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Black Residents Liken Mississippi’s New Court System to Modern Day Slavery

An appeals court says Mississippi can move forward with its state-run court system in the majority-Black capital city.

The Mississippi State Capitol Building is pictured in Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson, Mississippi, resident and organizer Rukia Lumumba is frustrated with a recent federal appeals court decision that allows Mississippi to move forward with its separate, state-run court system in her hometown.

Backed by a mostly white, Republican-controlled Legislature, Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law last year HB 1020 and SB 2343, which respectively establish a separate judicial system and increase police presence in the majority-Black capital city.

Lawmakers claimed the bills would reduce crime in Jackson. But, organizers like Lumumba, the executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, say it’s an attempt to undermine the authority of the Black leadership and voting power of residents.

The NAACP filed a lawsuit last year seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the court plan, but U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate denied the request in a Dec. 31 decision, a day before the law was set to go into effect. He wrote that the plaintiffs failed to establish injury or standing.

“The individual Plaintiffs in the case … residents of and registered voters in Jackson, Mississippi … allege that they ‘are threatened with prosecution and conviction,’” Wingate wrote. “None of the Plaintiffs has alleged that he or she is in actual or imminent danger of experiencing any concrete and particularized injury resulting from the establishment of the CCID Court or the challenged appointment of a judge or prosecutors for that court.”

Following the ruling, the NAACP filed an appeal with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted a temporary stay that blocked the court’s opening. But on Jan. 4, the three-judge appeals panel upheld Wingate’s decision in a unanimous vote, vacated the temporary administrative stay, and denied a request for injunction, ruling the plaintiffs lack standing.

“For the court to legitimize a bill that essentially allows for direct and systematic discrimination based on race and class to be established … it’s extremely problematic,” Lumumba told Capital B. “It exposes why it is so important that community members be afforded an opportunity to participate fully in the legislative process every year.”

Now, advocates and civil and voting rights organizations fear this decision will not only create a road map for other states to implement similar legislation, but increase discriminatory acts, displacement and racial profiling toward Black people.

“This ruling speaks to a time-old story of white privilege and power silencing Black voices and degrading Black presence,” Kyle Bibby, the chief of campaigns and programs at Color of Change, said in a statement. “In 2023, Texas Republicans passed House Bill 2127, stripping significant powers of self-governance from liberal cities to push a statewide conservative agenda.”

The Texas bill, which Democrats nicknamed the “Death Star” bill because of its wide-ranging scope, is primarily about control, one political analyst told the Associated Press. Touching everything from labor to agriculture, it prevents local governments from implementing policies that don’t comply with state law.

Bibby added that he doesn’t expect this “trend of neglect” to slow down anytime soon, because “our democracy is so closely intertwined with the disregard of Black communities” — Black communities whose voting strength terrifies Republican power structures.

Danyelle Holmes, organizer and executive director of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, referenced the previous attempts by state lawmakers to take over the city’s assets and increase the presence of white Capitol Police officers over the majority-Black city. Already, residents have voiced concerns around safety and transparency when Capitol Police officers shot at least four people. Despite this, the governor has increased the Capitol Police’s budget while the Jackson Police Department, which is led by a Black man, has struggled to obtain funding from the state.

“We’ve seen the attempt where they tried to create a city within a city in order to protect the elite while leaving those that are less fortunate than the elite unprotected. This move has nothing to do with public safety, but everything to do with racism — with modern day slavery,” Holmes said. “Mississippi is going back to what they used to call back in the day a closed society. There’s an attempt to gentrify Jackson, and it’s clear the goal here is to displace poor and low wealth individuals, and make this city some sort of resort city in a city that wants to look like what it once was when it was predominantly white.”

These strategies by Republicans nationwide to secure power and exert their conservative will over Black communities is also “a very dangerous precedent” and denies the Black vote and Black power, said April Albright, legal director and chief of staff at Black Voters Matter.

It is important for Black communities to “be on watch” and create their own blueprint for how to respond to such attacks.

“Yes, the 5th Circuit made its decision, but they shouldn’t stop there and take it higher to try to get a reversal. People also have to make their disgust known by going to statehouses and determine how to get more power in the statehouse,” Albright said. “We have to organize so we can wield power.”

Stripped of Political Power

This latest struggle over the state-run court comes at a moment when Mississippi is already embroiled in several other voting rights controversies.

On Jan. 23, the full 5th Circuit will rehear a case about a state Jim Crow-era provision that permanently bans from voting people convicted of certain felonies.

A three-judge panel in August struck down the provision, which was adopted in 1890 in order to keep Black Americans from the franchise. The majority said that “severing former offenders from the body politic forever” only “ensures that they will never be fully rehabilitated, continues to punish them beyond the terms their culpability requires, and serves no protective function to society.” But the 5th Circuit in September vacated this decision when it agreed to revisit the case.

And last November, voters in Hinds County were outraged to learn that multiple voting precincts ran out of ballots on Election Night. The issue was so severe that a judge ordered the county to keep the affected precincts open late.

Civil rights advocates and the Hinds County Election Commission continue to have conversations about how to remedy this issue as voters in Mississippi and beyond prepare for an important election year.

Despite the new court system, Holmes says opponents will continue to fight legally to the Supreme Court.

“We will not lie down and take these blows that are being dealt by conservative leadership in the state of Mississippi,” she said. “[The ruling] shows blatant racism and disrespect for Black people’s blackness and humanity. These continuous attempts of hate that are being spewed at us — we’re going to fight back.”

Beyond this, Lumumba added that she and other organizations will continue to push for legislative change to make the bill no longer enforceable, hold community meetings to keep residents informed, and challenge the state appropriations for the new court.

“Most importantly, we’re going to be pushing for our ballot initiatives process [which allows residents to vote on amendments to the constitution] to be reinstated because we know that when the community is involved in making decisions about our welfare, we do a better job, oftentimes, than our state legislature when they act alone,” she said.

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