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Mississippi Republican legislative leaders don’t have to listen when their Black colleagues tell them that they’re stripping voting power from Black Mississippians.
They don’t have to listen when they’re told that they’re passing a bill that is bound for yet another federal court battle, that they’re stoking racial division across the state, that they’re once again drawing horrible national attention, that they’re dragging Mississippi back in time.
Republicans have carefully created for themselves a legislative body with virtually unlimited and unchecked power. It allows them to completely shut people who don’t look like them or think like them out of the legislative process, and they often use it to pass legislation that stretches the limits of democracy.
This is no accident. Over the past 30 years, as Mississippi’s electorate shifted from the Democratic to Republican Party, Republicans used their newfound power to strategically redraw legislative districts and give themselves supermajority control of both the Senate and House. They can, without any say whatsoever from Democrats, pass any bill they want. Inside the Capitol, a small handful of GOP leaders have drawn up rules that give them all the power, and rank-and-file legislators — including the vast majority of Republican legislators — wield little influence over what passes or fails.
Democrats, meanwhile, the party of the overwhelming majority of Black Mississippians, have no voting power at all inside the Capitol. They can give impassioned speeches at the wells, they can stretch debates to four-plus hours, they can walk off the floor to protest racist bills, they can hold fiery press conferences, but they cannot stop Republicans from passing any single piece of legislation.
There is almost never partisan compromise. There is rarely genuine debate. There is plenty of one-sided control.
With this power, Republicans have passed all sorts of legislation the past couple years despite vocal pushback from Black lawmakers: a critical race theory ban, which famously led every Black senator to walk off the floor in protest before the final vote; tighter legislative and congressional redistricting maps that diluted Black voting strength; the nation’s strictest voting laws in a state with a sordid, racist history; massive tax cuts that disproportionately affect poor and Black taxpayers; and anti-LGBTQ legislation that threatens the lives of a vulnerable population.
But perhaps no legislation better showcases the unilateral GOP control under the dome better than House Bill 1020, which passed the House late in the evening of Feb. 7.
Yes, the national headlines you read last week were accurate: A mostly-white House supermajority passed a bill that would create a completely white-appointed judicial district and expand the police force within the whiter areas of Jackson, the Blackest large city in America.
For more than four hours, Black House members delivered what should be certainly considered some of the most cautionary and impassioned speeches ever made in the Mississippi State Capitol building. Many of their comments echoed ones made by their predecessors in the building and civil rights leaders of 60 years ago.
Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton: “Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this, with our history, where you say solving the problem is taking the vote away from Black people because we don’t know how to choose our leaders … This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again. We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can’t govern themselves.'”
Rep. Solomon Osborne, D-Greenwood: “I don’t even know why I’m down here, frankly, because it’s like being at a Klan rally with people with suits on. That’s the only difference I see between these people here. They wear suits rather than sheets … Every day we get up here and open this body with prayer. I wonder what God are these people praying to?”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville: “Again, we end up being the laughingstock of America because of what we do here today.”
While 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. House Speaker Philip Gunn sat on the speaker’s dais leaned back in his chair with his legs crossed, talking regularly with various Republicans who came to visit with him. Rep. Trey Lamar, the GOP leader who authored and defended House Bill 1020 on the floor floor, sat behind the well and scrolled his phone.
They didn’t seem to listen to what their Black colleagues were saying. They didn’t have to.
Now the bill moves to the Senate, in recent years the more moderate of the two chambers. But it’s an election year, and Republicans believe nothing seems to motivate Republican voters more than being “tough on crime.” And this is Mississippi, so being tough on crime in the Blackest city in America is probably not the worst thing for Republicans who want to go home and flaunt their GOP bonafides.
Considering legislative Republicans have passed legislation in recent years that they knew would face federal lawsuits to hopefully draw the attention and reforming action of the U.S. Supreme Court — remember Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization? — it’s difficult to write off anything that moves through the Mississippi State Capitol.
Meanwhile, the Republican supermajority rolls on for at least six more weeks this session. And if you’re hoping political change is on the horizon, there’s more bad news. According to a recent Mississippi Today analysis of this year’s legislative elections, there’s no possible way the GOP will lose control.
For at least four more years, the current trajectory of policy making in Mississippi could very well continue.