Mississippi's largest city and state capital finally passed a resolution affirming equality for all citizens, including the LGBT community.
After more than two hours at today's Jackson City Council meeting, before a packed audience, members voted 3-1 for a "resolution supporting equality for all citizens of Jackson, Mississippi." Ward 3 Councilwoman LaRita Cooper-Stokes was the lone dissenting vote, but did not speak against the measure. Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell and Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps were absent.
The sponsors of the resolution—the eighth in a series passed in cities around the state—were Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman, a council veteran who also acts as president, and Melvin Priester Jr., of Ward 2, one of the younger councilmen, who serves as vice president.
Tillman said he was "honored" to co-author the resolution because elected officials should ensure that they behave as "our brothers' keepers."
Priester said he believed it was important for Jackson to pass a resolution because "discrimination against one person is discrimination against all of us."
"I know there is more good in Jackson than bad. I want to make sure when the history books are written there was no question where the City of Jackson was," Priester added.
The issue came to the fore recently as a so-called "religious freedom" bill in the Legislature, SB 2681, created fervent backlash from civil-rights groups, as well as local businesses, who worry that the measure would open the door to discrimination against certain groups, including the LGBT community. In response, the Human Rights Campaign launched a statewide initiative to promote LGBT equality, and several cities around the state passed non-binding resolutions supporting LGBT rights.
Locally, these events took place against the backdrop of the Jackson mayor's race, in which three sitting council members sought the seat vacated with the death of human-rights activist and attorney Chokwe Lumumba.
One of the top questions asked at debates and forums during the recent special election for mayor was if the candidates would support an LGBT resolution for the city of Jackson. Priester, who ran for mayor, said during his campaign that he opposed discrimination of any kind. He also said he was working to create a human-rights commission that would help protect a variety of people.
"I am opposed to discrimination, whether it's against black people, whether it's against women, whether it's against gay or lesbian or transgendered people," Priester said.
Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon stood out from the rest of the candidates with her strong opposition to SB 2681, which many fear will allow discrimination of LGBT Mississippians, and support of an LGBT protective ordinance.
"It is a fundamental question not only of civil rights, but of basic human decency," Barrett-Simon wrote on her Facebook page the Thursday after Gov. Phil Bryant signed SB 2681 into law while surrounded by prominent religious-right leaders, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.
"We are all equal members of this community, and every person—regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or background—deserves to be treated with the same measure of dignity and respect. Doing so, through official policy where necessary, will be an unyielding principle of my administration," Barrett-Simon promised then.
Mayor Tony Yarber said early on in his campaign that he did not believe a resolution was the solution to anti-LGBT discrimination; however, near the end of his campaign, he said that he supported human rights for all human beings, leading some to wonder if his opinion about a resolution could change.
"I don't have to agree with a lifestyle in order to be a defender or to defend that person who carries that lifestyle out," Yarber said. "... With the right leadership, that leader says we're going to protect everyone. And if we find that you have been discriminated against, we're going to deal with you as severely as we can because it isn't right."
Knol Aust, co-founder and chair of Unity Mississippi, released a statement during the meeting applauding the move. " I'm excited to see Mississippi's capital and largest city recognize that diversity, including LGBTQ citizens, is a critical component of a successful city," Aust said. "It's an historic and timely resolution—especially when you consider the recent legislation (SB2681) that was originally manufactured to allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community. We welcome this acknowledgement by the city that its citizens deserve equal treatment regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
Unity Mississippi further emphasized that the resolution is only one step on a journey toward equality that must continue, though. "We applaud the Council's work in passing this resolution. This is a remarkable first step in the movement to establish full equality under the law for the people of Jackson. We, as a community and as an organization, strongly encourage the Council to continue this important work by now considering and passing into law an ordinance that codifies the sentiment declared in this resolution," said Jenni Smith, Unity vice chair and co-founder.
Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson spoke at the beginning of the meeting in favor of the resolution. No one spoke against it.
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