Mere days after the NAACP sued Mississippi state officials over two new laws the civil rights organization says are discriminatory, three Jackson residents are following a similar course, arguing in a lawsuit filed on Monday that one of the laws is a violation of the Mississippi Constitution.
“State lawmakers have said that this takeover of our judicial system is for our own good, for our own safety, and that is deeply offensive to me,” Ann Saunders, a 72-year-old plaintiff, said in a statement. “African Americans in Mississippi died so that we could vote. How does weakening the right to self-governance make us safer?”
Despite months of pushback, Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Friday signed into law HB 1020 and SB 2343, which respectively establish a separate judicial system and increase police presence in the state capital.
White Republican lawmakers claim that these steps are needed to reduce crime in the predominantly Black city. But residents are skeptical.
Makani Themba, a social justice organizer and a board member of the civic engagement nonprofit One Voice, told Capital B that the narrative about crime is a deflection: For the past two years, overall crime in Jackson has declined by nearly 30%, though data remain questionable from a department facing limited funding and shortages, according to WLBT.
Themba added that state Republican lawmakers haven’t introduced policies to address crime — rather, they just criticize the work of Black leadership.
“They’re not interested in investing in what has worked to bring crime down, because the things that have brought crime down in Jackson have been about intervening with folks who have mental health issues and supporting communities around conflict resolution and giving kids things to do,” she said. “Here’s this governor who cut money for parks [and] investments in infrastructure for this community. They know the relationship between that and violence. This is why they try to take the money that’s supposed to be allocated to Jackson to put in their own communities.”
Themba and other advocates underscored that the laws will grant white state officials control over the city’s assets and strip residents — particularly Black residents — of voting and political power. In his 2023 budget bill, Reeves vetoed 15 line items, with a majority of the funding lost earmarked for projects in Jackson.
“Republicans have so gerrymandered the state to dispossess most Black people of their vote and their representation that they [Republicans] aren’t accountable to us,” she said. “That’s what’s driving this process. They’ve operated with intention and malice against the Black people of this state, and they act like it’s something heroic. They act like we aren’t even human beings worthy of representation — and that’s heartbreaking.”
The legislation will also chip away at Black residents’ security, Arekia Bennett-Scott, the executive director of Mississippi Votes, previously told Capital B.
“What they’re actually doing is creating an unsafe, hostile environment for Black people,” Bennett-Scott said. “It’s undermining not only the power of the people, but the city’s leadership as a whole.”
HB 1020 creates a new court system with state government-appointed judges, and specifically allows white state leaders, such as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, to select judges. The court system is set to open on January 1, 2024. In addition, the law establishes a separate 911 emergency system.
SB 2343 grows the jurisdiction of the state-run Capitol Police in a district that expands to include the entire city of Jackson. The law goes into effect after July 1.
The Jackson plaintiffs are asking the Chancery Court of Hinds County to block the implementation of HB 1020, arguing that the requirement to appoint judges to the Hinds County Circuit Court violates the state constitution, which requires that such judges “shall be elected.” They also say that the new court system lacks judicial authority.
Cliff Johnson, the director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, highlighted the antidemocratic nature of the state’s actions.
“If the supporters of HB 1020 really wanted to help Jackson and its citizens, they could have talked with local residents, taken to heart the urgings of local city and state officials who opposed this radical legislation, and crafted something that isn’t antidemocratic and doesn’t undermine local leadership,” he said in the statement. “Instead, they passed this law that gives the public officials we are suing no choice but to do things that are unprecedented and unconstitutional.”
The NAACP takes issue with both laws, saying that they feed the racist sentiment that a heavily Black city is incapable of governing itself. The group’s lawsuit notes that the move to increase police presence in the capital “discriminatorily subjects Jackson’s residents, including Plaintiffs, to an additional and unaccountable layer of policing.”
While neighboring states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have capitol police forces, the officers don’t have expanded jurisdiction, according to the lawsuit.
“These states’ capitol police are limited forces generally meant to serve the specific function of providing police services for the State Capitol and government buildings,” the lawsuit says. “The policing takeover provision embodies the false and racist notion that safety in Jackson cannot possibly be achieved by a police force responsible for, and accountable to, the people of Jackson, but only by a wholly different, state-run, white-run institution that operates outside the control of the majority-Black population.”
Themba stressed that it’s “emotionally hurtful” to live in a place where lawmakers overlook the concerns of a largely Black population.
“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,” she said in March. “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.”
Reeves vehemently denies that the legislation is discriminatory. But advocates and residents refuse to back away — and insist that the laws “suppress and chill” the First Amendment rights and political authority of people in the predominantly Black capital city.
“These laws target Jackson’s majority-Black residents on the basis of race for a separate and unequal policing structure and criminal justice system to which no other residents of the state are subjected,” the NAACP lawsuit reads.
This story has been updated to reflect the legal challenge to HB 1020.