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.