Whoa, what a month of journalism in Mississippi.
The majority-white Mississippi Legislature edged closer to a dramatic takeover of the majority-Black capital city—some, including Jackson’s Black mayor, are calling it “apartheid”—with legislation to create a shadow judicial system of unelected judges; with efforts to take prosecutorial power away from the elected Hinds County district attorney; and only marginal efforts to temper the move by a North Mississippi senator to take over Jackson’s water system and, probably, to control federal dollars flowing in and who gets those contracts.
The outcries (and threats of inevitable lawsuits) only draw paternalistic yawns and innuendo about incompetence of (Black) leadership: We’re just doing this to protect Jackson from itself, essentially. Meantime, actual systemic crime prevention has never been a priority outside Jackson or, frankly, inside city government where more cops are seen as the panacea. Local, state and national political machines are aligned against evidence-based approaches—and the Legislature ignores anti-violence studies of the capital city that it paid to happen in favor of beefing up police forces and building more jails to warehouse accused people—usually Black people—calling it crime “prevention” because they’re off the streets.
Greed at Our Gates
Meantime, if you live and run an organization inside the city limits as I do, it really can feel Romanesque, and I don’t mean architecturally. So many live and work so hard here inside the capital city just to watch a steady drumbeat of our resources and jobs either flee to the suburbs, or watch efforts to just take our economic generators like the Evers International Airport. Or, to insist that the only possible way we’re allowed flood protection is to agree to a questionable lake scheme that would create valuable waterfront property for the wealthy, whether or not the anti-flooding part pans out. (And many of both parties downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana are fully against “One Lake” for regularly dismissed and valid reasons. Conservative legislators are trying to stop it this session.)
Greed and desire for power, that is, are perpetually pushing on Jackson’s gates. But the Romans, if you will, don’t want to help us; they want to absorb this poor city’s needed resources (whether through corruption or legislation) and, of course, control what happens here politically, judicially, educationally and otherwise. Or just run many of us out, which I’ve watched happen so often over the last two decades in a perpetual brain-drain wave from Jackson and the state, even among those who want to stay.
Lack of Transparency Is Key
At the heart of all these efforts is an epidemic lack of transparency, which includes shaping and controlling information in order to reduce the reach of any kind of dissent. Years ago, supporters of the lake scheme stopped allowing community members to speak at their gatherings supposedly for public input after upset folks had shown up for earlier ones. So they insist on comments being written down and then their reps talk to people individually. At “public” meetings. True story.
And you’ve heard by now that the Mississippi Free Press is challenging efforts of the Mississippi Legislature and especially House Speaker Philip Gunn’s insistence on gathering the supermajority of the House in private caucus meetings to discuss and probably align on legislation before it gets to the House floor and “debate.” Nick Judin’s attempt to get into one of the meetings under the Open Records Act led to the Ethics Commission deciding that it wasn’t clear that the Open Records Act even applies to the Mississippi Legislature. So it’s muddy to the commission’s majority whether it can be considered a “public body.”
Even saying this out loud makes Mississippi fit the stereotypes. Fortunately, a minority of commission members and its director, Tom Hood, along with at least some legislators in both parties, agreed with us. Legislators even introduced legislation to clear up this bizarre excuse for secret meetings, but alas it was killed. “There’s always next year,” the committee chairman told us.
That would mean another year without state government transparency. A lot can happen in a year, as this legislative session is proving. Ask my neighbors in Jackson.
The good news is that a new poll found that 71% of Mississippians believe in … wait for it … public transparency. They believe the Legislature is a public body. Of course, a majority of Mississippians also believe in the public-initiative process so we can make decisions ourselves, but the Legislature gutted that process in 2021. It really is starting to feel like minority rule up there.
Reporting Truth Beyond Partisanship
All of you know as well as we do that the First Amendment relies on open government, transparency and a free press reporting on it all. If that press is worth its salt, it will report on issues without building in an immediate bias (even toward who they perceive as “the good guys”) that blocks vital information from getting out there. A truly free press serves the people first and never bows to partisanship and the political horse race. It doesn’t cherrypick information and reports complicated issues like Medicaid and hospital closures in a complex way.
This is who we are at the Mississippi Free Press. We are fiercely independent and report beyond partisanship. We are truth-tellers. We want a transparent government regardless of who or what party is blocking the information from the public. And we believe in clarity over breathless sensationalism in our reporting, even on viral corruption stories.
We are here for the long haul. This is our state, our capital city and our home—and we all believe in a healthier future for all our citizens if we all do the work needed. Thank you for supporting and sharing our journalism. We appreciate you.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.