The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Miss. bill would create unelected court system in majority-Black Jackson

Jackson leaders have called the legislation a power grab, and an attempt by state Republicans to take power from Black voters

The Mississippi Capitol building in September 2022 in Jackson, Miss. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
10 min

JACKSON, MISS. — If there’s one thing almost everyone in this deeply divided capital city can agree on, it’s that this city needs help.

In 2021, The Washington Post found that Jackson had the highest murder rate in the country, three times higher than Chicago. About a quarter of its residents live in poverty, among the highest rates for American cities with more than 100,000 residents. And local officials recently warned that the periodic water outages residents have been suffering through for years could continue for another decade.

Republicans are now pushing legislation they say is designed to provide needed resources, by giving the state more control of an affluent part of the city. But leaders of this majority-Black city are calling it a power grab, rather than a helping hand, and say it is stirring up racial tensions that usually simmer under the surface.

Last month, state Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican who represents a mostly rural part of the state about 200 miles from Jackson, introduced a bill that would give the state control of the policing and judicial duties of a portion of the city that includes its wealthiest and predominantly White neighborhoods.

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Supporters say it would help clear the city’s judicial backlog and put more officers on the streets.

“My constituents want to feel safe when they come here,” Lamar has said. “Where I am coming from with this bill is to help the citizens of Jackson.”

The fight in Mississippi mirrors similar battles between White state lawmakers in deep red states and the leadership of Black-run cities in other parts of the country. A similar fight is shaping up in Missouri, where a bill has been introduced that would give the governor power to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases. Last year, Tennessee lawmakers attempted to take over the finances of the majority Black small town of Mason, which is expected to see an economic boost from a new Ford plant being built nearby.

The legislation under consideration in Mississippi would expand the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which includes downtown Jackson and nearby areas, to include neighborhoods in northeast Jackson. The jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, which has about 120 officers and protects the district, would expand to reflect the new boundaries.

The new Capitol Complex Improvement District would include about a third of the city’s 150,000 residents, and while the district would be majority-Black, it would take in 80 percent of Jackson’s White residents, but only about a quarter of its Black residents.

The legislation doesn’t include funding to expand the Capitol Police, which is controlled by the state, and leaves the locally-controlled Jackson Police Department, which has lost hundreds of officers in recent years, to continue policing the rest of the city, including neighborhoods with the highest violent crime rates.

Lamar’s legislation would also create a separate judicial system with two judges appointed by the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court to oversee both criminal and civil cases within the new district. Judges are elected in the rest of the state. The state attorney general would also appoint the prosecutors, who are elected in the rest of the state, and public defenders.

Critics say this sets up a two-tiered system in which residents of Jackson are denied a privilege enjoyed in the rest of the state: the power to decide who runs its judicial system. It’s a power grab meant to dilute the strength of Black voters, who have traditionally elected Black Democrats who clash with the state’s White Republican leadership, they say.

“Judges and districts attorneys in Mississippi have always been elected,” said Rob McDuff, a lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm. “This harkens back to a time when, just after the federal Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the all-White Mississippi legislature adopted a number of measures to minimize the power of newly registered Black voters, including providing that certain previously elected positions would suddenly be appointed.”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has called the bill “plantation politics.” “This is the most overtly racist legislation that Mississippi has presented in some time,” he said in an interview.

Lamar, the bill’s author, says those claiming the legislation is racist are playing politics. “This bill is just designed to help with the crime problem and the backlog in the Hinds County judicial system. That’s the sole intent of the bill,” he said in an interview.

The bill passed the state House last week over the objections of nearly every elected official representing Jackson, which is 80 percent Black. The Senate, where Republicans enjoy a supermajority, is expected to take up the bill before the end of the month. Tate Reeves, the state’s Republican governor, has not publicly weighed in on the legislation and his office did not respond to requests for an interview.

This isn’t the first time state Republicans have attempted to take control of Jackson’s operations. The city and state have been wrestling for control of Jackson’s airport for years, and city officials fended off a takeover of the schools. Lawmakers this session are also considering a bill that would place Jackson’s water system under a regional authority.

“People don’t care about the turf war or the power struggle, they want Jackson to be safer, they want the water to work and they want the sewer to work, this bill and a few others this session are just looking to do that,” Lamar said.

But some Jackson residents see more sinister motives behind the state’s efforts to deal with Jackson’s crime.

“You can’t fix the murder rate by disenfranchising people,” said Kwame Braxton, a 32-year-old visual artist who lives in predominantly-Black west Jackson. “The best way to do that is to create more opportunities for people so they don’t have to resort to crime as a means of survival. We need more money for the educational projects that we have around here, more money for the art projects, more employment opportunities for the average citizen.”

The legislation would strip Black communities of political power and make it harder for them to advocate for themselves, while pretending to help them, said Braxton, who is Black. Republican state lawmakers are just trying to save the parts of Jackson they consider worth saving, he said.

That would include the neighborhood of Mart Lamar (no relation to the bill’s author).

The 62-year-old petroleum engineer lives just five miles from Braxton, but the two neighborhoods feel worlds away.

Braxton’s neighborhood is more than 90 percent Black, while Mart Lamar’s more than 90 percent White. The median household income in Braxton’s neighborhood is about $21,000; it’s nearly seven times higher in Mart Lamar’s community. People mark the passage of time in Braxton’s west Jackson by what has been lost: the streets lined with vacant lots where homes and businesses once stood. In Mart Lamar’s community, Eastover, there’s been a building spree in recent years with boutiques, high-end restaurants and a new hotel. The area includes some of the state’s most expensive homes, all of which would be included in the expanded Capitol Complex Improvement District, under the legislation.

“Our city is crumbling, crime is rampant around here,” said Mart Lamar, who is White. “I’m a libertarian. I’m all about local government, and I think our mayor is an intelligent man, but our government is failing to take care of anything in this community. It’s just a bad situation here.”

Not all northeast Jackson residents are on board with the takeover. Jeff Good, owner of Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group, which operates three restaurants in northeast Jackson, says he understands why his neighbors welcome the legislation, but thinks that the city and state need to focus on cooperation, not competition.

“I’m scared about the future of my city too,” said Good, who is White. “But I’m also scared about the disenfranchisement of my Black brothers and sisters by this bill and by the tone of the state. Because it looks like another attempt at a takeover.”

Amid criticism, Republicans in the House voted to remove some of its most controversial provisions, including one requiring Jackson to transfer nearly 20 percent of its revenue to the new improvement district.

Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent whose district includes parts of the proposed expanded district, said that once the funding provision was removed, she decided to support the legislation, arguing that it would supplement the city’s resources by providing more officers to police the city’s streets and more judges to adjudicate cases. Yates is the only representative from Jackson who voted for the legislation.

“The overwhelming number of constituents and business owners in my district who contacted me about the bill supported the intent of the legislation,” said Yates.

The bill would put more officers on the street, said Sean Tindell, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety which oversees the Capitol Police. “It’s a force multiplier for law enforcement in the area,” he said. “The reality is Jackson doesn’t have the number of police it needs and there’s a direct correlation between the amount of law enforcement and higher crime.”

And some Black lawmakers from outside of Jackson are supporting the legislation, saying it would provide much-needed help to the city’s residents, Black and White, rich and poor.

“I don’t think there’s been a year that has gone by while I’ve been in the House where we don’t have Jackson up here asking for something from the state,” said Rep. Cedric Burnett, the sole Black Democrat who voted for the bill. “The bottom line is that this bill will help the citizens of Jackson, it won’t hurt them.”

But critics aren’t as hopeful.

The legislation and other bills introduced this year represent a low point in the relationship between the Black Democrats who run Jackson and the White Republicans who control the state, said Sen. John Horhn (D), who represents parts of Jackson and the surrounding area.

“In my 31 years as a member of this body, as a legislator, I’ve never seen it as bad as it is between the city of Jackson and state leadership,” he said. “The actions being taken by our legislative leadership amount to a symbolic decapitation of Black elected leadership.”

Looking down West Capitol Street, which used to be the center of a thriving commercial district, Braxton both laments what has been lost and envisions what is possible for his neighborhood. Recently, Braxton and other artists began painting radiant murals on buildings owned by Cooperation Jackson, a local grass-roots community organization. The paintings are visions of a healthier, happier West Jackson. Braxton is particularly excited about Cooperation Jackson’s effort to open a grocery store. This neighborhood needs to help itself, rather than waiting for outsiders, he said.

“This bill is just making the divide in this city worse,” said Braxton. “Our neighborhood isn’t a desolate wasteland to be cast off and forgotten about. We have a mound of untapped potential and people who deserve a chance, and if other people can’t see that we’re just going to have to make it happen for ourselves.”