Sen. Derrick T. Simmons during a corrections hearing Thursday, February 13, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Every Black Mississippi senator walked out of the chamber Friday, choosing not to vote on a bill that sponsors said would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools and colleges and universities.

The historic, unprecedented walkout came over a vote on the academic theory that state education officials and Republican lawmakers acknowledge is not even taught in Mississippi. Republicans hold supermajority control of the Senate, meaning they can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote.

“We walked out as a means to show a visible protest to these proceedings,” state Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said of the unprecedented action.

In 1993, Black caucus members left before then-Gov. Kirk Fordice delivered his State of the State speech in protest of his policies. But no Capitol observer could recall an instance of members leaving en mass in protest before a vote on a bill.

“We felt like it was a bill that was not deserving of our vote,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville. “We have so many issues in the state that need to be addressed. We did not need to spend time on this.

“Even the author of the bill (Michael McLendon, R-Hernando) said this was not occurring in Mississippi,” Simmons continued.

McLendon, who handled the bill during more than 90 minutes of debate on the Senate floor, did concede that he could not point to an instance of critical race theory being taught in Mississippi.

He said he heard from many of his constituents who had learned of critical race theory “on the national news” and wanted to ensure it would not be taught in Mississippi.

McLendon said all his bill does is “prohibit a child or a student from being told they are inferior or superior to another.”

He said the bill would not prevent the teaching of history and of multiple instances of racism, segregation and violence that have occurred against African Americans and other minorities.

READ MORE: Senate anti-CRT bill is likely unconstitutional, opponents say

One flashpoint in the debate on Friday is that members, based on their life history, had differing definitions of critical race theory.

In general, critical race theory is an academic discipline that explores the impact of racism on society. But many in the conservative media have said critical race theory attempts to teach white students they are inferior to minority students.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said critical race theory does not deal in facts, but instead in subjective theory. He said facts should be taught in public schools.

“Our kids need objective facts and not subjective notions of theory,” McDaniel said.

Black members said it was not supposition that systemic racism existed in America and still does in health care, the criminal justice system and in many other areas.

“We are the only state in the country that does not have a fair housing law,” Horhn said.

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, asked members why they would not listen to the concerns of the Black senators if all 14 of them were expressing doubts about the legislation. Still, no white Republican voted against the bill. A few did not vote. The only two white senators to vote against the bill were Democrats David Blount of Jackson and Hob Bryan of Amory.

“It is sad we are wasting so much time on something that is not even needed,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and son of a sharecropper.

Jordan, a former public school teacher, added, “If anybody is suffering from racism it is people of color and we feel we don’t need this bill … We are satisfied without it. What do you need it for? We have been the victims of it.”

The fact that the Senate leadership took up the bill on a Friday was surprising. Often, legislative leaders avoid debates on controversial topics on Friday as they prepare to return home for the weekend.

Simmons said African American members did not know until Friday morning that Education Chair Dennis DeBar was taking up the controversial bill. They expressed concern that the bill erases the good will created in 2020 when the Legislature voted to remove the state flag that contained the Confederate battle symbol as a prominent part of its design.

“We cannot continue to stumble into the future backwards,” Jordan said. “That is what this bill does.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.