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The Impactful Stories That Defined 2020 and the Mississippi Free Press’ First Year

Oak Grove High School students, seen here on Warrior Drive on Aug. 21, 2020, listen to Pastor Christopher Preston as he speaks to the teens who walked out to protest racism in their now-racially-diverse high school, which was once a destination for white parents fleeing racial integration. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Founders Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin launched the Mississippi Free Press just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Magnolia State in March 2020. Since then, our journalism has earned more than 1.3 million views from readers hungry for contextual, deep public-interest reporting that holds leaders to account and delves into the causes of and solutions to the challenges Mississippians and their communities face every day.

Here is a recap of 2020, the stories that defined the year and this fledgling publication’s impact so far.


The Pandemic Arrives

Three days after public-health officials announced the state’s first known COVID-19 case, the Mississippi Free Press launches on March 15. An initial story cites Black leaders’ warnings of coming pandemic-related racial disparities and advice for “avoiding another Katrina.” Mississippi reported its first known COVID-19 death days later, and those disparities soon manifested, with Black Mississippians in April accounting for more than 60% of cases and deaths.

Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton - Mississippi Free Press
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said in March 2020 that he felt frustrated and was taking COVID-19 safety matters into his own hands after Gov. Tate Reeves “abdicated” his “leadership role in a state of emergency.” He added, “We will no longer wait in Tupelo.” Photo courtesy Mayor Shelton

On March 21, the Mississippi Free Press publishes a story about Mississippi mayors’ frustrations with Gov. Tate Reeves early approach to COVID-19 without strong statewide public health orders, creating a “patchwork” of inconsistent local safety measures that proved insufficient to contain the rapid spread of the virus. It becomes the publication’s first of many pieces cited by a national publication when The New Yorker publishes a piece highlighting Mississippi’s “patchwork” measures.

On March 26, Gov. Reeves overrules a number of local COVID-19 restrictions, allowing stores and churches to reopen despite some local leaders’ orders to close them. The Mississippi Free Press reports on the reaction from local leaders, with one mayor accusing the governor of “foolishness and foolery.” More than 100,000 visitors read the story.


COVID-19 Hits ICE Prisons

The Mississippi Free Press reports on Salomon Diego Alonso, an ICE detainee in Monroe, La., who was swept up in the August 2019 immigration raids at a chicken plant in Forest, Miss., and became ill with a “severe” case of COVID-19. The story cites pleas from the young father’s family, who fear his health conditions could make him vulnerable to dying, but say ICE has not taken him to see a doctor. The next day, ICE transfers him to a hospital which admits him to its intensive care unit.

Salomon Diego Alonso had been separated from his daughter since U.S. immigration officials arrested him near Forest, Miss., during the Aug. 7 chicken-plant raids. Photo courtesy Alonso’s family


Gov. Reeves’ ‘Restart Mississippi’ Commission

Gov. Tate Reeves begins lifting most restrictions on Mississippi businesses, claiming the state has hit a “plateau” in COVID-19 cases. He makes the reopening decisions with advice from a group of 16 business leaders across the state whom he earlier appointed to his “Restart Mississippi” commission.

The top five contributors on Gov. Tate Reeves’ Restart Mississippi commission to reopen the State have personally given large sums to his campaigns over the years. Graphic by Kristin Brenemen

After examining 3,000 pages of campaign-finance reports dating back to the 2008, Senior Reporter Ashton Pittman reveals in an investigative report that the appointees or the companies and PACs they are tied to have donated more than $760,000 to Reeves’ political campaigns over the past 12 years.

Clarion-Ledger reporter Alissa Zhu later uses the searchable database of Reeves’ campaign donations that the Mississippi Free Press compiled for this report for her July report, “Mississippi prisons’ health care provider ends multimillion-dollar contract with MDOC.”

Race Reckoning Reaches Mississippi

On May 28, the City of Petal, Miss., holds a meeting to address Mayor Hal Marx’s incendiary comments about George Floyd, a Black man who suffocated to death as a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis, Minn. Residents and city leaders called for Marx’s resignation after he implied that Floyd may have died from a drug overdose and was not a victim of police brutality.

A young girl joined calls for Petal Mayor Hal Marx to resign at a protest last Friday. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The next day, the Mississippi Free Press reports on the 2017 police shooting of Marc Davis, a Black man, in Petal—a death the media had paid little attention to prior even as his family sought justice. The report cited a witness who said neither police nor the press had ever interviewed her, and her version of events, which conflicted with the official story, raised new questions even as Mayor Marx dealt with the fallout from his remarks about George Floyd.

A number of state and national outlets published stories about Davis’ death soon after, including The Clarion-Ledger and VICE.

Food Insecurity During a Pandemic

Not long after joining the Mississippi Free Press as our second reporter, Aliyah Veal kicks her ongoing food-insecurity series, with a long-form piece about the difficulties of grocery shopping while Black, and especially during a pandemic.


The Fight for a New State Flag

As rumblings began among lawmakers about possibly changing Mississippi’s state flag and retiring the Confederate design of 1894, Senior Reporter Ashton Pittman’s exhaustive June 11 piece on the history of the flag helps inform Mississippians about the flag’s deeply white supremacist origins and past efforts to change it, including the failed 2001 referendum. Patrick Jerome, a white man whom the story quotes (though not by name) defending the flag in a 2001 town hall video, recognizes his past words and shares with the Mississippi Free Press why he has since changed his views.

The day after a group of white supremacists went on a deadly rampage in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, students at the University of Southern Mississippi who support the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a demonstration supporting the state flag. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

The story draws national attention, with BBC Radio inviting Pittman on to discuss the flag’s history, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow citing it on her show and WNYC Radio Lab interviewed Pittman for its “Flag and the Fury” podcast episode, which later won an award at the DuPont-Columbia Awards.

On June 28, the Mississippi Legislature votes overwhelmingly to change the state flag, and Gov. Tate Reeves, who had previously opposed adopting a new flag, signs the bill into law. Mississippi voters later approve a new flag design in the November elections.

In July, Advisory Board member Genesis Be’s MFP Voices piece about her family’s decades-long fight to change the Mississippi flag, as well as co-founders Kimberly Griffin and Donna Ladd’s guest piece in The Guardian pushed back on false narratives by any particular group or individuals angling to take credit for change the flag, a true Mississippi collaboration.

UM’s Confederate Cemetery

On June 19, Mississippi Free Press reporter Christian Middleton publishes the first in a series of summer pieces with editor Donna Ladd about the University of Mississippi’s controversial decision to renovate its Confederate cemetery on campus and make it the new home for the school’s Confederate statue. The Mississippi Free Press revealed that a cemetery committee and a wealthy donor with a racist past were behind the machinations. 

UM Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery (left) and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta (right) lead a student protest due to the university’s lack of transparency throughout the removal of a Confederate statue to a cemetery on campus. Photo by Viviek Patel

Esquire Magazine quoted the reporting, writing that “as the invaluable Mississippi Free Press tells us, the Lost Cause is still making mischief.


The Summer Surge

As COVID-19 cases and deaths reach new highs, Gov. Tate Reeves public-health officials’ requests for a statewide mask mandate, preferring county-level orders instead. The governor pushes public schools to reopen against the advice of Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs. 

Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here during a July press briefing, is vowing to defy a national lockdown if President-elect Joe Biden orders one after his inauguration. Reeves’ defiance comes despite the fact that he has not acknowledged Biden’s victory. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

In a July 31 story about a “pediatric COVID crisis,” the Mississippi Free Press cites a historian’s take on how past pandemics and data can help us understand the current situation—and how school reopenings could play out. 


Gov. Reeves Issues Mask Mandate

As the summer surge hits its apex and schools reopen, Gov. Reeves issues a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4. “I want to see college football,” he explains. The Mississippi Free Press reports those comments, which The Bleacher Report, The Daily Caller, Yahoo Sports and The Blaze cite in their own reports later.

The UM Emails

After four months of reporting work, the Mississippi Free Press publishes Ashton Pittman’s three-part exposé into dozens of emails that shed light on the University of Mississippi’s fundraising activities and how, in many cases, officials ignored overt racism among wealthy alums whose funds they courted. The university initially responded by calling the content of the emails “appalling” and promising changes to their fundraising tactics.

Former University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton, seen here in 2018 condemning school donor Ed Meek for a Facebook post criticizing Black women on the Oxford Town Square, resigned in April after a whistleblower’s public records request revealed similar remarks in email exchanges with another donor. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

In late August, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication rescinds an award it gave to former UM Journalism Dean Will Norton, citing the content of emails between him and donor Blake Tartt.


Race Reckoning Continues in Schools

On Sept. 3, the Mississippi Free Press reports on a walkout that dozens of students at Oak Grove High, a historic white flight school in a Hattiesburg suburb, participated in to demand changes and protest racism among students and teachers. Reporter Ashton Pittman later discusses the story on The Dean Obeidallah Show on Sirius XM Progress.

College football teams across the state stage walkouts to protest systemic racism in September, including the University of Mississippi, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Mississippi State University.


Another COVID-19 Wave Begins

After Gov. Tate Reeves ends the mask mandate on the last day of September, cases and hospitalizations begin to rise once more in early October.

On Oct. 16, the Mississippi Free Press is the first to report that white Mississippians have begun to account for a disproportionate number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths, reversing earlier trends. The Washington Post cites the reporting, which CNN also follows up on.

Voting Precinct Changes

The Mississippi Free Press launches the Mississippi Trusted Elections Project, led by John McGee, with support of the American Press Institute. A number of local and out-of-state outlets cite the infographics and absentee-ballot tracker, designed by William Pittman, in their own reporting.

Infographic by William Pittman

Circles Coordinator Jarius Smith organizes solutions circles where Mississippians offer their concerns and discuss solutions for voting issues.

An Oct. 29 in-depth story on Madison County moving 2,000 Black and Hispanic voters to a more-crowded location (and Allie Jordan’s followup photo essay) attracted national and local attention from the likes of CNN, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, The Clarion-Ledger, the Northside Sun and Spanish outlet Univision.


Post-Election Call to ‘Succeed’

On Nov. 9, the Mississippi Free Press reported on Mississippi House Rep. Price Wallace’s call for the state to “succeed from the union” over Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race.

Price apologized for the remark amid prodding from House Speaker Philip Gunn after outlets nationwide picked up the story, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, and the Associated Press.

Holiday COVID-19 Warnings

On Nov. 16, the Mississippi Free Press published a story citing public-health experts with an attention-getting headline: “After Big Thanksgiving Dinners, Plan Small Christmas Funerals.” People around the world shared the story, which received more than 100,000 views as people shared Mississippi health leaders’ warnings to avoid large family gatherings over the holidays to stay safe as the pandemic’s year-end wave picked up steam.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here during a July press conference, said in December that hospitals across the state are taking “extreme measures” to deal with the overwhelming onslaught of critical COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy UMMC

The Orlando Weekly praised the MFP’s “blunt” headline, calling it “a paper we revere.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy uses the story to warn about COVID-19 Thanksgiving dangers in his state, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Even amid surging cases in late November, though, Gov. Tate Reeves ignores public health experts’ calls for a new statewide mask mandate, deriding four of the top doctors in the state as “so-called experts.”


UM Sidelines Ombudsman in Whistleblower Hunt

Ashton Pittman reports that the University of Mississippi ombudsman, Paul Caffera, has sued his employer for trying to get him to turn over confidential information in university officials’ efforts to unmask whistleblowers who obtained the documents that provided the basis for the UM emails stories. UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce later announces that he has picked an interim acting ombudsman to serve in the place of Caffera, whom he placed on administrative leave.

More than 100 campus faculty members sign petitions demanding Caffera’s reinstatement. The International Ombudsman Association also steps in, warning that the decision will have a “chilling effect” on the profession nationwide.

UM Fires History Professor

Christian Middleton breaks the story that the University of Mississippi has fired Garrett Felber, an outspoken history professor whose work focuses on anti-racism and criticisms of prisons. Felber had criticized the university’s ties to private prisons and accused university leaders of nixing a prisoner education project in order to appease wealthy donors.

The University of Mississippi informed outspoken history professor Dr. Garrett Felber on Dec. 10, 2020, that it plans to terminate him. Photo by Christian Johnson/ Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The report, which draws more than 100,000 readers, makes news nationwide, and more than 5,000 university professors around the world sign a letter to Chancellor Glenn Boyce demanding Felber’s reinstatement.

Our Most-Read Stories of 2020

  1. After Big Thanksgiving Dinners, Plan Small Christmas Funerals
  2. UM Fires History Professor Who Criticizes Powerful Racist Donors and Carceral State
  3. ‘Foolishness and Foolery’: Churches, Stores Reopen as Governor Overrides Mayor’s COVID-19
  4. Mississippi Votes to End Jim Crow Electoral College-Like System, Popular Vote to Choose Governor
  5. Crisis Levels in Mississippi, No ICU Beds Left in Jackson, Only 12 Remain Statewide
  6. Madison County Moves 2,000 Black, Hispanic Voters to Crowded Precinct With Little Warning
  7. ‘Mississippi Hospitals Cannot Take Care of Mississippi Patients’: Five ICUs Full as Virus Booms
  8. The Fabric is Torn in Oxford: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled it Privately
  9. Gov. Reeves Criticizes ‘So-Called Experts’ After Top Doctors Call for Statewide Mask Mandate
  10. Mississippi Schools Reopen as Pediatric Crisis Threatens Families, Teachers
  11. Mississippi Quarantines 2,035 Students, Teachers as 444 Test Positive for COVID-19
  12. A Petal Police Officer Killed Marc Davis in 2017. His Family Demands Justice.
  13. Doctor Fired for Refusing to House Elderly With Possibly COVID-19 Patient, Suit Alleges
  14. ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight to Keep UM’s Past Alive
  15. ‘We’re Coming Guns Loaded, Packed’ to Confirm Barrett, Sen. Hyde-Smith Says
  16. Marion County Teacher, 49, Dies of COVID-19, Husband Passes Six Days Later
  17. UM Students: ‘We Asked for Relocation of the Statue, Not the Glorification of the Confederacy’
  18. With No State Mandate, Mississippi Mayors Using Patchwork of COVID-19 Safety Options
  19. UM’s Culture of Secrecy: Dean Quit as Emails Disparaging to Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
  20. First Mississippi Child Dies of COVID-19, Gov. Reeves Pushes Racist Virus Theory
  21. Top Mississippi Republicans Fail to Acknowledge Biden Victory as Fitch Joins Trump Lawsuit
  22. You White People Don’t Get It: Mississippi’s Long, Ugly Road to Changing Its State Flag
  23. ‘Vile and Disgusting’: No Charges for Oxford Man Who Uploaded Photos of Women Sunbathing
  24. All Kindergarten Students Quarantined, School Tells Parents in Late Night Text
  25. Health Leaders Call for Statewide Mask Mandate, Say Gov. Reeves’ Plan Not Working

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