegee. He went on to write what Time magazine and others called one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century.

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The book begins: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood- ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

A number of characters and dialogue in “Invisible Man” came from or were inspired by oral interviews he did for the Federal Writers' Project during the Depression, the line, “I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me, understand what I mean?”

Before “Invisible Man,” many books by Black authors aimed at protest, but Ellison aimed at broader themes and ideas.

“Why is it,” he wrote in an essay, “that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?” The novel inspired a memorial in Harlem

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Legislature on track for record education funding, but House leaders could derail effort if they don’t get their way

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mississippitoday.org – Bobby Harrison – 2024-04-14 06:00:00

The Mississippi House's proud proclamation earlier this session that they had voted to spend the most money in the history of the on public education is no longer true.

Now the state Senate can make that boast — by a smidgen.

The Kindergarten through 12th grade appropriations bill approved last week by the Senate provides about $6 million more for local schools than the House proposed earlier this session. The Senate is proposing about $256 million more than the $3.08 billion being spent in state funds for the current year.

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In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will have to reach an agreement on a budget for public education for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The escalation in spending on public education is being spurred, at least in part, by the ongoing dispute between the two chambers on whether to rewrite the long-standing Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides state funds for the basic operation of schools.

House , some of whom historically have opposed MAEP because they said it provided too much money for public education, are trying desperately this session to replace it.

The Senate, on the other hand, has proposed tweaks to the MAEP and has agreed to study the issue of the formula after the 2024 session ends in May with the intent of replacing or making changes to MAEP in the 2025 session.

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House Speaker Jason White, R-, does not want to wait until next year. In an effort to entice support for his plan this session, the House proposed and touted record K-12 spending if legislators would agree to eliminate MAEP.

Instead, the Senate chose to place even more money into public education but place the money in the current MAEP funding formula. The Senate proposal also includes $50 million for a teacher pay raise ($1,000 per teacher) that is incorporated into MAEP.

On the surface, the oneupmanship on education spending is good for the schools, teachers and . After all, it could to more funds for education.

But supporters of the House plan to rewrite the MAEP say the only way they will agree to that record spending is to replace the MAEP.

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White seems to be saying education will not get any additional money unless MAEP is rewritten.

“I have clearly communicated with Senate leadership the House position that we have funded MAEP for the last time,” White said in a statement.

Of course, even though the House leadership does not like the MAEP funding formula, it is still the of the land and the primary vehicle to send state funds to school districts. The bulk of funds local school districts receive and have received since at least 2003 through the MAEP funding formula.

Theoretically, the could send all the funds to the local school districts outside of the MAEP formula. The funds could be sent to the schools based on some version of their enrollment.

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Of course, under that scenario, wealthy districts would benefit greatly. MAEP sends more state funds to poor districts that have less funds to contribute toward their schools.

The House has contended that the intent of their funding formulas is to provide even more funds than MAEP to poor school districts.

There is legitimate debate on whether the House plan accomplishes that goal. But assuming it does, it is still not the law.

So, if House leaders insisted on sending the funds to the local school districts outside of the MAEP formula, they would be doing what they say they oppose — providing even more money to wealthy school districts at the expense of poor districts.

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And, of course, if they do not appropriate any funds for education, well, that can't be very good for school .

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

On this day in 1873

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April 13, 1873

New Colfax Massacre memorial Credit: Courtesy of Heart of

On Easter Sunday, after Reconstruction won the Louisiana governor's race, a group of white Democrats vowed to “take back” the Grant Parish Courthouse from Republican .

A group of more than 150 white , members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League, attacked the courthouse with a cannon and rifles. The courthouse was defended by an all-Black militia.

The toll was staggering: Only three members of the White League died, but up to 150 Black men were killed. Of those, nearly half were killed in cold blood after they surrendered.

Historian Eric Foner called the Colfax Massacre “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era,” demonstrating “the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority.”

castigated the violence as “deliberate, barbarous, cold-blooded murder.”

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Although 97 members of the mob were accused, only nine went to trial. Federal prosecutors won convictions against three of the mob members, but the tossed out the convictions, helping to spell the end of Reconstruction in Louisiana.

A state historical marker said the event “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South,” and until recent years, the only local monument to the tragedy, a 12- tall obelisk, honored the three white men who died “fighting for white supremacy.”

In 2023, Colfax leaders unveiled a black granite memorial that listed the 57 men confirmed killed and the 35 confirmed wounded, with the actual death toll presumed much higher.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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