A new lawsuit against the state of Mississippi calls for the removal of what plaintiffs describe as monuments to racial discrimination, but the case has little to do with bronze statues of Confederate veterans.
The suit, filed in federal court in Jackson, challenges a section of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 that prevents people from voting if they were convicted of certain crimes. Plaintiffs argue that the framers of the state constitution, which governs Mississippi today, believed that several of these crimes were more likely to be committed by African Americans and were therefore a way to disenfranchise black voters.
Reilly Morse, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which filed the suit, said the case is the first in a 10-year initiative to take on high-profile cases to advance racial and economic justice. Attorneys for the center cited a Mississippi State Supreme Court decision from the late 1890s as evidence for their argument.
In the 1896 case of Ratliff v. Beale, Mississippi justices noted: “Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the (1890 Mississippi constitutional) convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”
At the time, these crimes included bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement and bigamy. Rape and murder were added later, but the Mississippi Center for Justice suit does not challenge those crimes as grounds for disqualification.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is the only named defendant in the suit. Hosemann’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood’s office, which typically defends state agencies in legal matters, said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
Three plaintiffs are named: Kamal Karriem, a restaurant owner and former city council member in Columbus who was convicted of embezzlement in 2005 and who has completed his sentence; Gabrielle Jones, who was convicted of forgery and receiving stolen property; and Roy Harness, who was convicted of forgery in 1986 and recently received his bachelor’s degree in social work from Jackson State University.
The suit alleges that the state’s felon disenfranchisement has both discriminatory intent and impact toward African Americans.
“We think it’s very important as part of the ongoing effort in Mississippi and elsewhere to remove the vestiges of white supremacy not only from our town squares, but from our laws,” said Rob McDuff, one of the lawyers on the case, “and from the legal system and to try to get closer to the goal of allowing people to participate in the democratic process without having to deal with the legacy of racial discrimination.”
McDuff estimates that about 50,000 Mississippians are barred from voting because of a disqualifying conviction. In Mississippi, if a person is convicted of a disqualifying crime, it takes an act of the Legislature to restore his or her voting rights.
During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers approved six such bills.