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Democracy Still Dead in the South

Mississippi’s white majority in the House and Senate slaughtered a host of pro-democracy bills this month, punctuating that the state remains the most difficult in which to vote for minorities and low-wage workers.

Certain bills must meet a Feb. 1 deadline in the Mississippi House in order to survive. If committee chairs never bring the bills up for a vote, the deadline becomes a death sentence. On the chopping block last week was House Bill 22, which would have allowed no-excuse early voting for the first time in the state, as well as HB 292 and HB 945, which would have made possible online voter registration.

Apportionment and Elections Committee Chairman Jim Beckett, who habitually kills pro-democracy bills for totally *not-racist* reasons.

Other pro-democracy bills killed in committee include HB 268, which would have finally nullified an ancient Jim Crow law created by white racists in 1890 to destroy the Black vote. Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement laws blight democracy by removing a convicted felon’s voting rights, even after they have served their time and paid their debt to society. White racists remaking the state constitution after the Civil War openly declared their intent to destroy Black political power.

Solomon Saladin Calhoon, president of the state’s 1890 convention, stated white leaders’ intent clearly.

“Let’s tell the truth if it bursts the bottom of the universe,” said Calhoon. “We came here to exclude the Negro. Nothing short of this will answer.”

Calhoon and his presiding bigots then set about erecting barriers to Black voting, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Among that list of blockades were felony disenfranchisement laws, which they designed to target “money crimes” to better corral the state’s impoverished Black population. The law leaves only three avenues for an affected felon to regain their right to vote. They can try to successfully apply for a pardon from the governor, or apply for an executive order restoring civil rights from that same governor. They can also try to convince the white-dominated state legislature to pass a bill of suffrage on their behalf, but that bill must pass with a two-thirds majority.

Not surprisingly, very few people regain their right to vote in Mississippi. Research suggests only 335 of 166,494 people who completed their sentence convinced the governor or the legislature to restore this basic American right between 2000 and 2015.

House Bill 268 would have reversed the 1890 constitution’s embarrassing stain by reinstating a felon’s right to vote “once he or she has satisfied all of the sentencing requirements of (their) conviction.” Representative Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, killed that bill in his Judiciary B Committee, however, and preserved Jim Crow in his state another year. He also killed similar bills, HB 487, HB 569 and HB 668, as well as HB 377, which would have restored the voting rights of ex-felons who are veterans.

Judiciary B Committee Chairman Nick Bain: boldly preserving history by keeping Jim Crow in the here and now.

Beckett made sure to kill all anti-Jim Crow laws in his own committee as well. When questioned, Beckett said Jim Crow laws should not be amended by bills from his Apportionment and Elections Committee, but from the Judiciary B Committee—where, of course, Rep. Bain awaits to kill them. In a stunning statement, Beckett also told The Lighthouse that white legislators still favored elements of the racist Jim Crow law and needed to reach consensus on what aspects of it to preserve. He maintained his defense even after The Lighthouse confirmed Beckett understood the law’s racists origins.

The Lighthouse: “The law was created by racists in old times to target Black people. Doesn’t it look unseemly to keep it on the books in 2022?”

Beckett: “I wasn’t here when the law was created so I don’t—”

The Lighthouse: “Right, you weren’t, but you are here now, so you can change it, right? I mean, why not?

Beckett: “Well, we got to decide on how it should be changed. There have been measures that disallow everyone that’s incarcerated to vote, that after a certain period of time one can vote. And there are measures that can change who can vote, which felons should be on a list, which felons shouldn’t. There are measures that would address the issue in multiple ways, but there has not been a consensus on how to do that. That’s all I got to say on that.”

Representative Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, who is Black, said she was stunned by Beckett’s admission that white legislators sought to maintain some aspects of an intentionally racist law.

“Both of these guys are lawyers, him and Nick Bain, too, and their party is supposed to be the party of Christianity and God-fearing,” said Scott, who perennially submits voter-friendly bills only to watch GOP leaders quash her submissions. “I think it’s also alarming that the committee itself has not held a hearing on expungement, or the difficulty of voting in the state or the number of precincts that have been closed in Black communities. Why has the committee not even met on these issues?”

Critics say the culling of pro-democracy bills makes clear the state has only been a real democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after outside groups, a host of federal lawsuits and out-of-state business interests forced white lawmakers to accept Black people as real Americans. Only 57 years of honest democracy followed more than two centuries of slavery, segregation, and then lynching and bloody terrorism against legitimate Americans due to their skin color.

Scott argued the state is not really a democracy now, either. More than 235,000 people in the state can’t vote because of a felony conviction, which accounts for more than 10 percent of the voting age population. The racist intent of the Jim Crow law is explicitly clear, having efficiently targeted nearly 16 percent of voting age Black Mississippians for losing their right to vote.

“We’re not a democracy at all because of our incarceration situation,” said Scott. “We’re overpoliced, overcharged and over jailed.”


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