A rooster crows in the morning, at sunrise, to signal a brand new day, and in metaphorical essence, hope. The rooster that was crowing last week was Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus Chair Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez. His exuberance comes from the news of the House Committee assignments announced on January 15, 2004. In the announcement, made on the 75th birthday of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American legislators made historic quantitative gains in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
For the first time in the modern era an African-American will chair one of the "money" committees in the House. Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, a 24-year veteran of the Legislature, will chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. This is the committee that determines how the state of Mississippi will generate revenues to operate and which state institutions and projects will be funded through bond monies.
Not only was the Watson appointment significant, but also the fact that twelve of the 35 members of the MLBC are now chairs of committees, up from six, and another fifteen were selected as vice-chairs. That means 27 African-American legislators have leadership positions in the Mississippi House of Representatives, the highest number since Reconstruction. I guess that would be something to crow about.
However, blacks in the Senate did not fair as well, with several former chairs being demoted to vice-chairmanships, or no leadership position at all in the very committee they once presided over. Case in point, Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, was demoted from chair of the Senate Education Committee to just a regular member. However, she did better that most, securing the chairmanship of the Universities and Colleges Committee, which she is more than qualified to handle.
So for West to exclaim at a meeting the next morning, "For those who say the caucus is not doing anything, look at what we have accomplished just yesterday," he may be taking an excessive liberty with what really happened last week. First of all, Dr. King reminded us to never be satisfied until all of us receive the all the benefits offered as citizens of this state and this country, so, in a holistic sense, we should not be happy if Black House members get promoted while Black Senators get demoted.
Second, if the MLBC had really lobbied and used their political clout to acquire these leadership gains, then this would be a significant victory. Alas, more credit should be given to the will of God touching the Speaker of the House's heart rather than the political will of the largest black delegation in the nation.
Third, staying with the poultry analogies, let us not count these chickens before they are hatched. In other words, it is one thing to be given this charge of leadership; it is another thing to effectuate change with it. That is the challenge set before the MLBC as these men and women assume their rightful place at the table of public policy decision-making for Mississippi. May they remember the 1.1 million people they represent in all the legislation they review and propose over the next four years and not be consumed by the narcotic of power and prestige.
When Jabez prayed his famous prayer that was answered by God, one of the things he asked for was that his territory be enlarged. Since there is no other mention of him in the later books of the Bible, it is assumed that he did not squander his blessing and he lived happily ever after. It is my prayer that those who have receive the gift of expanded responsibility will do as Jabez and not waste it. Then we, as a people, would really have something to crow about.