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The History of White Lawmakers Trying to Take Over Mississippi’s Predominantly Black Capital

A bill to create a new court system and expand Capitol Police jurisdiction in Jackson "establishes a bad precedent," a former lawmaker says.

Maati Jone Primm, owner of Marshall's Music & Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, calls proposals by the majority-white Mississippi Legislature an attempt “to disempower Jackson and its citizens, for its citizens not to have a say.” (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

Arekia Bennett-Scott didn’t expect her hometown to be thrust into the national spotlight just months after the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, resurfaced tensions over how state officials treat the majority-Black city. 

Yet, residents in the Democratic-led capital are now pushing back against efforts by white Republican state officials to gain more power over the city with a bill that Black Jacksonians say would diminish their rights.

“They’re gonna frame this as a crime bill — but it’s really an opportunity for [white] folks to control resources and for plantation politics to be at play in a real way,” Bennett-Scott, the executive director of Mississippi Votes, said. “We’re a [mostly] Black city, and there’s an attempt to control how the resources are spent and dispersed, who gets to govern and control them, and who gets to benefit from them. It’s a power grab.”

The majority-white Republican-dominated House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would create a new court system with state government-appointed judges and expand the jurisdiction of the state-run Capitol Police in a district that includes parts of Jackson.

Furious and frustrated, Bennett-Scott, along with other grassroots organizers, business owners, and members of the clergy, has formed the Jxn Undivided Coalition to band together against the bill. The group has filed a petition to demand that the bill be killed because it’s “racist” and “dangerously anti-democratic.” 

This week, more than two dozen coalition members and allies rallied outside the state Capitol. They wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Jackson vs. Everybody #JxnNotForTheTaking,” in order to “be as loud as we can be” about the dangers of the bill, Bennett-Scott said.

The state Senate, also overwhelmingly white, advanced a modified version of the bill that removes the separate court system. But it would add temporary, appointed judges to Jackson’s Hinds County and increase the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police to include the entire city of Jackson. Another Senate bill would create a nonprofit regional authority to run Jackson’s water system after the federal government repairs it. As with the new court system, white state officials would appoint members to the board.

This attempt to seize Jackson isn’t new. White state leaders over the years have repeatedly sought to control the city’s assets and chip away at Black leaders’ authority. Advocates insist that creating the new court system and boosting state law enforcement’s presence in Jackson would pose a threat to public safety and strip residents of voting and political power — and Black residents would be the ones to bear the brunt of these changes.

In other words, what we’re seeing, organizers say, isn’t only a pattern of state hostility toward Jackson but also a denial that racism plays a role in this disturbing history. For years, the Jackson Police Department, led by a Black man, has struggled with staffing shortages and obtaining funding to recruit and retain staff. But just last year, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves increased the budget for the white-led Capitol Police from $6.6 million to $11 million, partly to hire more officers. 

After Capitol Police shot at least four people in Jackson last year, residents shared concerns about safety and transparency, since little information is available to the public. They also felt that the agency targets Black people in the city; this dynamic has fueled suspicion among residents.

“When you hear mothers like Ms. Arkela Lewis talk about how state violence killed her baby, it breaks my heart,” Bennett-Scott said of Jaylen Lewis, a 25-year-old killed by Capitol Police in September. “It’s beyond HB 1020 [the bill]. It’s about rethinking policing as we know it.”

Now, the coalition is encouraging citizens to take action by signing the petition, sharing their experiences with the Capitol Police, and calling on lawmakers to vote “no” on the bill. The coalition and legal firms such as the Mississippi Center for Justice say that legal action is a possible avenue if the bill passes.

These efforts by the state government are reminiscent of the country’s history of failing to uphold democracy and suppressing Black political progress, said Makani Themba, a social justice organizer and a board member of the civic engagement nonprofit One Voice. She said that she’ll do what Black folks have always done: fight for the human dignity and basic rights of Jackson residents.

“We’re here to draw on that energy,” Themba said. “We have to understand that this is much bigger than trying to fight crime.”

Why the bill sets ‘a bad precedent’

Republican lawmakers have said that the proposals would assist Hinds County with a backlog of cases and free up the resource-strapped Jackson Police Department. But Sonya Williams-Barnes, a former state legislator and the policy director for the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the bill deprives residents of their voting rights and opens the door to future harassment.

“[The bill] establishes a bad precedent, whereby white legislators are taking control over Black cities in an effort to strip Black Mississippians of control over their own community,” she said.

According to the original House bill, the proposed court system would oversee civil and criminal cases in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, a majority-white area that includes businesses and state properties in and around downtown Jackson. Conservative white state officials such as the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court and the state attorney general would select judges or prosecutors to serve. If the bill is passed, the district would be expanded to areas north and west of Jackson.

Recently, a state Senate committee presented a strike-all amendment, removing all language regarding the district, the alternative court system, and the appointed judges. Some of the Senate amendments include appointing five temporary judges in Hinds County, providing three additional assistant district attorneys, and extending the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, said Harya Tarekegn, the director of advocacy and policy at the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm. 

The Capitol Police, which serve under the Department of Public Safety, would work alongside the city police, but a memorandum would have to be signed by the two parties. If an agreement can’t be reached, Tarekegn said, the authority would fall under the Capitol Police. There’s also language in the bill, she added, that requires people to request permits in order to protest.

Themba said that Republican lawmakers have been dismissive of the community’s concerns and have denied the right to a public hearing on the matter. This lack of care is emotionally hurtful to Black residents, she added.

“This story about the crime in Jackson is really a smoke screen. This has never been about crime. This has never been about safety. This has never been about the well-being of Jackson residents,” Themba said. “This is about money, finances, land, and other things that aren’t about the benefits of the residents of the city [or] of the state, but really a small few.”

A yearslong pattern

This isn’t the first time that race and power have been at the center of a clash between Jackson and the state.

Last fall, the Mississippi capital faced a historic water crisis after powerful storms slammed the state and quickly overwhelmed the city’s dilapidated and unreliable water system. Jackson officials underscored that, for a while, they’d been seeking outside support to help address deeper infrastructural flaws — but state lawmakers ignored their appeals.

“We’ve actually been lifting up our persistent water challenges for the better part of two years, crying out for any assistance that we could get,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said in August.

Bishop Dwayne K. Pickett, who helped to distribute water in the southwest part of the city during the crisis, insisted that race was a key driver of this friction.

“I’m convinced that if Jackson’s population contained 20% more Caucasians, that there’s no way we’d be where we are,” he said. “I think that it’s systemic racism, classism, [and] poverty at its worst.”

Jackson’s racial composition has changed drastically over the decades. As white residents steadily moved out of the capital between 1990 and 2020 and the overall population dwindled, a city that was previously 56% Black became more than 80% Black. Economic decline accompanied this shift.

Meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs aren’t only whiter and wealthier — they possess superior infrastructure.

Gwendolyn Reed-Davis, a mother of 12 who lives in south Jackson, highlighted investments in surrounding white areas such as the Fondren neighborhood and the nearby cities of Flowood and Pearl. She noted how different her community is, with its crumbling roads, deteriorating houses, and struggling school systems.

“You’re improving the areas in your city that don’t need improvements, but we’re the ones [who are] suffering,” she said.

Tensions also flared five years earlier. In 2017, Republican then-Gov. Phil Bryant considered taking over Jackson Public Schools, a district that’s 95% Black, after an audit revealed violations of more than two-thirds of the Mississippi Department of Education’s accreditation standards.

Students and alumni were furious.

“We do feel like JPS is definitely in a place where we need a lot of help,” Latoya Washington, who graduated from Provine High School, said at the time. “But we did disagree with the fact that instead of providing solutions … we’re just giving somebody else another chance to do something that we’ve already seen people fail at.”

Ultimately, Bryant decided against a takeover. He struck a deal to assemble a commission that would include the local community and chart a path toward improvement. Still, the saga was yet another example of the tumultuous relationship between Jackson and the state that stretches back many years.

As Bennett-Scott and others continue to fight what they consider to be the latest insult from the state, they refuse to let Republican officials off the hook for what they say is a pattern of racism and an inability to grant Jackson the resources to thrive.

“If they’re serious about protecting Jackson and keeping it safe, they would hear the community say, ‘This is how we would like to do this,’” she said. “At the end of the day, you want to listen to the people because they’re your employer. [Legislators] really take for granted the growing and browning electorate of Mississippi.”

On Monday, the Jxn Undivided Coalition will have a public hearing at the state Capitol, forcing lawmakers to hear directly from their constituents.

“We need to pack [the] statehouse because we have to tell people, ‘Y’all see what’s happening in Jackson right now? It can happen anywhere, and this is not by chance,’” Bennett-Scott said.