After both chambers of the Legislature completed work on agency funding bills, eleven black legislators took to the House floor for more than 90 minutes about Rep. Karl Oliver’s recent lynching comments, which they called embarrassing and hurtful to fellow members, his constituents, and residents of Mississippi.
Reps. Chris Bell, Oscar Denton, John Hines, Kathy Sykes, Rufus Straughter, Adrienne Wooten, Bryant Clark, Jarvis Dortch, Alyce Clarke, Sonya Williams-Barnes, and Robert Johnson each took personal points of privilege—speeches legislators are allowed to make when they believe they have been wronged—to condemn Oliver’s post and share personal experiences with race and racism.
In May, Oliver, a Winona Republican, wrote in a Facebook post that Louisiana leaders removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans “should be LYNCHED!” He was reprimanded by Speaker Philip Gunn and issued an apology.
All of the legislators who condemned Oliver’s post were African American. Some of them shared stories about friends and relatives who were lynched, beaten, or harmed in race-fueled altercations. Others lambasted Oliver’s decision to put his private thoughts on a very public platform and damage Mississippi’s reputation in the process.
Oliver apologized in person to some legislators Monday, but on Monday night, Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said that apology was “garbage.” Bell said that while many of his colleagues see Confederate symbols as monuments of heritage, he sees them as symbols of hatred and divisiveness.
“We need to do better,” he said. “We need to all rise up and change what the outside world thinks of Mississippi.”
Several lawmakers filed resolutions to expel or force Oliver to resign, but the House considered none of them. A similar resolution was filed in the Senate, which also declined to act.
“This body looks bad,” said Denton, a Vicksburg Democrat, referring to the House. “All of us look bad. It’s fine for myself and other black members to come to this well to speak against this, but it don’t just affect black people. This affects the state of Mississippi.”
Some representatives used their time on the floor to read aloud the names of lynching victims in Mississippi. Rep. Sykes told the House she had a family member who was lynched.
“He beat him, shot him, and tied him to the back of a truck and drug his body around the town square til it was ripped apart,” Sykes said of her family member. “This is very real to us.”
Others, like Rep. Adrienne Wooten, stressed that the gravity of Oliver’s language was not something to be brushed aside or taken lightly.
“Let me be frank with you all,” Wooten said. “This is not a light issue. You all would like for us to say, ‘It was just a word that he said. He didn’t mean it.’ You just heard the history of this state. It’s not just a word.”
Throughout the speeches, Oliver sat in his chair expressionless and listened to his colleagues, occasionally chewing gum.
Lawmakers on the floor were generally attentive while fellow members spoke at the podium. About a third of the seats appeared empty, the mood serious. Some lawmakers looked down at their phones for the majority of the time; others couldn’t look away from the speakers at the podium. A few walked the floor—some during the speeches—grabbing cups of water or coffee.
Earlier Monday, Williams-Barnes introduced a resolution to expel Oliver through a House vote. Later, in an interview with Mississippi Today, she said she found a copy of the resolution shredded on her desk, which she addressed on the House floor.
“Today there was a coward…who was not brave enough to face me face to face,” she said. “You took that resolution and you tore it and you left it in small pieces on my desk. Be a man. Be a woman.”
Williams-Barnes went on to suggest that the callousness of Oliver’s lynching comment might be evidenced in policy positions taken by the state’s political leadership.
“It would be sad to think that our colleagues and other leaders hold some of these views and make decisions based on the silent or vocal ideology that poor equals black, and blacks should be lynched—lynched by cutting healthcare, lynched by not expanding Medicaid, lynched by not fully funding public education.”
“What is our state overlooking and not addressing? Race relations continues to be the big pink elephant in the room,” she added.
Oliver told Mississippi Today he had no comment when asked about the speeches after the House adjourned.