Symposium | What is Red-State Liberalism?

Keeping the Flame Alive

By Jennifer Riley-Collins

“There is work yet to be done.” These were the words I heard spoken clearly in the core of my being when I returned to Mississippi after living in Texas and Arizona for seven-plus years while on military duty to attend law school. These words ring true, even now, especially now—there is much work yet to be done, especially in red states like Mississippi, to ensure justice for all.

For many, there is a notion that the civil rights movement ended in the mid- to late-1960s. But this war is a protracted war. The work of social justice in a place where there is an intentional, although now less overt, preservation of doctrines of supremacy, whitewashed by words like “heritage,” is not easy work. Still, it marches on. It is the work of choice for many of us still committed to bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Mississippi in 1969 was a place of unrest, as civil rights workers were beat, arrested, and even killed fighting for equal rights. Black Mississippians were threatened for trying to exercise their right to vote and speaking out against the government. It was that year that the ACLU of Mississippi planted its roots in the red clay soil.

Today, we keep on fighting these same fights. We find ourselves still trying to secure fundamental rights and protections. In a state where folk love to call for “states’ rights,” there are no state rights that protect me from discrimination. We still have provisions in the state Constitution, for example, that were codified with the intent of permanently disenfranchising black voters, and we are still faced with policies that result in unequal educational opportunities for our children. We’re working hard on all these fronts. It can be disheartening. Many days it is one step forward and two steps back, but we forge ahead because we know folk are counting on us to stand in the gap for them.

And so we stand with the LGBT community against codified licenses to discriminate, currently in the form of Mississippi House Bill 1523, which permits public and private figures to demean, discriminate against, and refuse to serve LGBT Mississippians in aspects of their lives such as access to health care and even public accommodations. The ACLU of Mississippi ensures that transgender and gender non-conforming people are empowered to engage decision-makers through our Transgender Education Advocacy Program. This program seeks to serve the roughly 14,000 transgender community members in the state. It is led by a trans woman of color and supported by seven key leaders, along with a multitude of allies from around the state.

As others seek to undermine access to the polls with false claims about “voter fraud,” we are working to expand voting rights by advocating for online voter registration, and no excuse early voting. We believe equitable educational opportunity should mean more than merely adequate education, and we’re working to ensure that young men and boys of color stay in schools, and are not pushed into prison.

We dealt a blow to the practice of unconstitutional incarceration in our federal class-action suit Burks v. Scott County, after learning that the detention center there held people for as long as a year without indicting them or appointing counsel. Our case was filed on behalf of Josh Bassett and Octavious Burks, who were detained in Scott County for eight and ten months, respectively, without ever being charged or appointed a lawyer. Unlike the federal system and most states, Mississippi places no limit on how long a person can be held in jail before the prosecution obtains an indictment, and prosecutors often took months. The plaintiffs languished in jail because a local judge set cash bail at amounts neither could afford, and they had no attorney to argue for their release.

As a result of our lawsuit, a settlement agreement was reached to require Scott, Leake, Neshoba, and Newton counties to appoint public defenders at arrest, which will ensure that arrestees have attorneys at their first bail hearings to argue for lower bail amounts and release until trial. These counties are also prohibited from detaining felony arrestees solely because they can’t afford cash bail. Other jurisdictions should take heed to this settlement and work toward providing counsel to the indigent, thereby avoiding costly litigation. Efforts like these clash daily against an ongoing determination to keep Mississippi a closed society, held back by racism and other forms of discrimination. Change has never come in easy in the South. When faced with policymakers who treat our neighbors as second-class citizens and who advocate for the return of execution by the electric chair and firing squad, or when school officials suspend student athletes for taking a knee, we do not simply shake our heads in disbelief. Instead, we become even more determined to fight.

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Jennifer Riley-Collins is the executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

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