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Amid ‘Woke’ Criticisms, Mississippi Senate Rejects Black State Superintendent

Dr. Robert Taylor speaking to a seated crowd
The Mississippi Senate voted on March 29, 2023, to reject the nomination of Dr. Robert Taylor, pictured here at an event at the University of Southern Mississippi in February 2023, to serve as Mississippi state superintendent. Some opponents described him as “woke” or accused him of supporting “critical race theory.” Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Education

Dr. Robert Taylor will not continue serving as Mississippi’s state superintendent of education after the Mississippi Senate rejected his nomination by a 21-31 vote on Wednesday, with some Republicans describing him as “woke” or a supporter of so-called “critical race theory.” Other opponents complained about the selection process or criticized the fact he has spent much of his career outside the state. He would have been the first Black superintendent to serve in the role since Henry Johnson in 2005.

Taylor became superintendent when the Mississippi State Board of Education selected him in November following a six-month nationwide search. He previously served as the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction deputy state superintendent, but he is a native of Laurel, Miss., in Jones County.

The board will name an interim state superintendent in the coming days and embark on a renewed search, the body said in a press release Wednesday.

“The Mississippi Senate has chosen not to confirm Dr. Robert Taylor as state superintendent of education and has questioned the process the Mississippi State Board of Education (SBE) used to select a candidate,” the board said in the statement.

“The State Board of Education conducted a fair, competitive and rigorous application process to select the most qualified candidate to fulfill the duties of state superintendent of education,” SBE chair Rosemary Aultman said in the release. “The search firm we hired was helpful in giving the board direction, and we are confident we selected the best candidate.”

Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, all Republicans, appoint the nine-member board. Two seats are vacant.

Black Senators Speak Out

Lt. Gov. Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, said he believed the Senate made the “right decision” to reject Taylor, in a statement Wednesday.

“The Board sent over an appointment but there were legitimate concerns about whether he was the right person for the job,” he said. “With a position as important as the person overseeing the education of our children, Senators should vote their conscience and confirmation should not be taken lightly. I defer to the body and believe they made the right decision today.”

Mississippi Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood speaking at a press conference
Mississippi Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, suggested at a March 29, 2023, press conference that the Mississippi Senate rejected Dr. Robert Taylor’s nomination as state education superintendent because he is Black. Photo by Kayode Crown

Some Black senators disagreed and made their position known in a press conference following the vote. Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said the Senate’s rejection may be because Taylor is Black—not for other reasons some Republicans proposed.

“I know they have that right (to not consent to an appointment), but the person that we are talking about, Dr. Taylor, is a native son,” Jordan said. “He’s a Mississippian who went to North Carolina and worked in that system–that system grading is higher than Mississippi–and he came home to serve. He’s a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, and we reject him for what reason other than that he’s Black?”

Sen. Juan Barnett, whose district includes parts of Laurel, spoke in favor of Taylor’s nomination on the Senate floor, but failed to convince enough people to push him over the finish line.

Barnett joined other Black Democratic senators at the press conference after the vote and described the result as surprising.

“I’m just surprised that we’re still at this point in Mississippi where we allow our politics to not move us forward,” he said. “We have heard the conversation that if we cut taxes it will bring our young people back, it will stop them from leaving the state of Mississippi, but the actions that we took today in my opinion are the reason why our youths are still leaving Mississippi and not looking to come back to Mississippi.”

“Our actions today show us that we’re not there, yet,” he added. “You still have a lot of work to do in the state of Mississippi, and I pray that one day we will not let our politics and not let us running for office stop us from doing what’s right.”

‘An Insult to Mississippi Families’

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who voted against Taylor’s nomination, released a statement in which he thanked the upper chamber’s members for the action and criticized Hosemann, implying the lieutenant governor supported the nominee despite his statements to the contrary. McDaniel is challenging the incumbent for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor on Aug. 8.

“I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for coming together to reject Delbert Hosemann-backed, woke Democrat Robert Taylor as Mississippi’s next Superintendent of Education,” McDaniel wrote in a statement he shared on Twitter. “As Mississippi continues to fall further behind our neighbors in pro-student, pro-parent improvements to education, allowing a critical race theory-supporting liberal to serve as superintendent would be an insult to Mississippi families.”

A lieutenant governor staffer told the Mississippi Free Press in an email statement Thursday that he did “not select the state superintendent nor did he have any discussions with Senators about the appointment by the Board.”

Senator Chris McDaniel announces his run for Lt. Gov.
Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, pictured, described Dr. Robert Taylor as a “woke Democrat” in a statement praising fellow senators for opposing his nomination as state superintendent. Photo by Kayode Crown

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines CRT as an “intellectual movement” that examines race as “a socially constructed category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color” and not a biological reality. It is typically taught in law-school courses, not K-12 schools, but right-wing politicians nationally have pushed to ban its teaching from public schools in recent years.

“Woke” is a term that originated in Black culture to describe enlightenment on issues of systemic racism and white supremacy. But since 2020, conservative politicians have repeatedly used it to criticize a variety of ideas they oppose, such as anti-racist policies, LGBTQ rights initiatives and even proposals to expand voting rights.

WAPT’s Ross Adams reported that Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, similarly said she opposed Taylor because she believes he supports “critical race theory” in addition to removing Confederate monuments. She and McDaniel both accused him of calling Mississippi “the most racist state in America,” referring to comments he made to the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center For Black Studies about Mississippi’s past in 2020. He was responding to a question about “The Unheard Word,” a Black newsletter he wrote for during his time as a USM student.

“‘The Unheard Word,’ in my opinion, recognized that The University of Southern Mississippi was in the most racist state in the Union, and that while historical focus has always been on the University of Mississippi, Southern Miss had a past that was tainted as well,” Taylor said in 2020.

Sojourner is familiar with Mississippi’s legacy of racism. In a 2019 interview, she discussed the fact that her family once owned a slave plantation in Adams County and that she attended a segregation academy as a child. She also described her memories of seeing the Ku Klux Klan demonstrating in public.

During Taylor’s March 13 interview with the Senate Education Committee, he expressed a commitment to follow any rules the Legislature creates and to work closely with the body. No members asked him about critical race theory.

His biography on the Mississippi Department of Education’s website says he has experience working to improve low-performing schools.

“At the district level, Dr. Taylor served as a Director and then Assistant Superintendent in Clinton City Schools, N.C., supervising numerous areas including Human Resources, Federal Programs, Exceptional Children, and Student Services,” the biography said. “Dr. Taylor served as the Superintendent of Bladen County Schools, N.C., from 2011 to 2021, providing innovative leadership in digital teaching and learning, district turnaround, and student support for a rural school district.”

Mississippi Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont speaking to the senate
“I don’t have the data that supports the performance in the underperforming schools being improved,” Mississippi Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, said on the Mississippi Senate floor on March 29, 2023, when he announced he would not vote to confirm Dr. Robert Taylor as state superintendent of education. Photo by Kayode Crown

But Mississippi Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, said he could not find convincing evidence for those claims when he spoke against Taylor’s nomination on the Senate floor.

“The record the committee has before us is that in Bladen County, there were 13 schools in that district. They were C, D and F districts In 2014, that was the first year of scores that we had,” he said. “2010 to 2021 I think was the period of time that the nominee was the superintendent of that district, one of those schools made it to a B during that five-year period of scores that we had from 2014 to 2019.”

“But at the end, there were 13 schools that were C and D districts,” he added. “I asked for data from other years, that’s 18 years that you’ve either been a superintendent or an assistant superintendent, and I don’t have the data that supports the performance in the underperforming schools being improved.”

‘We’re Not There Yet’

But at the later Democratic press conference, Sen. Sollie B. Norwood, D-Jackson, said all the reasons white senators gave for opposing Taylor were smokescreens for something else.

“It’s not about the process, it’s about the person, and we can’t hide behind the process,” he said. “This is a process that we’ve had in place and we’ve chosen superintendent after superintendent, and some of them have been very good, done very well; some of them have not fared so well. But as a process now, if the process was a problem, why didn’t we change the process before? We knew many months ago that Dr. (Carey) Wright was leaving.”

Mississippi Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, speaking at a press conference
“I’m just surprised that we’re still at this point in Mississippi where we allow our politics to not move forward,” Mississippi Sen. Juan Barnett (pictured), D-Heidelberg, said at a press conference on March 29, 2023, after the upper legislative chamber rejected Dr. Robert Taylor’s nomination as education superintendent. Photo by Kayode Crown

In Wednesday’s press release, the board said its members voted unanimously for Taylor after selecting him “through a competitive process from among 26 applicants from 15 states.”

“State law gives the SBE the authority to hire the state superintendent of education. The SBE adhered to the state’s competitive procurement process to contract with the firm McPherson & Jacobson, LLC, to lead the search process,” the statement said. “The SBE followed standard interview and evaluation procedures including reviewing resumes and applications, conducting background checks and formulating questions for multiple interviews.”

“The search firm assisted in identifying the seven semifinalists who submitted video recordings with responses to the SBE’s questions. Board members ranked the seven semifinalists to select four finalists for in-person interviews. The SBE conducted interviews with finalists over three days before selecting Dr. Taylor, who began serving in the position on Jan. 17, 2023.”

When Board of Education President Rosemary Aultman appeared before the Senate nomination committee on March 13, she said the board was looking for a leader and that she believed it made the right choice.

Sen. Barnett invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his remarks at Wednesday’s press conference.

“We’re not forward-thinking when we do some of the things that we do, and when others around the country look at us and say this about Mississippi, how can we argue with what they say when we give them everything to say bad about us here in Mississippi?” he said.

“I just prayed that it’s one day—as Dr. King said—that one day in Mississippi, it is my prayers, it is my wish that one day in Mississippi, that man or woman, regardless of religion, will be measured by the content of their character and not by our skin color, or not by our politics.”

CORRECTION: This story originally described Robert Taylor as Mississippi’s first Black superintendent of education due to an error introduced by News Editor Ashton Pittman. That is incorrect. Henry Johnson became the first Black state superintendent in 2002.

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