Mississippi has the second highest rate of voter disenfranchisement in the country, largely due to post-sentence restrictions. The state is one of 12 where a person can serve his or her time, be released and not automatically be able to vote. Twenty-two convictions means no voting rights until the Legislature, governor or a judge says otherwise.
The fight for voting rights in Mississippi harkens back to an era of segregation, Jim Crow restrictions and violence toward African Americans. A tradition of poll taxes, intimidation and having to answer questions like "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" kept most black Mississippians from voting until the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which both black and white Americans died to make bring about, officially ended those disenfranchisement practices.
Still, a period of mass incarceration, including felony charges for drug crimes, lay just ahead—bringing another method to keep black people from voting, even after serving time for a crime. Now, 52 years after Freedom Summer volunteers forced voting rights for on into the state, most disenfranchised voters are still African American.
The Sentencing Project's most recent report on disenfranchised voters with felony convictions in 2016 estimates that of Mississippi's approximately 218,181 disenfranchised voters, 127,130 are African Americans. That means around 58 percent of disenfranchised voters are African American.
Gov. Phil Bryant recently declared October "Racial Reconciliation Month," causing an outcry from some community activists and leaders because it is clearly an empty public-relations slogan for a governor who refuses to lead on issues to end the disparate treatment of people of color. Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans in the country—more than 37 percent per the last Census—but State leaders like Bryant still support state-sanctioned discrimination against them.
From the Mississippi flag to African Americans not allowed to vote until they petition the very lawmakers sanctioning the archaic laws, Mississippi has work to do—as those skeptical community leaders sought to bring to light last week at the capitol.
The idea of "racial reconciliation" is admirable, but to just declare it without properly addressing the structural problems at the root of race disparities in this state is a slap in the face to all Mississippians.
We have laws that still disproportionately target people of color, and the state cannot move on to its future until those laws are changed and the "heritage" of racism is truly dismantled. Lawmakers must prove that they are not trying to squelch voting by black people by acknowledging that antiquated laws and hurtful symbols are not just harmful to our state's image at home and abroad—but it proves that they want to continue perpetuating inequality in the poorest state in the union.
No more empty talk on race, governor. You and other state leaders must start walking the talk.