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Civil Liberties in Mississippi

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Mississippi State Flag

Mississippi is the only U.S. state that still incorporates elements of the Confederate battle flag (see upper left) into its official design, which was adopted in 1894.

Public domain. Vector image donated to Wikimedia Commons.

Demographic Overview:

Mississippi is home to 3 million people, and boasts the highest percentage (37%) of African-American residents of any state in the country. Approximately two-thirds of Mississippians live in rural counties, making Mississippi the sixth most rural state. Mississippi is also America's poorest state, with 21 percent of residents living below the national poverty line.

Political Overview:

Mississippi's current governor, Haley Barbour, is the state's second Republican governor since Reconstruction. Mississippi has gone Republican in every presidential election since 1980. The Mississippi State House of Representatives is comprised of 73 Democrats and 49 Republicans, while the Mississippi State Senate is comprised of 27 Democrats and 25 Republicans. The next statewide elections will be held in November 2011.

Civil Rights Legacy:

Mississippi has the reputation of being the most racially charged state in the country, a reputation that is arguably well-deserved. Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings of any state during the civil rights era, and was home to the Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Freedom Summer civil rights murders, among many others.

Civil Rights and Statewide Politics:

Although it boasts the highest number of black legislators of any state in the country, Mississippi has not elected a black candidate to statewide office since Reconstruction. Some critics blame this on residual segregationist elements within the state Democratic Party, which has a predominantly black voter base but a overwhelmingly white leadership; in a 2004 radio interview, one statewide Democratic elected official boasted that he had worked to exclude black candidates from holding party chairmanship.

The Emergence of Multiracial Coalitions:

On the whole, it would be difficult to argue that Mississippi is not moving forward on civil rights. This is particularly evident in urban areas, where multiracial coalitions tend to define municipal politics. The capital city of Jackson has a black mayor and a multiracial City Council, while the larger Hinds County area has a white sheriff, a black district attorney, and a multiracial board of supervisors. This is not atypical of Mississippi's larger cities and counties but it is much less common in rural areas, which tend to be less diverse.

Criminal Justice Issues:

Mississippi still practices execution by lethal injection, but has only executed 8 prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Racial profiling is a serious problem in Mississippi. Documented police brutality is relatively uncommon, but not unheard of. As is true throughout the country, low-income defendants in Mississippi often do not receive adequate defense counsel.

Social Issues:

In early 2007, Mississippi passed a "trigger ban" on abortion that would ban the procedure automatically if Roe v. Wade were overturned. In 2004, the State of Mississippi passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage by referendum with an 86% majority, the highest of any state in the country. Mississippi bans joint adoption by same-sex couples, but allows adoption by individual partners and boasts one of the highest percentages of same-sex households in the country. Mississippi once had a sodomy law impacting both same-sex and heterosexual couples, but it is no longer in effect.

Other Issues:

Mississippi has strong laws protecting the right to bear arms, including a castle doctrine law and a "shall-issue" concealed carry licensing statute. Mississippi also has some of the most flexible homeschooling laws in the country. Post-Katrina issues with regard to right of return have not been as prominent on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as in New Orleans, but the rebuilding effort has brought in an influx of undocumented workers and ignited an immigration reform debate within both major state parties.

Activism in Mississippi:

Mississippi has extremely strong NAACP, NRA, ACLU, and NOW chapters, an influential legislative black caucus (the majority of Democratic state representatives are black), and a substantial immigrants' rights organization (the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance). It is also home to the regional office of the Children's Defense Fund, and home to several Southern Poverty Law Center projects.

Tom's Take:

I have lived in Mississippi for my entire life, but my experience of this state is for the most part limited to the Jackson area. Bearing that fact in mind, I would argue that Mississippi's three biggest problems are poverty, poverty, and poverty, in that order. Poverty interferes with social mobility and makes desegregation difficult. Poverty suppresses black voter turnout. Poverty, which led to competition for scarce resources, was probably the primary culprit in the state's historical civil rights abuses as well. Poverty reduces educational opportunities. Poverty makes it difficult to market Mississippi as prime corporate real estate, limiting industrialization of isolated rural areas. It is difficult to imagine how much better off Mississippi would be today if it had been in a better position to capitalize on economic development opportunities, and those in other parts of the country who look down on this state would be well served to remember that. The climate of fear and oppression that has dominated our state history was made possible only by the oppressive environment created by poverty, scarcity, and abandonment--an environment that wealthier states never had to deal with, and an environment that the federal government has done scandalously little to improve. The sins of Mississippi are the sins of America.
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