On his way out the door, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour decided to grant executive pardons and medical releases to over 200 convicts, including 14 convicted of murder. He even pardoned Scott Favre, brother of retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre. But why weren’t the Scott sisters on Barbour’s list?
Barbour’s pardons caused outrage in some political circles, including charges that he violated the state constitution and did not act wisely in making the decisions. And a Mississippi judge blocked 21 of the pardons after the state’s attorney general complained.
As Barbour pointed out, the majority of the people had already been released or approved by the state parole board. Besides, he wanted to restore voting rights to people who had paid their debt to society, and allow them to seek gainful employment. And some had worked in the Governor’s mansion under a program for prisoners who earned good time credits. For a man who was barred from running again due to term limits, and whose 2012 presidential aspirations ended after he defended the Jim Crow-era White Citizens Councils, the pardons made sense.
Jamie and Gladys Scott — who were serving life sentences for the 1993 armed robbery of two men that only yielded between $11 and $200 — were released by the governor in January 2011, but with strings attached. Gladys had to agree to donate one of her kidneys to Jamie, who was released because she suffers from kidney failure. The Scott sisters had hoped for a pardon from Barbour, but now will ask the new governor, Phil Bryant. But will Bryant deliver for them? His background may provide clues.
Like Barbour, Bryant is a conservative Republican in the nation’s most conservative state. A former state representative, state auditor, and most recently lieutenant governor, he beat his gubernatorial opponent, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree — the first black candidate for statewide office in Mississippi — by 61 percent to 39 percent. Bryant outspent DuPree at a rate of 4-to-1.
Candidate Bryant was co-chairman of an anti-birth control ballot initiative last November that would have banned abortion even for rape and incest, and defined a fertilized egg as a human being. The personhood ballot measure, which Dupree also supported, albeit with concerns, failed.
But it is Governor Bryant’s positions on race that speaks to his civil rights record and whether he would pardon two black women.
In addition, the new governor supported the state’s successful voter ID ballot measure, requiring voters to present a government-issued photo identification at the polls. The measure had the overwhelming support of white voters, while most blacks opposed the initiative. Bryant has pressed for voter ID requirements on the grounds that it prevents voter fraud. According to civil rights proponents, voter ID laws are voter suppression tactics that discriminate against black and Latino voters, who are less likely to possess a photo ID. Meanwhile, as a lawmaker Bryant did not provide any evidence of voter fraud practiced in his state.
But as a state legislator, Bryant helped kill a voter ID bill because of amendments supported by the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus. The Black Caucus measures would have encouraged voter registration and voter turnout, early voting, extended voting days and same-day registration.
“Nobody wants photo Voter ID more than I do,” Bryant said in 2010. “However, I am not willing to back down from my Republican conservative principles and accept early voting and other provisions that compromise fair elections.” Bryant also opposes voting rights for convicted felons, including nonviolent felons convicted of writing bad checks — a crime disproportionately committed by blacks.Further, Bryant opposed federal aid that would have brought relief to unemployed Mississippians, in a state where black unemployment reached three times the white rate during the recession. And he was one of the state’s first politicians to capitalize on the undocumented immigration issue as a way to rile up older white voters who are afraid of people of color outnumbering them and taking over.
As state auditor, Bryant claimed that so-called illegal immigrant children were responsible for the rising cost of public education, without providing any proof of his assertion. So, he fabricated the numbers. This, in the blackest state in the Union, with a 40 percent black population and a rising 2.7 percent Latino population.
The civil rights community is blaming the newly-minted executive of the Magnolia State for fanning the flames of racial hatred in the state. Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson accused Bryant of being the main agitator of racial hostility by enabling Tea Party racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. “It’s un-American,” Johnson said. “We’re going to stand up against it.”
Mississippi’s new governor opposes the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters, characterizing it as President Johnson’s revenge against Southern states. “It changed in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson didn’t get the votes of the South. You know, we voted for Barry Goldwater,” Bryant said.
“So Lyndon Johnson got mad and he passed the Voting Rights Act that said all those states that voted less than 50 percent in the past presidential election in 1964 now must go under the control of the Justice Department. Johnson said ‘You didn’t vote for me, South, so I’ll show you something,’ so some states, including Arizona and some counties in Virginia, since 1964 have been under the Department of Justice.”
The Department of Justice determines whether state redistricting plans meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. When it comes to voting rights, Bryant said, “I’m about tired of having the Obama justice department tell me what to do.” The state Senate rejected Bryant’s redistricting plan to eliminate a new black-majority district. The senators were concerned his plan would violate the law.
Most of all, Governor Bryant might be reluctant to pardon the Scott sisters because he is a member of the pro-secessionist, pro-slavery Sons of Confederate Veterans, which according to the Southern Poverty Law Center is “a Southern heritage group that has been largely dominated by racial extremists since 2002.” As lieutenant governor, Bryant was listed as a member in a SCV newsletter.
And according to the website of the Mississippi Division of the SCV, “As we all know our fellow SCV compatriot and member, Phil Bryant, is now the governor-elect of our great state. During his tenure as Lieutenant Governor he has not forgotten his Confederate heritage and has supported the SCV. I am requesting that we return the favor and support him.”
Last year, the SCV held a march to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War which, according to the group, did not involve slavery. Regarding the Civil War, the SCV website said “the South was right!” and claimed “there is no difference between the invasion of France by Hitler and the invasion of the Southern states by Lincoln.”
Now, the decision of whether pardon the Scott sisters is in this man’s hands. Will a governor who is a member of a neo-confederate group, opposes voting rights for blacks and ex-felons and uses Latino immigrants to stoke white racial fears pardon the Scott sisters? Time will tell.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove