Black Voices in Miss. Legislature Go Silent Again, 60 Years After the Voting Rights Act
Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi government was a race-based totalitarian regime that excluded roughly half its population from democracy. Almost 60 years later, the state remains a democracy in name only, comparable to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also shares traits with Afghanistan, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and other nations where an ideologically united minority has seized the lawmaking process and excluded a targeted population.
Killing the Nonwhite Vote
Far-right white leadership in Mississippi dominates through undemocratic gerrymandering, which packs Democratic-leaning Black voters into an insignificant number of districts and ensures white GOP lawmakers enjoy an easy coast to reelection.
“Legislators pick their voters, rather than the voters picking the legislator. That’s just the way it works,” said Hazlehurst attorney Carroll Rhodes. “When it comes to creating districts, they want to draw people who they know will support them and remove folks who won’t. It’s really anti-democratic, but that’s the current system.”
Race is the most easily recognized determiner of how a population segment votes in Mississippi. Most white people in the state vote Republican, while a majority of Black voters skew Democrat. Legislators exploit that trend every 10 years by cleaning Black voters out of Republican districts, despite the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bars leaders from packing or diluting the power of minority voters.
Federal law encourages legislative mappers to create districts with a high non-white voting age population exceeding 50%, but GOP mappers prefer to dump Black voters into a handful of designated “throwaway” districts. In the state’s current 2022 Senate maps, there are only 15 state districts with a Black population of 50% or more. That’s only 28.8%—despite Black people comprising nearly 40% of the state. Republican leaders managed this by jamming Black voters into territories like District 28, which contains a Black voting age population of more than 83%. This helps Republicans like Sen. Lydia Chassaniol by squeezing Black voters out of her district and into neighboring districts. Chassaniol then becomes immune to the political repercussion of supporting segregationist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens.
The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP filed suit against the state last December, arguing GOP alterations to the 2022 maps deny Black state residents “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice,” in violation of Section II of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The NAACP argues Mississippi’s Black population could easily support an extra four Black-majority Senate districts and at least three extra Black-majority House districts.
Black Lawmaker Lock-out
In addition to blocking potential Black candidates from running, white Republican leadership also bars remaining Black lawmakers from the state’s bill-making process and legislative debate. With their gerrymandered supermajority, GOP leaders debate critical bills behind closed doors in exclusive GOP-only meetings. It is within these secretive “House Republican Caucus” meetings—containing only a handful of lockstep GOP members—that House Speaker, Phillip Gunn corrals support for his prized legislation. Black Democrats are not included in these meetings and neither are reporters, who have been ejected from gatherings.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission, which interprets state law on public meetings, takes no corrective action on the violation and instead acts as a captured agency of the legislature that it is designed to guide. The commission recently agreed that a de facto group of GOP rulers can indeed debate and decide legislation outside of public view, if it carries the name “House Republican Caucus.”
And to further shroud lawmaking in secrecy and protect House leaders from scrutiny, the commission took the extra step of removing the House from any obligation to the public. The commission now claims state laws pertaining to Open Meetings Act do “not expressly include or exclude the House, the Senate, or the Legislature.”
“The Commission holds the House of Representatives, is not included within the definition of a ‘public body’ under the Open Meetings Act,” it declared, despite the fact the House is one of the highest publicly-elected bodies in the state, and that it creates and alters laws impacting Black Mississippians excluded from the meeting.
Vanishing Black Committee Chairmanships
Black lawmakers say Republican leadership also wields its supermajority like a brick wall on the House floor, silencing nearly all nonwhite legislative input. Republican leaders appoint important committee chairmanship positions primarily to white men, and the legislation that these chairmen favor does not reflect the opinion of the majority of the state’s Black residents.
“Look at the chairman of the committees deciding budget decisions,” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “Look at the chair of the House Appropriation Committee, the chair of Ways and Means, the Chairman of Transportation and the chairman of Public Health or Medicaid. These chairmen always have some influence along with the House Speaker and Speaker Pro Tem (pore), but there’s only been one African American in charge of a money committee, which was (former) Ways and Means (Chair) Percy Watson, (D-Hattiesburg).”
Under the all-white GOP supermajority, the highest committee appointment Watson now serves is vice chair of the Ethics Commission. Every chairman on Hines’ “money committee” list is both white and Republican. In fact, of the more than 40 committees in the Mississippi House there are only two Black legislators serving as chair. One of those chairs is Republican ally Rep. Angela Cockerham, a former Democrat, and the only Black legislator to support a GOP effort to evict Democrat Rep. Bo Eaton from his seat in 2016. By supporting Eaton’s removal, Cockerham legitimized what would otherwise have been an all-white effort to kill the Democrat presence in the House. Republican leadership has since awarded Cockerham’s loyalty with committee chairmanships almost every session since 2016. The only other committee with a Black chairman is the Youth and Family Affairs Committee, which renders no major budget decisions for the state.
“The leadership has chosen this direction and the facts speak for themselves,” Hines said. “No one has to point out that this is racial. All you have to do is look at the legislative photos. Pictures speak a thousand words.”
Hines added that House leaders also engage in a kind of “legislative appropriation” of their Black peers’ hard work. Not only is legislation authored by Black lawmakers patently squashed, but sometimes it is killed by white committee chairs and then revived under the name of a white Republican, with similar or near identical language.
“What’s most disheartening is when a Black Democrat files a piece of legislation that is narrative and needed and it dies, and then next year a Republican comes by and submits your very same bill, and you’re forced to sign on to legislation that’s actually yours,” Hines said. “A chairman can pull legislation; I have no problem with that. But when someone has a skill set that is knowledge-based and far better than what you have, they should be given an opportunity to work on legislation.”