"I am asking that you immediately pass legislation that would make any unconstitutional order by the president illegal to enforce in Mississippi by state or local law enforcement," Gov. Phil Bryant wrote to the leaders of the Mississippi Legislature last month.
Although the specific policy context was gun control, Bryant has called for the state to also resist enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and, of course, Roe v. Wade—so "any unconstitutional order" is actually a pretty broad policy mandate, in our governor's world. The Mississippi State Legislature hasn't rushed to pass Bryant's proposal, which suggests to me that we're in a better place, politically, than we were when a substantially identical Resolution of Interposition unanimously passed the Mississippi House of Representatives in February 1956. That resolution claimed to do exactly what Bryant's proposed legislation would do. It didn't work in '56, of course, and Bryant's legislation wouldn't work, either—but that isn't really the point.
Rituals and symbols matter. Bryant's support for a new Resolution of Interposition is powerful and, in its own way, bold—indicating that he is willing to fearlessly identify himself with the state's segregationist past, whether members of his party in the Legislature are willing to join him in this endeavor or not.
Longtime readers of the Jackson Free Press may remember the controversy that followed in 2009 when Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, the Mississippi Senate Tourism chairwoman, gave the keynote speech at the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens' annual convention—and identified herself as a proud member. The CCC, a successor to the white Citizen's Council (which operated on the principle that "[m]ixing the races is rebelliousness against God"), has long been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center; even Jim Nicholson, the former chairman of the national Republican Party, long ago condemned the group for advocating "racist and nationalist views."
When news broke of Chassaniol's support for the organization, activists asked her to resign her membership in the Council of Conservative Citizens. She refused.
Activists then asked Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White to distance his party from the organization. He also refused.
Chassaniol remains chairwoman of the Mississippi Senate Tourism Committee, because that's the sort of thing a white nationalist group's keynote speaker can still do in Mississippi.
I could waste hundreds of precious words mulling the question of whether Phil Bryant is "a" racist, or whether Lydia Chassaniol is "a" racist, but I neither know nor care what their private prejudices might be, and I would expect successful career politicians to have more sense to show them off. What concerns me more is the ritual power of their behavior, because their behavior has lowered the bar for Mississippi politicians. If a Mississippi legislator wants to proudly identify as a member of a white nationalist organization, she or he now knows that this is a decision that is unlikely to come with any serious political repercussions—Chassaniol has opened that door. If a Mississippi politician wants to campaign on 1950s-style nullification and interposition responses to federal civil rights legislation, he or she knows that Phil Bryant has opened that door, too. Ten years ago, Trent Lott was guilty of the same behavior—and it cost him his political career. Now it has become normal. That's how powerful rituals and symbols can be.
So it is actually relevant that somebody accidentally (or, perhaps, "accidentally") hoisted up the Confederate battle flag at the Mississippi Supreme Court building last Friday, or—for that matter—that the execrable stars 'n' bars already appear in the upper-left corner of our official state flag. It is significant that old Klan killers like Byron de la Beckwith, Sam Bowers and Edgar Ray Killen were finally convicted. It does matter that statewide voters haven't elected a black candidate since Reconstruction. It most certainly matters that we do have a black president.
Rituals and symbols tell us what we can and can't get away with, what we can realistically expect from each other, and what we stand for as a state and as a nation. And they are incredibly important. You can tell they're important by looking at the rituals that the leaders of our state still refuse to perform, the symbols they still refuse to reject, and the errors of judgment they keep making--generation after generation—without remorse, without apology and without political cost.
Tom Head is a Jackson native. He has written or co-written 24 nonfiction books, is a civil liberties writer for About.com and is a grassroots progressive activist.