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Black residents of Jackson, Miss., decry plans by white-dominated Legislature for more state control

Timothy Norris smiles
Timothy Norris is the owner of Mom’s Dream Kitchen, a soul food restaurant opened by his mother in Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, 35 years ago.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)
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Random gunfire, repeated break-ins and a decaying city water system are constant challenges at Mom’s Dream Kitchen, the soul food restaurant that Timothy Norris’ mother opened 35 years ago in Mississippi’s capital.

“I have some cousins that live in Ohio,” said Norris, 54, who now owns the restaurant. “They came last year. They hadn’t been here in 22 years. They were completely shocked at Jackson.”

Citing rising crime, Mississippi’s Republican-controlled House recently passed a bill expanding areas of Jackson patrolled by a state-run Capitol Police force and creating a new court system with appointed rather than elected judges. Both would give white state government officials more power over Jackson, which has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major U.S. city.

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The state Senate also passed a bill to establish a regional governing board for Jackson’s long-troubled water system, with most members appointed by state officials. The system nearly collapsed last year and is now under control of a federally appointed manager.

The proposals for state control of city affairs have angered Jackson residents who don’t want their voices diminished, and are the latest example of the long-running tensions between the Republican-run state government and Democratic-run capital city.

“It’s really a stripping of power, and it’s happening in a predominantly Black city that has predominantly Black leadership,” said Sonya Williams-Barnes, a Democratic former state lawmaker who is now Mississippi policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “You don’t see this going on in other areas of the state” with majority-white populations and leadership.

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Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the proposals reeked of apartheid and “plantation politics.”

“If we allow this type of legislation to stand in Jackson, Miss., it’s a matter of time before it will hit New Orleans, it’s a matter of time before it hits Detroit, or wherever we find our people,” Lumumba said.

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The sponsor of the expanded police and court bill, Republican Rep. Trey Lamar, from a rural town 170 miles north of Jackson, contends that the proposal is aimed at making Mississippi’s capital safer and reducing a judicial backlog.

“There is no intent for the effect to be racial whatsoever,” said Lamar, who is white, in response to arguments that courts with appointed judges would disenfranchise Jackson voters, who select their area’s jurists.

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Black lawmakers say that creating courts with appointed judges would strip away voting rights in a state where generations of Black people have experienced the struggle for equal access to the ballot.

The appointed judges would not be required to live in Jackson or even the county where it’s located. They would be appointed by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court — a position currently held by a white conservative from outside Jackson.

About 83% of Jackson’s nearly 154,000 residents are Black, and about 25% live in poverty. The pace of white flight accelerated in the 1980s, about a decade after public schools integrated. Many middle-class and wealthy Black families have also left.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has campaigned on withholding state financial support that the city requested. During last year’s water crisis, Reeves, speaking elsewhere, said that it was, “as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”

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Jackson residents have a long-standing distrust of their municipal water system. During crises in August, September and December, people waited in long lines for bottled water. But opponents of a regional water board note that state officials sought a role only after the federal government approved hundreds of millions of dollars for the troubled city system.

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The state-run Capitol Police department has been involved in several violent incidents, including the shooting death of a Black man during a traffic stop and a crash that killed another Black man during a police chase.

At Mt. Helm Baptist Church, the Rev. CJ Rhodes said many people in his predominantly Black congregation strongly object to expanding Capitol Police territory and creating courts with appointed judges.

“They feel — viscerally feel — like this is taking us back to the 1950s and 1960s,” said Rhodes, the son of a civil rights attorney. “It feels like this sort of white paternalism: ‘We’re going to come in and do what we need to do, citizens of Jackson be damned.’”

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Maati Jone Primm, who owns Marshall’s Music & Bookstore in a struggling Black downtown business district, said she’s not surprised by the majority-white Legislature’s attempts to control Jackson.

“It’s a way to disempower Jackson and its citizens,” said Primm, whose storefront window displays a handwritten sign: “Jim Crow Must Go” — a phrase on T-shirts that Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers had in his car the night a white supremacist assassinated him in Jackson in 1963.

The Capitol Police currently patrol state government buildings in and near downtown. The House bill would expand the territory to cover the city’s more affluent shopping and residential areas, as well as several neighborhoods that are predominantly white.

The House and Senate have exchanged bills for more debate. Last week, a Senate committee suggested having Capitol Police patrol the entire city.

Some white residents also object to a wider territory for the Capitol Police and new courts.

“It’s ridiculous. I think judges should be elected officials,” said Dan Piersol, a retired art museum curator who lives in a neighborhood that would be patrolled by Capitol Police and would sit in the new court district.

Mom’s Dream Kitchen, in the once-safe neighborhood where Norris grew up, is a casual place that serves baked chicken, turnip greens and candied sweet potatoes. The dining room has a broken window with cardboard taped over it, a vestige of earlier vandalism.

Norris said he often feels unsafe working there. A few months ago, he said, he was looking outside when “a guy just rolled by ... shooting in the air.”

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“It scared me,” said Norris, who’s also a licensed therapist specializing in helping young Black men, including some who have had violent encounters with law enforcement officers.

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Norris said he would like to see a more effective police presence in Jackson, but he believes the Capitol Police are not the answer.

“Policemen should be building a relationship with the community,” Norris said.

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