Mississippi

Mississippi

The first time I came to Mississippi, my college girlfriend directed me here, to Lemuria Books off the I-55 access road in Jackson. Back then, the staff did not just open the cardboard boxes and slide the books into place on the shelves. No, the staff put on Van Morrison and hummed along as they cut careful rectangles of cellophane to fold over the dust jackets of new releases, turning them from mere books into collectible First Editions. All was venerable: the fresh new arrivals, the Eudora Welty collection in the back room, the bookstore itself.

The stop at the bookstore was to fortify my girlfriend before she presented me to her parents. Her father was sunk deep in his leather armchair and did not rise. He had a glass of whisky in his hand and wore a tweed jacket even though it was late in the evening in his own living room. He asked what I was studying and launched into a cross examination about Faulkner. This did not seem fair, since I had answered physics.

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. He asked if I knew what that Faulkner meant by that. I hedged. The past that wasn’t past seemed to me to be him, my girlfriend’s father, a white man in tweed sipping his fourth glass of whisky and quoting Faulkner while his wife washed the dishes. It would be many years before presidential candidate Barack Obama would use these words in his speech about race in America, following the uproar over his minister Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermon calling 9/11 a reckoning for America’s national sins.

It’s about the blacks and the whites, young lady, my girlfriend’s father said. And human dignity! You are from California; it’s hard for you to understand.

I am not from California. I am from the Florida panhandle, a few miles from the Georgia line. If there is a place more southern than Mississippi, that patch of live oaks and an omnipresent past may be it.

My first girlfriend’s father had another phrase he liked: Someone ought to sue this place. We were at a steakhouse and his filet mignon had come out overcooked, twice. He said it like he meant it. He was a lawyer.

When I became a lawyer, and started suing places, that phrase wormed its way into my verbal tics. I mutter it whenever I find myself in a place that has wandered too far afield of common decency. Truly filthy bathrooms, the kind with feces floating around in toilet bowls. Zoos where the pandas are forever “resting” out of sight. Chuck E. Cheese’s.

I leave Lemuria Books and drive north on a roundabout route towards Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm. Every place I stop, it seems, is the site of another atrocity. I find myself muttering, Someone ought to sue this place. Meaning, Mississippi. By Tupelo, I have the outline of the lawsuit.

A civil lawsuit starts with a Complaint, which first lays out a statement of facts. Regarding the role of Mississippi’s criminal justice officials in causing grievous harm to Black Mississippians:

  1. The Mississippi justice system used criminal law to return tens of thousands Black Mississippians into slavery, and to enforce the labor contracts that became a hundred years of sharecropping.

The Civil War was but a few months done when the all-white Mississippi legislature rushed into session to pass Black Codes that effectively reinstated slavery as a matter of state criminal law. The litany of acts that became crimes if committed by a “freedman, free Negro, or mulatto” included affrays, seditious speeches, and insulting gestures. More to the point of keeping Black people at work in the cotton fields, the Codes required every Black person to have either a written labor contract or a note from the police. Those without such a contract were deemed vagrants and fined $150. If not paid within 5 days, the person “shall be hired out by the sheriff or other officer, at public outcry, to any white person who will pay said fine.” The 1865 legislators did not crib this from another state – it was Mississippi’s Confederates who invented this Sheriff-as-slave-auctioner scheme. The Thirteenth Amendment that passed a year later contained a loophole, allowing slavery as punishment for crime. From 1864 until Parchman Farm replaced convict leasing in 1901, tens of thousands of Black Mississippians were arrested and then hired out by Sheriffs, to work in the fields as punishment for crime. As important, it was the likelihood of being arrested and leased out that kept Black men and women in line, working as sharecroppers.

2. The Mississippi justice system used the police, the courts and imprisonment to try and destroy the Black Freedom Movement.

A few blocks from where the Black Codes were passed in Jackson is the old Greyhound Bus Station, where the Freedom Riders came in 1961. The Freedom Riders were firebombed in Anniston and beaten by mobs in Birmingham and Montgomery, but they persisted, and by the time they crossed into Mississippi, television viewers across the country were watching every move. When the first two Greyhound buses pulled into the station, the Freedom Riders were escorted straight from the bus into a paddy wagon and taken to jail. The next day, they were convicted of breach of the peace and sentenced to 60 days in Parchman. Over the next few months, officers following orders of the Jackson Chief of Police and Hinds County Sheriff arrested over 400 Freedom Riders on criminal charges. Nearly all were sentenced to hard labor in Parchman.

3. The Mississippi justice system has used the incarceration of Black Mississippians – including youths – as a means to turn a profit.

The man who created Parchman Farm had this to say about white supremacy: If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy. Governor James “The Great White Chief” Vardaman had the plantation farm built as a reform of convict leasing. The lease system had grown into a huge money maker after the state’s 1876 “pig law” made theft of anything over $10 (pigs included) grand larceny, carrying a sentence of up to 5 years. It wasn’t only cotton plantation owners who profited; convict camps popped up to lay railroad tracks, and at iron mines and timber stands. Vardaman, a populist champion of poor whites, hated that convicts were making rich men richer. The Governor wanted the labor of convicted criminals concentrated on Parchman Farm to profit the state. Set atop 20,000 acres of the rich soil in the Mississippi delta, the white guards acted as the farm’s overseers, using trusties armed with shotguns to keep the prisoners down the rows, planting, chopping, and picking as many bales of cotton a year as any antebellum plantation slave plantation ever had.

When Mississippi’s prison population went through another boom in the 1990’s, the profit making ethos that had created Parchman carried forward. Fifteen new prisons were built over a decade’s time, nearly all driven by a desire to profit off of incarceration. Private prison companies built and ran four of the facilities, while ten counties built regional prisons as business ventures, collecting per diem payments from the state. Men like Charles Weissinger, Jr. profited as well. In 2001, as the number of prisoners fell, the legislator turned lobbyist was paid $332,000 by six of the regional prisons to keep their beds filled. That year, a hard press by the private prison companies and the regional prisons resulted in $6 million for empty beds. More recently, in 2015, the Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections admitted to awarding no-bid contracts in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

4. The Mississippi justice system aided and abetted hundreds of lynchings of Black Mississippians.

As I drove through each Mississippi town, I asked Siri what lynching happened there. Not once did Siri respond “I did not find anything.”

Last year, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America, an extraordinary report that did not get enough attention. Bryan Stevenson’s students and staff counted nearly 4,000 lynchings during the period from 1880 to 1950. This number is 700 more than previous tallies. Of the 4,000, over a quarter of them – 576 –were in Mississippi. In Hinds County alone there 22 lynchings. In Lowndes County, nineteen.

For each of these lynchings, criminal justice officials played a role. In some situations, the Sheriff was present and took part in the lynching himself. Other times the Sheriff or police chief, well aware of when and where the lynching was to take place, stayed away from the action. Even as disgust over lynchings grew and Sheriffs started to claim they made heroic attempts to save the prisoner from the mob, there was not a single reported instance of the Sheriff suffering so much as a sprained ankle.

5. The Mississippi justice system encouraged the murders of leaders who organized Black Mississippians to vote.

George Lee, vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, was organizing Belzoni’s Black residents to vote in 1955 when he was shot in the face and killed. There were numerous bystanders who watched as the car full of whites drove by and shot into Lee’s automobile, but neither local nor state law enforcement officials opened an investigation.

Two hours to the south in Brookhaven and a few months later, Lamar Smith was shot on the courthouse lawn for the same reason: encouraging Blacks to vote. The Sheriff himself watched the shooter walk off but did nothing, claiming he could not find any witness to the shooting. Smith, 63 years old, was a farmer and World War II veteran.

Herbert Lee, also a farmer, was a leader in southwest Mississippi’s 1961 voter registration campaigns when he was shot and killed in the town of Liberty. His killer was E.H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi State Legislature. The district judge convened a coroner’s jury which, faced with a roomful of white men toting rifles, declined to indict Hurst.

In 1963, NAACP State Director Medgar Evers was killed in his Jackson driveway by Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith. The county delayed for 30 years before charging Beckwith.

When the Council of Federated Organizations launched Freedom Summer in 1964 to register Black Mississippians to vote, a deputy sheriff arrested COFO workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner as part of the strategy agreed to by the Sheriff to drive out the “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” Once released from jail, a caravan gave chase, led by a Philadelphia police officer driving a Philadelphia police car. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were shot and killed at Rock Cut Road. Not a single Mississippi justice official lifted a finger to help the FBI’s search for the three men’s bodies. The search, conducted by hundreds of federal agents and U.S. Navy sailors turned up the bodies of eight Black men before finding those of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Though the identities of the killers were well known, Mississippi justice officials refused to prosecute.

It was not until 2005, after six years worth of in-depth investigative stories by the Clarion-Ledger and persistent lobbying by a high school teacher and his students, that the State of Mississippi brought criminal charges against Edgar Ray Killen. The former KKK recruiter was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison.

Last week, Mississippi decided to close the state’s investigation of the killings of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, having concluded that no other criminal prosecutions are likely. Derrick Johnson, longtime president of the Mississippi NAACP protested the decision to close the case, noting that “the state’s collusion in the murders was never even considered.”

“At least one known conspirator is still around today and has yet to be held accountable,” Johnson wrote in a column for Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger. “That conspirator is the state of Mississippi…Mississippi has closed this case, but the larger case will never be closed until the state is held accountable for its part in this crime.”

What would that accountability look like?

In a criminal case, what comes out of a successful prosecution is a prison sentence, a fine, or some other form of punishment. This is accountability in a criminal case. In a civil case, it is usually cash money that counts for accountability, a dollar amount to represent the damage suffered.

The best part of a civil lawsuit’s Complaint comes at the end, in the Prayer for Relief. This is the part of the Complaint I am writing in my head as I approach Parchman. The land is unending in its flatness, not a foot of rise or fall for miles and miles and miles. No doubt mesmerized by the otherworldly expanse of perfectly level land, I wonder how the Prayer for Relief would read if it were meant to close the “larger case” in a way that would satisfy Johnson, by holding the state “accountable for its part in this crime.”

In his column, Johnson recites why Mississippi is still burning. As part of a Prayer for Relief, they would read:

  1. Take down the state flag, and replace it with one that does not contain the Confederate cross in the upper left corner;
  2. Take down the white-washed history currently being taught in underfunded public schools, and replace it with a history that is based on reality;
  3. Take down monuments glorifying those who fought for the right to own other human beings, and replace them with monuments to true freedom fighters like Fannie Lou Hamer.

To these I would add another:

4. Take down the state’s criminal justice system, all of it, and replace it with one that is actually about justice.

Kung Li, based in East Point, Georgia, is on a three month tour investigating the history and impact of criminalization in America. This project is supported by NEO Philanthropy.