JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Black lawmakers in Mississippi are denouncing efforts by the majority-white and Republican-led state Legislature to grab power from the majority-Black and Democratic-led capital city of Jackson.
“The actions being taken by our legislative leadership amount to a symbolic decapitation of Black elected leadership,” Democratic Sen. John Horhn of Jackson said Wednesday during a Legislative Black Caucus news conference.
The state Senate voted Tuesday to create a regional board to eventually take control of Jackson’s struggling water system, which is now overseen by a federally appointed administrator.
Hours later, the House voted to create a new court in part of Jackson with judges who would be appointed rather than elected.
The two bills are not yet close to becoming law. The Senate bill will go to the House for more work, and the House bill will go to the Senate.
Nearly 83% of Jackson residents are Black, and the city has had Black mayors since 1997.
Bills to create the regional water board and the new court system are sponsored by white, Republican lawmakers who live in northern Mississippi, more than two hours’ drive from Jackson. In both cases, the sponsors said they wrote the bills without first consulting Jackson lawmakers. The Senate sponsor said he later incorporated ideas from Jackson officials.
One bill would create a Capitol Complex Improvement District court in the more affluent — and whiter — parts of Jackson. Judges would be appointed by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and prosecutors would be appointed by the state attorney general, both of whom are white.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has likened the court proposal to apartheid. During a nearly five-hour debate on the court bill, several Black lawmakers said the proposal would strip away voting rights in a state with a racist history of voter suppression.
Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson said at the news conference Wednesday that the proposal would create a “separate but unequal court.”
“This is a return to the old Mississippi –- to slave patrols, to convict leasing, to installing ‘the folks we like because we never wanted y’all to vote in the first place,'” Summers said. “It’s a return to a shameful past that kept us pushed out, kicked out and silenced.”
Black legislators said establishing a regional water board is a paternalistic move to wrest power from Jackson’s mayor and City Council.
Jackson has struggled with water problems for years. The crisis culminated in late August and early September, when the system came near collapse and most people in the city of 150,000 went several days without running water. Some lost water again after a cold snap in December.
The city is receiving $600 million from the federal government to improve the water system. Lumumba has said repeatedly that the city must maintain long-term control of the water system after the appointed administrator departs.
Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Jackson said Wednesday that the efforts of the majority of legislators to control the capital city show “the devaluation of Black assets, the devaluation of Black lives, the devaluation of Black well-being in the city of Jackson.”
____ Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.