Earlier this month, white representatives in the Mississippi House approved a bill to create a new district—that includes all of the majority-white neighborhoods in Jackson, a capital city that is 83 percent Black. This includes creating a criminal justice system for the district, overseen by an all-white power base.
Under House Bill 1020, the white conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would handpick the new district’s two supervising judges; its prosecutors and public defenders would be chosen by the state’s white Republican attorney general.
The zone would be policed by an expanded Capitol Police force, led by the current white police chief, and supervised by the state’s white Public Safety commissioner. Because all the district’s officials would be appointed instead of elected, Jackson’s majority-Black citizenry would have no voting rights on the matter—making it Mississippi’s only jurisdiction where, according to the ACLU, “unelected judges and prosecutors have jurisdiction over criminal and civil law matters”—although 12 percent of their sales taxes would be redirected to help pay for it all.
“It’s oppressive because it strips the right of Black folks to vote,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said, after the bill cleared the House. “It’s oppressive because it puts a military force over people that has no accountability to them. It’s oppressive because there will be judges who will determine sentences over people’s lives. It’s oppressive because it redirects their tax dollars to something they don’t endorse nor believe in.”
State Rep. Trey Lamar, the white Republican who sponsored the bill, lives in and represents a majority-white district more than two hours away from Jackson. (He holds a seat once held by his grandfather, Leon Hannaford, whose legacy includes introducing a 1962 bill to tighten residency requirements for college students, which a local paper at the time reported, “would have kept Negro James Meredith from filing suit to enter the University of Mississippi.”) In various statements on the House floor and in an op-ed from last weekend, the legislator has insisted that HB 1020, by adding unelected judges to Hinds County’s courts, will help clear up lengthy case backlogs, while an expanded Capitol Police force will address a spike in crime in Jackson, allowing his constituents to “feel safe when they come” to the capital.
Calling the bill “racially neutral,” he suggested Jackson’s Black elected representatives, who overwhelmingly rejected the legislation, have “used race” as some kind of political maneuver, and has even gone so far as to accuse those same black officials of “incompetence in leadership.”
If it’s not already obvious already, there’s really only one way to describe an effort to create a white political stronghold in America’s second blackest city, where the Black majority is subject to taxation without representation—and that is, “trying to pull a Jim Crow.”
But it’s not just the top-down white supremacist power structure the bill proposes that begs the Jim Crow comparisons. It’s also the overtly racist subtext needed to justify the idea that white power is the natural “solution”—an assumption so frequently made, it’s recognizable between all those lines of “racially neutral” language. (At the suggestion of an amendment to ensure his bill’s unelected judges at least be from Jackson, Lamar suggested the search not be limited to the majority-Black city, asking, “Do we not want our best and brightest sitting in judgment?”)
Black House Democrats rightly compared the bill to Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, which was drafted explicitly to “exclude the Negro” from voting through sinster methods of Black disenfranchisement. But the toppling of Reconstruction, in Mississippi as elsewhere, was also driven by the white supremacist assumption of Black incompetence, intellectual unfitness, and innate inadequacy, ideas fabricated to cast Black folks as incapable of leading. One Mississippi delegate would later write that the goal of the state’s constitutional convention had been “to adopt some provision in our organic law which would serve to the State a good and stable government, freed from…negro rule from which we had suffered” and to “remove from the sphere of politics in the state the ignorant and unpatriotic negro.”
For nearly a century, the white racist recollection of Reconstruction would redact and overwrite history, smearing Black leaders as inherently unfit to hold office, and falsely portraying the reestablishment of absolute white authority as a necessary intervention and saving grace.
Perhaps this history is lost to Mississippi’s current white legislators, but that seems unlikely considering the effort they’ve put into scrubbing it from textbooks. (Ditto the fact that “no Black official has held” any of the designated shot-calling positions—attorney general, chief justice of the Supreme Court—nor “any statewide elected office since the brief period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, which ended due to white terrorism to block Black voting power,” the Mississippi Free Press reported.)
Mississippi Today reports that during the four-hour debate over the bill, as “Black House members were doing all they could to plead with the humanity of their GOP colleagues, a large number of Republicans left the House floor altogether for a majority of the debate, reappearing from the back halls of the Capitol to cast a final ‘yea’ vote.” Lamar, apparently indifferent, “sat behind the well and scrolled his phone.”
And yet, Lamar keeps saying that HB 1020 is a “good faith effort at helping the people” of Jackson and Hinds County, but it sure seems like the same tired narrative of the “civilizing” power of whiteness being used to save “uncivilized” Blackness from itself.
What’s more, this sudden compulsion to help by takeover—framed almost as charitable giving, in debate over the bill—comes after years of apparently feeling unmoved. Both Lamar and Gov. Tate Reeves used the language of “incompetence” when indicting Jackson’s Black leaders about the recent water crisis, but Jackson’s leaders had already pleaded for funds from Mississippi’s legislative supermajority, only to be repeatedly shortchanged. Jackson city schools have long been underfunded, an issue that was exacerbated by 2013’s Charter Public Schools Act, but instead of correcting the problem, a takeover was again proposed as a logical solution. And during this legislative session, instead of organizing a hostile takeover, the legislature could vote to expand Medicaid, which would do far more to aid Black Jacksonians than stripping their voting rights could even pretend to. But so far, Mississippi’s legislative majority seems uninterested in providing that sort of help.
Makes you wonder where the ineptitude truly lies.
If HB 1020 isn’t an attempt at a “land grab,” as Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon called it, then why does the bill not simply seek to fund more permanent elected judges to Hinds County and Jackson’s courts, instead of diverting tax money to a whole new district? If criminal cases have surged in tandem with Jackson’s crime surge, thus creating the backlog that Lamar wants to address, then why are the unelected judges of HB 1020 also going to be handling civil cases, to re-pose another question from Blackmon? (Especially since, in his op-ed self-defense, Lamar notes that Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owen stated that “our current judges are working really hard, but they have half civil and half criminal dockets.”)
Mississippi’s crime lab has been underfunded, understaffed, and under-equipped for years—contributing to backlogs in Jackson’s courts and all around the state—and yet Lamar’s bill does nothing to address long-standing appeals from lab staffers to address any of those issues. Overlooking these problems doesn’t seem like a good way to address Jackson’s criminal court case backlogs, unless what you were really trying to do was to create yet another entrenched white power system in the state.
Mississippi’s Capitol Police officers reportedly shot more people in 2022 than any other Mississippi law enforcement department, with the most recent shooting occurring in December. The department’s fatal police shooting of 25-year-old Jaylen Lewis in September is still under investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. At a meeting between the police chief and public safety officers, Black residents expressed concerns that Capitol officers don’t know “how to deal with Black people in Black neighborhoods,” and fears that most of the force’s officers are from counties “known for their racial prejudice.”
While the new Capitol District will still be majority Black, it will also include 80 percent of Jackson’s white residents, and guess whose property rights will be prioritized over all else, including certain folks’ lives? Nevermind Capitol Police lack an “oversight board or standard requirements around transparency of reporting regarding officer-involved shootings,” as Jackson-based organizer Makani Themba wrote for The Nation.
Just as Lamar wants his constituents to “feel safe when they come” to the capital, Black Jacksonians want to feel safe, too, both from crime and from over-policing. It’s a concern the legislator blithely dismissed by stating, “if you’re not committing crimes in Jackson, you really don’t have anything to worry about.”
That’s quite a statement from someone with deep roots in a state notorious for creating the first Black Codes, having the most racial terror lynchings, having a Senate that voted to ship its Black residents to Africa at the late date of 1922, which created the first White Citizens’ Council, which removed the Confederate flag from its banner in 2020, and which attempted to ban the teaching about all of those things with a bill that erroneously calls it “critical race theory.”
In 2023, the Mississippi House passed a bill that would essentially resurrect Jim Crow; now that proposed law will head to the Senate, where Republicans also retain majority power. Perhaps Mississippi will become the first state to so openly reinstate Jim Crow, extracting Black power in every form it can, yet again. And others will undoubtedly follow.