'Worse Than the Tea Party': 'Confederate Spring' Ushers in Wave of Hate

Mississippi has recently seen a barrage of right-wing bills that might have taken other states years to pass

Protesters gathered in Jackson, Mississippi, in January to support keeping the Confederate battle flag emblem on the state flag. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

In April, Mississippi passed what many believed to be the harshest law in the nation targeting the LGBT community. Signed into law on April 5th, House Bill 1523, known colloquially as a "religious liberty" bill, gives businesses the legal authority to deny their services to customers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Although same-sex marriage became legal in the Magnolia State, as in the rest of the country, following the Supreme Court's landmark 2015 ruling, HB 1523 would allow — among many other things — an LGBT worker to be fired for having a photo of their legally married partner on their desk. It also allows local agencies to deny same-sex couples the ability to adopt, flying in the face of a federal court ruling earlier this year.

After passing the bill, the state's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, claimed it was necessary "to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government." As many pointed out, however, HB 1523 wasn't necessary: The bill does little that wasn't already legal in Mississippi. Bryant's state is one of 30 across the U.S. — including Michigan, Arizona, Missouri and Arkansas — that lack nondiscrimination protections, meaning that it's legal to terminate workers on faith-based grounds. HB 1523 merely codifies the discrimination LGBT people already faced. 

But LGBT folks aren't alone in being targeted by Phil Bryant's administration. Bryant, who succeeded Haley Barbour in 2011, was reelected last year in a landslide 34-point victory over Robert Gray, a long-distance truck driver. Since Bryant was voted back into the governor's mansion, the 2016 legislative session has been a nightmare for queer people, women, immigrants and minorities in Mississippi. In a matter of months, the Republican legislature has greenlighted an unprecedented wave of legislation — a barrage of bills that might have taken other states years to pass. Given that the GOP controls both houses of the state legislature — in a state that has stacked the deck to ensure they stay there — this may be just the beginning. 

That's why the Jackson-based Coalition for Economic Justice has dubbed this year's session of the Mississippi state legislature the "Confederate Spring." Advocates say the legislative push is aimed at actively rolling back the gains made in the South since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislature's season of hate coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Sovereignty Commission; following the Supreme Court's ruling on Brown v. Board of Education two years earlier, the commission was created in March 1956 to halt integration in the state — to keep the state separate and unequal. In the Confederate Spring, time moves in reverse.  

To understand the current situation, one must understand who has power in the state and how they keep it. Mississippi is one of the most conservative states in the nation, as well as one of the most heavily gerrymandered. Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, says Republican-led redistricting efforts neutralized Democratic voting blocs in the state back in 2012. "[The GOP] packed the legislative districts that were historically black with more black voters and took [these voters] out of districts where the combination of white Democrats and African-Americans elected a pretty good legislature in the 1990s," Chandler says. By doing so, black voters were consolidated in a smaller number of districts, thus diluting their political influence.

Mississippi has the largest black population (by percentage) of any state in the U.S. Although Jackson is predominantly African-American, this massive demographic — accounting for 37 percent of the total population — is heavily concentrated in the Mississippi Delta. An estimated 34 percent of black Mississippians reside in the Northwest corridor of the state. This group, which can be relied on to vote heavily Democratic, has been extraordinarily powerful in the past. As late as 2004, Mississippi was a blue state, electing Democrat Ronnie Musgrove to the governor's seat in 1999. After gerrymandering carved up the Mississippi Delta, however, such a Democratic win would be a near impossibility today. 

Chandler additionally blames the Supreme Court's 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act for creating what has become a stranglehold on power in the state. In particular, the high court struck a provision of the 1965 law that required states to get federal preclearance in order to make changes to their voting processes. The provision was intended to prevent voter suppression and the myriad discriminatory practices common in Southern states during the Jim Crow era. "Had the Supreme Court not taken away a major part of the enforcement of the VRA," Chandler says, "we probably would not have the situation we have in terms of lack of representation" for the state's Democrats.

Following the 2013 decision, the pendulum quickly swung backward. Mississippi passed voter ID laws in 2014 requiring those casting a ballot to show identification. Supporters of such legislation argue that these regulations help prevent voter fraud, but such misrepresentation is rarely a problem. A 2012 study from Arizona State found that since 2000, there have been just ten reported cases of voter fraud across the U.S. Meanwhile, the ID requirement heavily disenfranchises racial minorities, who are less likely to have up-to-date government identification, as we've seen play out in other states: An Indiana survey from 2007 found that over a quarter of the state's black residents lacked valid photo ID, and in Wisconsin, a 2005 report showed that 47 percent of black adults didn't have the proper identification to vote.

In the wake of Republican redistricting and voter ID laws, the GOP claimed a supermajority in both houses of Mississippi's state legislature last year. Following the election, House Republicans convinced Rep. Jody Steverson, who was elected to represent Ripley as a liberal, to change parties. (In a statement, he claimed he had "always been conservative in [his] voting record.") Stevenson's flip-flop gave the GOP its 75th seat in the state House — which essentially handed Mississippi Republicans a pass to do "whatever they want," according to Chandler. He describes the state's Congress as "worse than the Tea Party."

Since convening this term, the Republican-controlled legislature certainly has been busy. In addition to HB 1523, Mississippi passed a law on April 15th that allows concealed carry of handguns in churches. Known as the "Mississippi Church Protection Act," HB 786 permits church members to carry firearms — even without a license — so long as the weapon is contained in a "purse, handbag, satchel, other similar bag or briefcase or fully enclosed case." In addition, the bill allows congregations to set up "security programs" to protect parishioners from mass shootings. That legislation, however, will likely fuel a bigger problem: A 2014 report found that Mississippi has the second-highest rate of gun violence in the country. 

In addition, the legislature has slashed funding for mental health services, libraries, education and even schools for the deaf and blind, while increasing the budget allotted to private prisons. The state legislature also voted in April to nix the already miniscule allowance ($504) given to Planned Parenthood every year. As the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports, SB 2238 would additionally "prohibit state funding from going to any clinic that performs or is affiliated with any entity that performs elective abortions." In the past, Gov. Bryant has stated his intention to "end abortion in Mississippi" and his efforts appear to be working: Currently, there's just one clinic left in the entire state. SB 2238, which is currently sitting on Bryant's desk, is one signature away from becoming law.

Equally contentious is an "airport takeover bill," one quickly sent to the governor after Congressional Republicans perused the legislation with speed-reading software. HB 2162 would wrest control of Jackson's Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport from the city in favor of a regional board. Under the current system, the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority is selected by the mayor and approved by the city council. HB 2162 would abolish the current commission, handpicked by former mayor Chokwe Lumumba in 2012. Its current team is the first all-black commission to ever be appointed to run the airport. It also would require that its members be appointed by officials from the neighboring Madison and Rankin counties, as well as by the governor. Jackson is 79 percent black, while the surrounding areas are predominantly white.

In a response condemning HB 2162, Kali Akuno, the co-founder Cooperation Jackson, explained that the legislation is designed to "[weaken] black political power, ensuring ongoing white control over the city's resources, and the acquisition of strategic property." Prior to the Lumumba commission, most of the contractors hired by the airport were white. After these commissioners were appointed, that work went to black contractors in Jackson. "It was this loss of income and the projected loss of future profit, that prompted … the Republican leadership to advance the takeover initiative," he said.

According to Chandler, there was no real reason to change leadership. "The airport is not in the red," he says. "There aren't any problems with it."

By controlling the Jackson airport, the state would also command the land it rests on, potentially fueling development that would lead to continued gentrification of the city; Chandler says the deal could push out black and working-class families in the city. That matters a great deal in a state where a third of African-Americans live in poverty, and many residents of West Jackson are living in houses that are abandoned or falling down.

Black folks aren't the only ethnic group, however, being singled out in the Confederate Spring. An "immigration reform" bill recently stalled in the state legislature that would have allowed authorities to racially profile anyone suspected of being undocumented. The legislation, known as SB 2306, would have "[authorized] all Mississippi law enforcement officers to assist federal agencies by legally detaining illegal allies." In a press release, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance argued SB 2306 would have made it "illegal to be brown in Mississippi."

This legislation appears to be in direct response to the waves of immigration that have come to Mississippi over the past decades, rapidly changing the the state's demographics. Between 1980 and 2013, the percentage of foreign-born residents in Mississippi tripled.

SB 2306 additionally blocked Mississippi from establishing "sanctuary cities," which shelter undocumented workers from being deported. There are currently no sanctuary cities in the state, but the Jackson Free Press has reported that "some cities, like Jackson, have passed ordinances that tell their police officers to not inquire as to a person's immigration status." 

Although the state Senate and House agreed on the necessity of banning sanctuary cities, the two bodies could not concur on the issue of police detainment. Chandler says many in the House were concerned it could open the state up to a lawsuit, but the Senate wouldn't pass SB 2306 without those provisions intact.

The bill would have put a target on the backs of Latinos. In recent years, research from both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that hate crimes against the Hispanic community have been on the rise nationally, as the debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch, and Mississippi is at a particular risk for violence. The state leads the nation in hate crimes.

With a Republican supermajority, Rims Barber, chair of the Mississippi Human Services Coalition, knows this won't be the end of anti-immigrant legislation in Mississippi. It's simply a matter of the right time and the right bill; the issue could be reintroduced as soon as next year. "Eventually, they'll get smart enough to pass something," Barber says. He calls the current situation the "Second Reconstruction," referring to SB 2306 and other bills like it as "neo-secessionist, neo-confederate rhetoric."

If Barber believes the current legislative push is based in the idea that the "South will rise again," a recent proclamation from the governor's office is nothing if not eerily timed. In February, Gov. Bryant declared that April will now be known as "Confederate Heritage Month." Bryant, who has declined to take on a position on removing the Confederate battle flag emblem from the state's banner, claimed the commemoration was necessary "to gain insight from our mistakes and successes." Although most of the office's official decrees are posted to the governor's official webpage, the proclamation went up on the Sons of Confederate Veterans site, a group that advocates for keeping the state flag as-is.

Mississippi is not the only state to celebrate Confederate Heritage Month — it joins Alabama, Florida, Texas and Virginia in doing so. But as Natalie Offiah, an organizer for the Mississippi Safe Schools Alliance, explains, what's notable about the governor's proclamation is that it follows a recent uptick in white supremacist organizing across the state. "We have seen this uprising in Confederate ideals in Mississippi in the past couple years — especially since Obama became president — many of them under the guise of patriotism and Southern heritage," she says. "But we all know that it stems from hate and ignorance and a fear of change." According to a 2015 report in The Atlantic, Mississippi has the second highest number of hate groups per capita in the U.S., just behind Montana.

Offiah, who also credits the "Trump effect" for intensifying white supremacy in the South recently, says there's a small silver lining to the Confederate Spring. "While these bills have shined a light on our state in a negative way, they have also moved people to do something about it," Offiah says. "People have taken to the streets, petitions are being signed, folks are getting involved in ways that we haven't seen since the Sixties and Seventies. This series of legislation is a mistake. They didn't think about who they would be activating to fight back."

Indeed, since the passage of the "religious liberty" bill, the governor's mansion has been inundated with protesters angry about the recent wave of laws.

If the weight of legislation in Mississippi feels crushing, Rims Barber urges local advocates to continue the fight. "Voter registration is critical," he says. "It's imperative that we juice people up and hope that young people come along and make a difference." Barber has been organizing in Mississippi since the Civil Rights era, when black Americans held sit-ins at lunch counters, marched on Washington and demanded their right to be treated equally as Americans. "Local people got up, fought and died, but they made things happen," he says. "They changed the world. We have to do it again."