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Why a majority-Black city could wind up with a new white-appointed court system

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Jackson’s 2022 homicide rate was misstated as 88%. It should have been stated as a homicide rate of 88 per 100,000 residents.]


A new bill passed in Mississippi's Republican-controlled state House this week is drawing harsh criticism from Democrats. That bill, if made law, would allow the state's chief justice and attorney general, both of whom happen to be white, to appoint judges and prosecutors for a new and separate court system for a district in the capital of Jackson, a city that happens to be majority Black. That would mean voters would no longer get to elect the judges and prosecutors for this district. Jackson's mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, likened the plan to apartheid. He blasted its supporters on Tuesday.


CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: For the other legislators, I was surprised that they came half-dressed because they forgot to wear their hoods.

SUMMERS: Mayor Lumumba joins me now. Thanks for being here.

LUMUMBA: Thank you for having me. And thank you for speaking to this issue.

SUMMERS: I mean, there is no mistaking how you feel about this bill. But before I ask you more about that, I'm wondering what you've been hearing from current judges and prosecutors and police about this bill, the impact they think it would have on the city.

LUMUMBA: Well, there has been a unified effort to combat this bill from all elected officials within Hinds County. The judges came out and made a statement and did a demonstration in protest. The Hinds County district attorney is on record being against this particular bill. And it's just part and parcel of an effort that has been ongoing for some time to seize power from the city of Jackson, not only this Democratic city but seize power from this largely African American city.

SUMMERS: The sponsor of this bill, State Representative Trey Lamar, we should note, does not live in Jackson, but he has said that this effort is about helping to prevent crime and resolving a backlog of cases moving through the Hinds County court system. Jackson has had the highest homicide rate in the nation for the past two years. Do you dispute what Lamar says is the bill's ultimate goal here, to make Jackson safer for the people who live there?

LUMUMBA: Absolutely. If he was concerned with supporting the issue of public safety in Jackson, then they would have sponsored a bill for the numerous requests of the Jackson Police Department that have asked for additional equipment in order to shorten the time frame of a case actually going to trial. They would support the state crime lab, which is a major contributor to the backlog of cases, all of these things that we have come year after year requesting and trying to get implemented and support that have been denied. What they simply want to do is control Jackson. And so this is a power grab, whether you're talking about the Capitol Complex District, whether you're talking about our water system, whether you talk about the fight we're having over our airport right now for control, whether you talk about the attempt to take over our school district. They are all consistent with one another.

SUMMERS: So I want to go back to the issue of public safety and crime. Last year, the homicide rate was 88%. So how are you and other city leaders addressing that homicide rate, as well as the deeper problems that are behind it?

LUMUMBA: Yeah, well, if they had bothered to ask us, they would have found that Jackson, suffering like the rest of the nation with an increased homicide rate, that most of our homicides have been due to interpersonal relationships, which policing alone by itself has limited impact on that. I have never said defund the police. What I have said is that we can use other tools and resources in order to attack this comprehensive challenge in a comprehensive way. But that isn't the sincere and earnest desire of the legislature, I believe. And so what they're trying to do is create a city within a city for the most densely populated white portion of the city of Jackson. Let's call a spade a spade.

SUMMERS: The bill's sponsor, Trey Lamar, has argued repeatedly that his efforts, they're not racially motivated. It does not sound like you believe that to be the case.

LUMUMBA: Well, if you walk like a duck, quack like a duck, then you probably shouldn't be offended by someone calling you a duck. There's one delegate from Hinds County that has supported this particular bill. Mind you, one of the white delegates has supported this bill. But this wasn't done in consultation with any of our delegation. It wasn't done in consultation with me as the mayor. But yet you just know better than I do. As he stated, you know, we need the best and the brightest. And apparently, as Black Democrats, we're not smart enough to know what we need best.

SUMMERS: What do you want the bill's supporters and others across the country hearing this conversation to understand about the needs of your city, of the people of Jackson, that you think have gone unacknowledged here?

LUMUMBA: First and foremost, I want them to understand that the people of Jackson have wisdom. They have an understanding of what best serves their community. They, like any other community, deserve the right to determine who are the people who have such authority over them, authority to take lives in the police force that they're trying to implement, authority to sentence people to long-term sentences without oversight or any accountability to the residents. You know, we've been here before. This reflects of a Mississippi of old. And to quote former coach Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were.

SUMMERS: Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, thank you so much for being here.

LUMUMBA: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

SUMMERS: And we have reached out to State Representative Trey Lamar for a response. We have not yet heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.