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Editorial: Mississippi ‘Just Got Out of Racism,’ Says Governor Known for ‘Confederate Heritage Month’ Proclamations

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (center) appointed US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (left), whom he defended after she made a comment about "a public hanging" by accusing black women who have abortions of being responsible for "black genocide." Screencap courtesy of The Leader.

The Mississippi governor who started the practice of annually proclaiming “Confederate Heritage Month” is now declaring that his State “just got out of racism.” Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican who enthusiastically supports Donald Trump, made those comments on a January 7 Mississippi Public Radio Broadcast.

“What is your biggest challenge when you look back over your career, the thing that really tormented you?” Mississippi Edition host Karen Brown asked the governor, who will soon leave office after two terms.

“I think trying to move Mississippi forward altogether, trying to lift it up to the next level, and it’s so complicated because there’s so many issues and problems across the state,” Governor Bryant said. “Systemic poverty. We just got out of racism that existed until the 1970s. Civil wars that are still lingering.”

Bryant, a Seg Academy Graduate, Neglected Public Education Funding

Governor Bryant would know about the racism of the 1970s; he was among 10,000Wwhite students whose families pulled them out of Jackson Public Schools when the US Supreme Court ordered immediate desegregation in 1969. Bryant finished his final two years of high school at Council McCluer High School, a segregation academy. The Jackson Free Press revealed a few years ago after examining old yearbooks, despite denials from the governor’s team. 

The Citizens Council, colloquially known as the “White Citizens’ Council,” set up Council McCluer in 1969, along with dozens of other private schools across the state, to help White families fleeing integrated public schools. The Council, a notorious segregationist organization that was sometimes known as the “uptown Klan,”  pushed state leaders to implement a voucher system to use public funds to help pay for White families to send their kids to all-White private schools.

Governor Phil Bryant surely knew that history when, as governor, he signed a law that created, once again, a voucher program that shifts public education funds to private schools—which remain overwhelmingly White. Initially passed under the guise of creating vouchers to send special needs students to private schools, conservative lawmakers have since pushed to expand the voucher program, with some wanting to make it universal. A December 2018 report revealed that recipients of those voucher funds are disproportionately White.

Mississippi’s special education system, like its public schools writ large, remain severely underfunded—especially schools with predominantly Black student bodies—just one of many signs that Mississippi has not “gotten out of racism.” During the Mississippi Edition interview, though, Governor Bryant said he considered his work on education his “crowning achievement.” 

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (second from the right) poses with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump alongside U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry (left) and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Photo via Twitter.

Though Mississippi’s graduation rates and reading scores have improved, the State still lags its neighbors and much of the rest of the country in most education metrics. Teachers make, on average, thousands less than teachers in surrounding states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee, after several meager pay raises during Bryant’s tenure. 

In the Delta region, which is majority Black, schools are suffering a teacher shortage crisis and relying on untrained teachers working on emergency licenses. As teacher pay has lagged, school districts have found it difficult to recruit new teachers, compounding the effects of systemic poverty and racism. School buildings there are in severe disrepair, with some students forced to share taped-together textbooks that are decades old. So even when Mississippi isn’t funneling Black students through a “school to prison pipeline,” it’s often grossly underfunding their education relative to majority-White schools.

Systemic racism runs rampant throughout Mississippi’s government in other areas, too. Consider the State’s much troubled prison system. The State has the third highest incarceration rate in the country, within which Black people are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than White people—and given more severe sentences for the same crimes. It is no wonder that, among families burying loved ones who died in the raft of prison killings in recent weeks, most of them are Black.

How Jim Crow Remains in Effect

Consider, too, the 2019 statewide elections. Despite the fact that 38% of Mississippians are Black—the highest percentage in any state—not a single statewide candidate favored by Black voters won in November’s election, as several Black Democratic nominees lost races. All eight of Mississippi’s statewide officeholders and both of its US senators are White Republicans.

Part of that is because White voters have increasingly clustered into the Republican Party in the past few decades—especially after Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. But it is also owed to the fact that Black voters are often systemically disenfranchised, whether due to the State’s law that bars people with certain past felony convictions from voting (combined with the disproportionate incarceration of Black citizens), or due to racism-derived systemic poverty.

In 2018, Mississippi’s poverty rate stood at 19.8% for the state as a whole. Among White residents, though, the poverty rate was just 12.1%; for Black residents, it was nearly three-times that, standing at 31.3%. Multiple studies have found that, as poverty increases, voter participation declines. Mississippi’s race-oriented poverty inequalities help dampen voter turnout among Black residents.

Even now, though, Mississippi still has laws on the books that were designed to weaken Black voting power—such as an 1890 Jim Crow law that one of the State Constitution’s framers said “was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n—— from politics; not the ignorant—but the n——.” 

Just last year, the federal court determined that Mississippi had drawn a majority Senate district in a way that was meant to dilute Black voting strength, by including wealthier-than-average White voters and poorer-than-average Black voters. Beyond that district, the judge said, Mississippi has fewer Black lawmakers than its population would suggest.

The Legislature ‘Looks Like Mississippi’…?

In his January 7 remarks to Mississippi Edition, though, Bryant claimed that the Mississippi Legislature now “looks like Mississippi.”

“That is something I am very proud of,” the governor said.

That is not the case, though. While the Legislature opened its new session this week with a more diverse group than in years past, Black lawmakers accounted for just 31% of its members, not 38%. Even more starkly, in a State that is majority female, women make up a mere 16% of the Mississippi Legislature—and none of the Black lawmakers in the Mississippi Legislature are members of Bryant’s party.

Just yesterday, Mississippi Speaker the House Philip Gunn, a Republican, elevated House Representative Karl Oliver, a Republican, by giving him the vice chairmanship on the powerful House Appropriations committee. That appointment came despite the fact that, in 2017, Oliver made a Facebook post in which he called for leaders in New Orleans and Louisiana who supported the removal of Confederate monuments to be lynched.

“If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State,” Oliver wrote on May 20, 2017.

One of two Mississippi House representatives use their Facebook acocounts to “like” that sickening post, including GOP Rep. John Read—whom Gunn reappointed yesterday as the head chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Considering that the State is mostly led by White conservatives who do not have personal experience when it comes to systemic racism and poverty, it is no wonder that Mississippi has failed to tackle its Jim Crow past and introduce legislation meant to micro-target, not just “systemic poverty,” but systemic racism and inequality (as Virginia’s governor did over the past year after his history of blackface made headlines).

Mississippi, where a lot of White voters fear any public safety net system will transfer “hard-working” White wealth to poor Black people whom they stereotype as “lazy,” has also refused solutions that would benefit the State as a whole. 

Bryant has stood steadfastly against accepting more than $1 billion a year to expand Medicaid in the State, which would help save around 30 rural hospitals that are in danger of closing—and bring health insurance to an additional 300,000 working poor Mississippi families. During Bryant’s tenure, five rural emergency rooms have closed as a result of the State’s failure to expand. 

The incoming governor who will replace Bryant next week, Republican Tate Reeves, has vowed that he, too, will oppose what he calls “Obamacare expansion”—explicitly tying the idea of Medicaid expansion to the nation’s former and only Black president. Reeves, like his vanquished Democratic opponent, was part of a fraternity in college known for wearing black face (though he has denied participating). 

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who will become the State’s new Republican governor this month, spoke at the Sons of Confederate Veterans national reunion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July 2013. Photo via R.E. Lee Camp 239 SCV Facebook group.

In 2013, though, Reeves, who is currently the lieutenant governor, spoke in front of a massive Confederate flag as he delivered a speech to the Sons of Confederate Veterans—a Neo-Confederate group known for its effort to sanitize and rewrite the history of the Civil War.

Those ‘Still Lingering’ ‘Civil Wars’

If Governor Phil Bryant is worried that “civil wars are still lingering,” then it’s odd that he decided to start declaring “Confederate Heritage Month” each April at the behest of that same Neo-Confederate organization. The Jackson Free Press first reported on Bryant’s declarations in 2017. Bryant is also not among the handful of Mississippi Republicans who have endorsed changing the State flag to remove its Confederate imagery; in fact, he is known for prominently displaying it.

It is also odd that, instead of taking proactive measures to rip Jim Crow’s remnants from State law and target the systemic causes of racial inequality in Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant has spent much of his time doing things like cheering on Donald Trump’s racist border policies (like taking child refugees from their families and locking them in cages), or holding hands with pro-Brexit British politicians as they inject racist and anti-immigrant arguments into that nation’s dialogue.

It also odd that, instead of inviting the nation’s first Black president to attend the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in 2017, he invited known racist Donald Trump—turning what should have been a day for recognizing black Mississippians’ fight for freedom into a day centered around a New York scam artist who first made national headlines in the 1970s as he and his father faced charges of discriminating against Black tenants.

It is also odd that Bryant gave Donald Trump and Mississippi’s two White Republican senators, Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker, credit for legislation that made slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ home a national monument—but failed to mention Black Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson, who began working on the legislation years before either Wicker or Hyde-Smith assumed their current offices. 

When Congressman Thompson simply sent a tweet noting that he had “worked on this for 16 years” and asking for “adequate credit,” the White Republican governor reacted with rage.

“It’s sad that Congressman Thompson so desires personal acclaim that he shatters what should be a time of celebration for all Mississippians with this designation,” Governor Bryant said in March 2019. “His anger and hatred are the very characteristics that separated our people in the civil-rights era. He has become a tragic figure who has squandered this opportunity to help bring our state together.”

‘A Thousand Years of Darkness’

The outgoing governor did not show much interest in recognizing and fighting the State’s dark history in 2018, though, when he defended Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” remarks (first reported by Bayou Brief) by accusing Black women of perpetuating “Black genocide” by having abortions.

“See, in my heart, I am confused about where the outrage is at about 20 million African American children that have been aborted. No one wants to say anything about that. No one wants to talk about that,” he said, in attempt to dismiss criticism of Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” remark. 

(Though Bryant has been outspoken against abortion, he has been eerily silent about the fact that Mississippi’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the country—and that Black children are the most in danger. He has also been silent about the fact that Mississippi has one of the higher maternal mortality rates in the country—which disproportionately affects Black women).

Bryant’s forays into Hyde-Smith’s 2020 re-election campaign have not made much of an improvement so far. Mike Espy, who in 1986 became the first Black US House representative from Mississippi since the 1800s, is challenging the incumbent Republican senator in a rematch. If he won, he would be the first African American US senator from the State since 1881. Bryant, though, is vowing to do everything in his power to stop that from happening.

“I intend to work for @cindyhydesmith as if the fate of America depended on her single election,” Bryant tweeted on January 2. “If Mike Espy and the liberal Democrats gain the Senate we will take that first step into a thousand years of darkness.”

Democratic US Senate candidate Mike Espy would be the first African American from Mississippi to serve in the US Senate since the 1800s if he defeated Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in November. Governor Phil Bryant warned that his victory would begin “a thousand years of darkness,” though. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

But the governor’s oddly dramatic rhetorical flourishes fail to recognize the fact that Mississippi still has not emerged from its first 203 years of darkness. Despite the governor’s claims, this State still has a lot of work before we can claim that we have “gotten out of racism.” And until Mississippi stops electing leaders who celebrate the Confederacy but refuse to acknowledge our history of injustice—and instead elects leaders who will work to rectify those past wrongs—we won’t.

Mississippi’s outgoing governor may have “gotten out” of a Citizens Council segregation academy in the 1970s, but Mississippi certainly did not “get out of racism”—and neither did Phil Bryant.

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