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MS Democratic Party chair vows support for Biden despite poor debate performance

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Cheikh Taylor on Friday stood by Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee for president after party officials around the nation were left reckoning with Biden’s shaky performance in the first presidential debate.

“Biden is tried and tested,” Taylor said during a recording of Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” political podcast. “If we’re looking at the priorities he’s put forward, I don’t think most Democrats have heartburn about that.”

Taylor’s complete response to the debate, and thoughts on numerous other Mississippi political topics can be heard on “The Other Side,” which will air Monday morning. 

Biden, 81, faced off in a Thursday debate with former President Donald Trump, 78, moderated by CNN that covered topics including abortion, the economy and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Several times during the debate, Biden stumbled over his words, paused to correct phrases and sometimes trailed off, leaving an unclear end to sentences.  

Trump had far more energy than the incumbent president, but often spouted false information, such as continuing to repeat the debunked claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and was rife with voter fraud. 

Several national Democratic operatives and media pundits have said the president should step aside and allow a new candidate to take his place atop the presidential ticket. If that were to happen, it would create a historic scenario at the Democratic National Convention later this year that would give the party’s delegates power to select a new candidate. 

Taylor did say that if the first-term Democratic president does withdraw his nomination from consideration, then Vice President Kamala Harris should take his place as the head of the ticket. 

Mississippi public officials from both sides of the aisle reacted on social media to Thursday night’s debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Here are some responses:

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves: “If Joe Biden was in your family, you’d take his car keys and keep him safe in your home. But he’s our President, and he needs to rest comfortably somewhere other than the White House.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith: “What we saw tonight were two very different visions for America. Joe Biden was solely focused on division and backwards policies, while President Trump provided a platform for reversing record inflation, closing our Southern border, and keeping our country safe in an increasingly dangerous world. We need a leader who has a record of accomplishment and Making America Great! I couldn’t be more proud of how my friend, Donald J. Trump performed tonight. Vote RED November 5!”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson: “I wish Trump would answer the questions he is asked.”

Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Ty Pinkins: “President Biden demonstrated a clear commitment to addressing the needs and concerns of everyday Americans. It’s this dedication to working for all Americans that I support and look forward to building upon in the Senate.”

Republican state Auditor Shad White: “President Trump was on message and the obvious winner tonight. I honestly struggled to even understand what President Biden was saying most of the time.”

Republican Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson: “‘The idea!’ The idea that this man is President of the United States is a very scary idea for our country. The idea that he wants to continue another 4 years is even scarier. I cannot wait to attend the RNC in July and cast a vote for our candidate Donald J. Trump.”

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Tunica school district returns to local control Monday, after nearly a decade

After almost a decade under state conservatorship, Tunica County School District will return to local control on July 1. 

The takeover of the schools, which were placed under state control in July 2015, has been the longest district takeover in state history. 

Margie Pulley has been at the helm throughout the district’s transformation. She previously served as superintendent of the Greenwood School Board before acting as conservator for the Oktibbeha County School District which merged with Starkville’s school district in 2015. She described the process of turning the Tunica district around as challenging but rewarding. 

“We put our emphasis on teaching and learning,” Pulley told Mississippi Today. “That was the focus of the Tunica County School District. We put emphasis on children, and we put academics and teaching first.”

The district was initially placed into a conservatorship after a slew of failures that state officials at the time said jeopardized the safety, security and educational interests of the children enrolled in the district. 

In addition to years of D and F ratings and low graduation rates, the school was found to be in violation of six of eight accreditation standards, and in violation of federal laws like the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act. 

Today, all schools in the district are C rated or higher, the district’s overall rating is a B, and the district’s graduation rate has grown from 57.3% in 2015 to 88.8% in 2023. 

“Teachers have done an outstanding job, and the students have done an excellent job,” Pulley said. “Students here in Tunica County have proven that they can learn and are good students — we just made sure that they were taught.”

One of the major issues with the district pre-conservatorship was its failures in educating students with disabilities. Pulley pointed to the school’s graduation rate for students with disabilities, which was one of the highest in the state last year. 

The district’s financial situation has also improved, from $5,212,625 cash on hand in 2015 to $23,650,634 in 2023. At the district level, it now has one of the highest per-pupil expenditures rates in the state. In the 2022-23 school year, the district spent $17,737 per student. The state average was $11,738.

Pulley said the money always helps. 

“If you want good results, you have to spend the money to get it,” she said. “We’ve spent money, we think, in the places where there was the greatest need. We’ve got full-time English Language Arts and math interventionists and that makes a difference in instruction. The students get the intervention they need. So, I feel good about the money we’ve spent and putting it in the places that it needs to be placed.” 

The district has also made a number of capital improvements to school facilities and purchased new school buses for every bus route. 

The State Board of Education voted in its June 20 meeting to initiate the return to local control, which it has been preparing the district for since late 2022, when it appointed an advisory board that will serve as voting members of the district’s school board beginning on July 1. The new superintendent, selected by what will soon be the school board, will also be announced and sworn in on July 1.

Because school board members are elected officials, they will serve staggered terms with one election in 2025 and every year thereafter until all seats have been voted in. 

At nine years, the state takeover of Tunica County schools is the longest since the state began conservatorships in the late 1990’s. In 2018, the Legislature made changes to the law concerning state takeovers of local school districts, mandating that schools which undergo conservatorship not be released from state control until the district has achieved a rating of C or higher for five consecutive years. 

For districts that cannot make the turnaround from the outset, state takeovers will last longer than they have in the past. 

For example — Noxubee County School District was placed under conservatorship prior to the 2018-2019 school year, but was unable to achieve a C rating until the 2022-23 school year. This means the earliest the district can achieve the necessary requirement to be released from conservatorship is at the conclusion of the 2026-2027 school year. By this point, the school will have been under state control for nine years — and that’s only if the district is able to maintain a C rating for four more consecutive years. 

Holmes County Consolidated School District has been under state control since 2021.

This is Tunica district’s second conservatorship since 1996. When asked if she was confident in Tunica County School District’s success post-conservatorship Pulley said: “All the protocols are in place for Tunica to be successful. They should continue to be successful.”

The Mississippi Department of Education echoed this sentiment. 

“Successful school districts rely on effective leadership from their local school boards, district administrators and school principals,” Jean Gordon Cook, MDE communications chief, said. “Tunica County School District interim superintendent Dr. Margie Pulley has set the district up for success by implementing high-quality instruction, sound financial management and ensuring all accreditation standards are in compliance.”

The post Tunica school district returns to local control Monday, after nearly a decade appeared first on Mississippi Today.

The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 visit to Sunflower County

Editor’s note: This article was written by Bryan Davis, publisher of The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper in Indianola. It first published on June 21 and is republished below with permission. Click here to read the story on The Enterpise-Tocsin’s website.

It all happened on a dirt pile, on a construction site.

That was not the typical pulpit for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but on June 21, 1966, on the grounds of the Sunflower County Courthouse, that would have to do. 

King arrived in Indianola that afternoon with little fanfare. There was no stage or speaker system set up outside of the courthouse. 

The crowd was thin by the standards of most of King’s speeches. That didn’t matter. The famed Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner was going to say what he came to say. 

About 450 people, mostly local Black citizens, gathered to hear him speak. And what a speech it was. 

King’s stop in Indianola probably would never have happened had it not been for James Meredith being shot on the second day of his famed March Against Fear earlier that month.  That prompted King and other Civil Rights leaders to come to the state to finish the march. 

His speech in Indianola has long been relegated to the footnotes of history, but the words spoken on the courthouse grounds that day may have revealed one of King’s more vulnerable moments. 

Indianola resident and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Field Secretary Charles McLaurin told The Enterprise-Tocsin that the march was originally intended to route straight down Highway 51 from Memphis to Jackson, but voting rights hero and Ruleville native Fannie Lou Hamer asked McLaurin to travel to Grenada to ask King and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael to divert into the Delta. 

“She said, ‘We got fear here too,’” McLaurin recounted. 

King was fighting wars on multiple fronts during the summer of 1966. His primary focus was no longer on the segregationist South. He was spending a lot of time in larger northern cities like Chicago, fighting for equal and affordable housing rights. 

After Meredith was shot, he agreed to join the march, and he was often back-and-forth that summer between places like Chicago, Atlanta and Mississippi.

In his own circle, there was intense infighting about the “Black Power” slogan that was becoming more popular during SNCC rallies. 

King vehemently opposed the Black Power movement, so much so that he returned to Mississippi on multiple occasions that summer in order to squash momentum from that side and to promote nonviolence.  

By the morning of June 21, 1966, King was back in Mississippi. 

That day, the March Against Fear splintered off into two groups. The main cluster of marchers pushed on from the hot, dusty Delta town of Louise toward Yazoo City. 

A smaller contingency, led by King, flew to Meridian, with hopes of arriving later that day in Philadelphia to help locals there pay tribute to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, three Civil Rights workers who had been murdered exactly two years before in Neshoba County. 

King would attend three rallies that day. One of those was in Philadelphia. The second was in Indianola. The third was in Yazoo City. 

Local white leaders in Indianola and Yazoo City, many involved in the White Citizens Council, warned away counter protesters in an effort to keep the peace. 

White leadership in Philadelphia and Neshoba County did not seem quite as worried about negative publicity, and many seemed to revel in the violence that followed. 

The events that unfolded in Philadelphia had an immediate impact on King, and when he arrived in Indianola to speak later that day, he was fired up. 

“Hatred is running very deep there,” King said of Philadelphia, according to an article in the Delta Democrat-Times the next day. “Something is going to have to be done about it.” 

King vented in Indianola, and he left out no one, including state, local and federal policing agencies, as well as Sunflower County’s own Senator James O. Eastland. 

“We have to get rid of Eastland if the Civil Rights movement is to go forward,” the Clarion Ledger reported King as saying at the Sunflower County Courthouse.  

On June 22, 1966, accounts of King’s speech in Indianola flooded most of the nation’s newspapers. Many of those accounts were on the front pages of those papers. 

By nightfall on June 21, King was in Yazoo City, his attention diverted somewhat from Philadelphia back to the Black Power movement. His tone was much more collected than it had been in Indianola. 

King and the marchers left Yazoo City and traveled down Highway 16 toward Canton. A historical marker on the grounds of the American Methodist Episcopal Church in Benton commemorates King’s brief stop there along the way.

There is no such marker at the courthouse in Sunflower County. 

On June 23, 1966, in Canton, marchers made national headlines again when they were teargassed by law enforcement when they tried to pitch camp on the grounds of a local public school. 

Meredith would recover from his gunshot wound, and he returned to the march the day before things ended in Jackson on June 26, 1966. 

King and the movement moved on, and his stop in Indianola soon faded into history.

The Road to Indianola

Charles McLaurin stands atop a set of exterior stairs on the west side of the Sunflower County Courthouse, the approximate spot, he says, where he and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood during King’s speech here on June 21, 1966. Photo by Bryan Davis/Emmerich Newspapers/Copyright 2024

By the summer of 1966, Charles McLaurin had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a field secretary, and the Indianola resident also had embraced the notion of Black Power.

“Dr. King espoused nonviolence. Stokely never did. None of us did, especially the Mississippians,” McLaurin said. “We made a pledge to support nonviolence as a technique for change. That was a commitment. They made commitments, and Stokely often bumped heads with King about nonviolence and turning the other cheek.”

McLaurin, a Hinds County native, came to Ruleville in northern Sunflower County in 1962, and he would later play a pivotal role during Freedom Summer in 1964. 

Trained by the late Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, McLaurin was on the bus ride with Fannie Lou Hamer and others that drove from Ruleville to the Sunflower County Courthouse in 1962 to attempt voter registration.  

Like many other Civil Rights workers during that time, McLaurin was beaten on multiple occasions, his life was threatened, and he was arrested over 30 times. 

It’s not surprising that by 1966 McLaurin had grown weary of King’s more tempered approach to change. 

“Basically, we were all after freedom, it was just a matter of the approach we used in the community to organize,” McLaurin said. 

Black Power did not necessarily mean violence, McLaurin said, but it scared whites and Blacks just the same.  

“We knew the minute they were able to attach violence to us, we were all dead,” McLaurin said. “They’d shoot us all tomorrow.” 

King was often visibly frustrated with Carmichael’s aggressive slogan, but the two remained close, photographed shoulder-to-shoulder, talking and smiling during the march that summer. 

“They were often together,” McLaurin said. “They weren’t enemies. I disagreed with some of the things we did. I realized the ultimate goal was to free all of us.”

But things had come to a head at Broad Street Park in Greenwood on the evening of June 16, 1966. 

King was not in the state that day, and when Carmichael and other organizers attempted to pitch tents on the grounds of a public school there, Carmichael and two others were arrested. 

“Once we got back and Stokely was in jail, we made up our minds to stay in Greenwood, even if they killed everybody,” McLaurin said.

When he came out of the jail and onto the stage that night, Carmichael threw down the gauntlet. 

“We been saying freedom for six years, and we ain’t got nothin’,” he said. “What we got to start saying now is Black Power! We want Black Power!” 

That speech immediately received national attention, King, who was in Chicago that day, included. 

It wasn’t long before he rejoined the March Against Fear to offer support to the marchers.

It was also an attempt to quell the uprising within his own movement and to reassure whites and Blacks in the South that he was committed to nonviolence. 

Five days later, while the main march pushed toward Yazoo City, King was drawn to Philadelphia for the memorial service for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.  

Philadelphia was by no means a “City of Brotherly Love” that day. 

The violence that erupted there sparked national coverage, with photographs and stories on the front pages of many newspapers, including The Ithaca Journal in New York and the Decatur Herald in Illinois. 

“This is a terrible town,” King said of Philadelphia, according to an Associated Press report in the Decatur paper. “The worst I’ve seen. There is a complete reign of terror here.” 

Mourners of the three Civil Rights workers were met with jeers, taunts and even some violence from about 400 whites. 

“I think this is by far the worst situation I’ve ever been in,” King was reported as saying in a Sacramento Bee article. “This is a complete climate of terror and breakdown of law and order.” 

Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey had left town ahead of the rally, leaving in charge Deputy Cecil Price, the man who had arrested Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney two years earlier and was at the time awaiting trial on federal civil rights charges related to the three murders, according to Aram Goudsouzian’s book Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Meredith March Against Fear. 

Any additional law enforcement manpower,  state or federal, seemed unwelcomed by Price and the local deputies and policemen, according to the accounts in Goudsouzian’s book. 

Price attempted to block King from walking up the courthouse steps there. 

“I’m not afraid of any man,” King said, according to newspaper reports. “Before I will be a slave, I will be dead in my grave.” 

Several white men shouted, “We’ll help you” in response to that statement. Whites continued their taunts and threw cherry bombs, one right at King’s feet. 

“Men with hatred on their faces, who want to turn this country backward,” King said during his discourse at the Neshoba courthouse, according to the Clarion Ledger. 

“Negroes were stoned in Philadelphia during the day as they marched to the downtown area from a church a mile away,” the Clarion Ledger article said. “One man was clubbed.”

A pair of cameramen were “manhandled” and their equipment “smashed.” 

“White youths, wielding ax handles and hoes, grabbed Negroes in the line of march and started fights that were broken up by police,” the article continued. 

“King, head of the Southern (Christian) Leadership Conference, didn’t flinch when a cherry bomb exploded loudly at his feet,” the Mississippi paper described. “He said afterward he considered Philadelphia ‘By far the toughest town we have been in’…He told newsmen he would ask for federal protection in the town, because he intended to return.” 

The worst violence happened after King departed, when groups of whites repeatedly exchanged gunfire with members of the Freedom Democratic Party after dark, resulting in one of the white men being shot but not killed. 

According to reports, three carloads of white men drove “into a Negro neighborhood at Philadelphia at 9:30 p.m.,” and that is when the gunfire started. 

By that time, King had come and gone from Indianola, and he was in Yazoo City, getting ready to start the final leg of the Meredith March Against Fear. 

King’s Arrival in Sunflower County

When King left Philadelphia, he flew to Sunflower County, lagging the larger group of Meredith marchers, who had arrived in Yazoo City earlier that day. 

Prior to King’s arrival here, Hamer had led a morning rally from the town of Sunflower down Highway 49 toward Indianola. 

“During a rest just north of the Sunflower River Bridge, march leader Fannie Lou Hamer said that, ‘In addition to the charges on the placards, the protest was against alleged police brutality and voter intimidation,’” an article in the DD-T said. 

Meanwhile, Indianola police were preparing for the worst, warning whites to steer clear of the marchers and King’s speech. 

“Indianola police at noon were preparing to handle crowds of up to several hundred here today after Negro leader Martin Luther King scheduled two civil rights speeches inside the city limits,” the same DD-T report said. 

Originally, King was slated to give his afternoon speech at the courthouse, which was to be followed by an evening speech at Saint Benedict the Moor. The latter never happened. 

Police had roadblocks prepared for downtown Indianola, the article said, while then-Chief of Police Bryce Alexander told the DD-T that about 30 law enforcement personnel were going to be on hand to prevent incidents like the ones King had encountered earlier in Neshoba County, although it is likely the Indianola authorities knew few details about the Philadelphia rally at that point. 

“We aren’t anticipating any trouble here,” Alexander told the paper. “Our responsibility will begin as soon as the marchers enter the city limits. You have to be prepared in case somebody gets a few drinks in him.”

McLaurin said that he met King at the city limits on Highway 82 East. 

Hamer, who had originally requested King’s presence in the Delta, had to leave before King had arrived, McLaurin said. 

McLaurin escorted King and others into Indianola to the courthouse grounds. 

Sunflower County was in the process of building a new courthouse during the summer of 1966, and there were few places on the property that seemed appropriate for a speech. 

“There was a mound of dirt,” McLaurin said. 

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the right elevation for a speech. 

“Dr. King and I stood on a mound of dirt right there, and he spoke,” McLaurin said. 

McLaurin’s role in the movement had evolved since Freedom Summer in 1964, but he was still very familiar with Sunflower County and the late Sheriff Bill Hollowell.

The two had formed a bond the previous four years, and they had a good working relationship. 

Hollowell, like many others here, did not want to expose the county to negative press, so he would often lend protection to Civil Rights workers, McLaurin said. 

On this occasion, he even allowed McLaurin to have use of the Sunflower County Civil Defense bullhorn. McLaurin and King stood atop the dirt pile on the west side of the courthouse, facing Court Street. 

McLaurin said that he held the bullhorn while King vented about Philadelphia, vowing to return to that town as soon as possible. 

Before long, McLaurin said, the few whites who had shown up for King’s rally were irate about the fact that King had access to the county’s bullhorn. Hollowell, he said, had to act just as indignant about it. 

“He loaned me that civil defense bullhorn, and then he was back in there yelling, like I had taken it from him,” McLaurin said with a chuckle. “But I knew what he was doing, because he was around all of these white people.” 

McLaurin said that he and Hollowell later had a laugh over the bullhorn incident. 

Jim Pullen was one of just a handful of white people who witnessed King’s speech that day. A teenager at the time, Pullen said that he understood the significance of King’s arrival. 

“He was doing a great thing and doing a great job at it,” Pullen told The E-T in an interview. 

Pullen said that he worked afternoons at his stepfather’s furniture store on Court Street. 

“That particular morning, the (Black) man who worked for my daddy had gotten a pretty good head of knowledge about it,” Pullen said. “He said, ‘Martin Luther King is supposed to come here today.’”

The two made a trip to a nearby store and bought snacks for the occasion. 

“We went to one of the Chinese grocery stores on Second Street and got us some sardines, crackers and red soda pop,” Pullen said. “We got up in the window, and we waited for the excitement. Sure enough, there comes the crowd.” 

The two positioned themselves in the store’s upper room, waiting for the main attraction. 

“We got up in one of those windows,” Pullen said. “My daddy, and the other man, the white man who worked for my daddy, they’d be downstairs, and they wouldn’t be paying much attention to it at all. We thought if we get away upstairs, number one, they won’t find us. They won’t climb the steps and be coming around looking for us.”

Pullen still remembers nearly six decades later King standing on that elevated soil. 

“There was a big pile of dirt they had piled up over to the front right of (the courthouse),” he said. “That’s where Dr. King found a place where he could get up and he could be seen. He gave a speech, but of course I can’t recount all of what he might have said.”

King was still visibly frustrated about Philadelphia when he climbed atop that mound. 

He claimed that state, federal and local police not only “stood by” and watched the Neshoba violence unfold, but that some law enforcement officers “actually encouraged” attacks on marchers. 

He not only attacked the police in Philadelphia and then-Senator Eastland, but he roasted the mayor of Ruleville as well, according to newspaper reports. 

Of Eastland, King urged those in attendance to work toward replacing the senior senator, the Clarion Ledger said, if not during the 1966 election cycle, then perhaps the next one. 

“We’re not seeking to destroy the white people of Mississippi,” King said, according to a June 22 DD-T article. “We’re only seeking to make them better people.”

The DD-T quoted King in Indianola as also suggesting “joining hands with my white brothers” for the progress of the state and the South. 

Unlike in Philadelphia that day, the DD-T described the crowd at the Sunflower County Courthouse as being “closely guarded by county, state and Justice Department law enforcement officials.” 

“All of the officials involved seemed determined to prevent any incidents which would reflect on the image of the area,” the article said. “Hecklers and shouts of derision from spectators were non-existent.” 

A newspaper campaign ad for the late Senator James O. Eastland from the fall of 1966, quoting a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Sunflower County Courthouse. 

Eastland’s campaign would later use King’s words in Indianola in a fall statewide newspaper ad. 

“Who says ‘defeat Jim Eastland?’” the ad read, with photos below of admitted communist Phil Lapansky and King. Below King’s photo, the Indianola quote, “We have to get rid of Jim Eastland if the Civil Rights movement is to go forward.” 

Still shaken from the Philadelphia debacle, King became convinced in Indianola that the Meredith March should divert to Meridian and then to Philadelphia, according to newspaper reports. 

National Director of the Congress for Racial Equality Floyd B. McKissick said in Indianola that a large segment of the march should have been diverted back to Neshoba County that week, according to the June 22, 1966 New York Times. 

King agreed to that.  

“We will use all our nonviolent might,” King was quoted as saying. He then lashed out again at Philadelphia. 

“We got to go back – it’s the meanest town in the country,” The Times reported as King saying during a strategy session with other civil rights leaders in Indianola. “If they get by with what they did today, Negroes will be scared to death.”

McKissick agreed, according to The Times, saying, “We can’t take this lying down.” 

The Times reported that McKissick suggested that the Meredith marchers be divided into two parts, “One going by truck to Meridian for a 41-mile march from there into Philadelphia along Route 19. The remaining marching column would continue on its way to Jackson by way of Canton.” 

“Sounds good,” King said in The Times. 

Like other press who had been present in Indianola on June 21, The Times reported zero violent incidents. The paper reported that about 350 Black people showed up for the rally, along with over 100 white people. The Times reported that many Blacks in the crowd started to chant “Black Power.” 

“But when the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of Dr. King’s top aides arrived at the rally, he also asked Negroes what they wanted,” The Times said. “When some yelled ‘black power,’ he commanded, ‘Say freedom.’” 

“Freedom,” the negroes shouted, according to The Times. When the rally ended, the crowd dispersed. 

“Police officials in this deep-Delta city said today that Negro leader Martin Luther King had left for Yazoo City without a single reported incident of violence,” the DD-T reported on June 22. 

Although a large group of King supporters gathered at Saint Benedict the Moor later that evening to hear King, he had already left town, arriving in Yazoo City, and by that time, ready to once again engage in fierce debate against the Black Power slogan.  

King rededicated himself there to nonviolence and publicly denounced the new Black Power movement.  

“Violence may bring about a temporary victory, but it can never bring about permanent peace,” King said in Yazoo, according to one newspaper report. “If we don’t use black power right, we will have black men with power who are just as evil as whites.” 

While the nation’s press reported in detail the contents of King’s speech in Indianola, this newspaper had little to say about it, other than a front-page editor’s note by then-editor Wallace Dabbs. 

Dabbs at first was snarky, making what seems to have been a deliberate attempt to not mention King’s name in the article. 

“The march brought out one important fact which all serious-minded people (in) this area should be aware of,” Dabbs wrote. “The fact is this: A person can walk to Sunflower faster than a letter can be mailed from Indianola to Sunflower. And it is also a fact that by walking the walker will arrive some 24 or so more hours sooner than the letter. This, of course, is not a slam at the Indianola postal employees. It’s just that mail mailed in Indianola has to go around the Delta twice before it heads north on 49. Ah – progress our most important product – zip code and all.” 

After the flip comment, Dabbs went on to praise the whites in Indianola for not being violent during the march. 

“Seriously, the people of Indianola and Sunflower County can be proud of the way they conducted themselves during the trying Tuesday,” the editor said. “(Through) efforts of local leaders and able law officers, a much undesired element of people were allowed to come in and put on a dubious show. It could have been the other way around. It could have easily turned into an incident of which the flavor could have lingered here for days and weeks to come. But it didn’t happen that way. And two bodies of officers, the Sunflower County Sheriff’s Department under the direction of Sheriff Bill Hollowell, and the Indianola Police department, under the direction of Police Chief Bryce Alexander, deserve a round of applause.” 

There are few other accounts of King’s speech in Indianola. 

The rally drew about half the crowd as the one in Philadelphia. First-hand stories are limited. The splintered nature of the Meredith March that day had divided the press corps between Philadelphia and Yazoo City. 

Most of what is known about the content of the speech comes from the Clarion Ledger, The Delta Democrat-Times, The New York Times and the wire news service reporters who were present. 

No known photographs, television film or audio exist of King during his visit to Indianola.  The speech is rarely spoken of in Civil Rights documentaries, perhaps overshadowed by the larger story in Neshoba County that day.  

On a day when one of the world’s most revered peacemakers was fighting wars on multiple fronts, one against the Klan in Philadelphia, and another against the Black Power movement in his own organization, Martin Luther King Jr. needed a quiet place to vent, calm down and regroup for the next battle. 

That venue was a humble pile of dirt in downtown Indianola. 

The post The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 visit to Sunflower County appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Why did prison officials use a state plane to interview an inmate in Tennessee? They won’t say. 

Officials with the Mississippi Department of Corrections used the state airplane last year to travel to Tennessee to interview a Mississippi inmate about an urgent threat to a public official, but the state agency declined to provide any details about the flight. 

Airplane records obtained through a public records request show MDOC officials flew from Jackson to Blountville, Tennessee, on June 22, 2023, to interview Gary Davis, a Mississippi inmate being housed in Tennessee, about “an emergency security issue that involves a specific threat to the life and safety of a public official.” 

Kate Head, a spokesperson with MDOC, declined to answer questions about why Mississippi was housing an inmate in Tennessee, what type of threat someone made, whom the threat was directed toward and why the agency believed the threat required the use of the aircraft. 

“This situation deals with prison security,” Head said. “The agency is unable to discuss it.”

The flight, according to the records, cost taxpayers $4,554. The state’s Office of Air Transport Services allows the governor, other statewide officials and agency leaders to use the airplane for official state business. 

The purpose of the aircraft is for state employees to conduct business on behalf of Mississippi or to benefit the state, according to a policy listed on the Department of Finance and Administration’s website. The policy does not define official business or include examples of what type of travel is prohibited. 

It’s unclear why prison officials housed Davis in the Tennessee town that’s close to the Virginia border. 

Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain told radio station SuperTalk Mississippi in an interview on April 19 that the agency tries to break up networks of prison gangs by swapping supposed gang leaders with other states. 

“We’re swapping with other prisons – those gang leaders,” Cain said. “Then, they’re at zero when they get there. They may be the king they think here. We just clipped their wings and they’re gone.” 

The agency’s website says a Gary Davis is currently serving a prison sentence over aggravated assault, manslaughter and armed robbery convictions, that he is housed at a location in Virginia, and his prison location last changed in October 2023. It’s unclear if this is the inmate who prison officials interviewed in Tennessee. 


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Members Only: A conversation with Jerry Mitchell and Chris Davis

Mississippi Today hosted a members-only lunch and learn on Friday, June 14 with investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell and New York Times Local Investigative Reporting Fellowship Deputy Chris Davis.

In this one-hour program, Jerry and Chris discuss persistence in investigative reporting, how reporters keep themselves safe in the field and how the Pulitzer Prize recognized series, “Unfettered Power,” was born out of the two newsroom’s partnership. Read the series here.

As a nonprofit newsroom, Mississippi Today relies on reader donations to power our work. This programming is a membership perk. Learn more about becoming a Mississippi Today member at mississippitoday.org/donate.

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Report details Coast ‘sunny day’ flood threats through 2100

Wastewater treatment plants and affordable housing units may be some of the first places to see frequent “sunny day” flooding in Mississippi, according to a report released Tuesday from the Union of Concerned Scientists that spanned every coastal state from Maine to Washington.

The report identified over 6,000 “critical infrastructure assets” — which includes buildings used for government, education, housing, energy, and other public needs — around the country that are at risk of flooding multiple times a year by 2100 based on medium-level sea level rise projections. Public and affordable housing made up the largest category of assets at risk, the report found.

Mississippi has comparatively fewer buildings that are under threat of frequent “sunny day” flooding — which happens because of rising tides rather than from storms — than most other coastal states, with 37 assets that could flood twice a year by 2100 under the mid-level scenario.

By 2050, under that same scenario, some buildings along the state’s coast could experience tidal flooding once every two weeks, the report projects. Those include two housing facilities in Biloxi (the Cadet Point Senior Village, an affordable housing space with 76 units for elderly and near elderly residents, and the Seashore Oaks Assisted Living Facility) and two wastewater treatment plants in Hancock County (one owned by the Hancock County Regional Utility Authority in Kiln, and another at Port Bienville).

They also include two properties listed as Brownfield sites (376 Bayview Avenue in Biloxi and 201-299 Dupont Avenue in Pascagoula). Brownfields are properties with contaminants or pollutants — and are generally less severe than Superfund sites — that the federal government funds for revitalization projects. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality told Mississippi Today it didn’t have information on those sites.

David Pitalo, Excutive Director of the Hancock County Regional Utility Authority, said he was skeptical of there being a flood threat to the Kiln sewage plant because of how far back from the shore it is. He added that “anything is possible,” calling projections like the ones in Tuesday’s report a “guessing game.”

“Do I feel we are in a situation where we can be flooded? There’s always that possibility, I think it’s very, very slim,” Pitalo told Mississippi Today over the phone. “We went through Katrina and there was no water on the site, and that was a 27-foot tidal surge.”

The projections are based on elevation and sea level rise data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report breaks down its projections into three scenarios for global sea level rise — high (6.5 feet), medium (3.2 feet) and low (1.6 feet) — across several time periods. The chart below shows how many “critical infrastructure” buildings in Mississippi are at risk of flooding multiple times a year for each scenario:

Other public infrastructure, like drinking water treatment plants, were left out of the report due to limited data, and other community assets, such as churches, were left out because they weren't considered critical to all communities.

By 2100 under the medium-level scenario, the report says, repeated tidal flooding could affect 14 public and affordable housing facilities on the Coast; five wastewater treatment plants; seven Brownfields; five electrical substations; and three facilities listed under the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory, including the Chevron plant in Pascagoula.

UCS is a national nonprofit founded in 1969 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Zooming out, we need more comprehensive solutions," UCS wrote about its report. "Phasing out fossil fuels, ramping up clean energy, and holding fossil fuel companies accountable must be cornerstones of climate resilience work. In truth, our collective willingness to stop polluting now will determine the scale of the problem late this century."

UCS also included several recommendations for mitigating "sunny day" flooding impacts: developing local climate resilience plans; increase public and private sector funding for infrastructure; reduce historical inequalities around racism and poverty; protect affordable housing; and limit heat-trapping emissions.

"While near-term sea level rise is largely locked in, the choices nations make about the global emissions pathway, starting right now, could lead to profoundly different levels of risk on our coastlines over the course of the century," the report says.

The report also includes an interactive map of buildings at risk here.

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Podcast: Chris Harris of the Mississippi Braves joins the pod.

A veteran of 15 years in the business of minor league baseball, Tennessee native Chris Harris is experiencing perhaps the most unusual year of his career. We talk Mississippi Braves baseball, Atlanta Braves baseball and the College World Series.

Stream all episodes here.

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Over 110,000 Mississippi children lost Medicaid coverage in the past year

Over 150,000 Mississippians have lost health care coverage in the year after the Medicaid “unwinding” process began. 

Many are kids, who account for about half of the state’s total Medicaid recipients. In June of 2023, the number of covered children peaked at 456,314. By May, the rolls fell by more than 110,000 to 344,517. 

The state began the process of reviewing each Medicaid recipient’s eligibility in April of 2023 as pandemic provisions requiring states not to terminate people’s health care coverage ended after three years. 

Though this represents a significant decline in children covered, it’s more than were covered before continuous enrollment began. In March 2020, 342,043 children were covered by Medicaid – 2,000 fewer than in May 2024. 

“When state Medicaid programs are directed to return to pre-pandemic enrollment rules, it’s not surprising to see Mississippi’s Medicaid enrollment returning to around pre-pandemic enrollment levels,” Matt Westerfield, spokesperson for the Mississippi Division of Medicaid, said in an email to Mississippi Today.

He said 45,000 of the people disenrolled were children when the pandemic began but have since aged out of the program, which covers individuals up to 19 years old. 

Khaylah Scott, program manager for the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, noted that because children are often healthy, changes in coverage have caught some families as a surprise. The Mississippi Health Advocacy Program works to improve health policies and practices in the state for underserved and poor communities. 

“When it’s time to get a back-to-school visit or vaccination or physical exam, they may show up to the doctor and that’s when they’ll find out that they no longer have their health care coverage,” she said. 

Scott said the ramifications of children missing out on visits to the pediatrician are broad. “We know that when kids don’t have the care that they need they sometimes miss out on the services that support healthy development,” she said.

The state has seen an increase in enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a program that provides free or low-cost health insurance to children that are not eligible for Medicaid but have an annual income under $31,200 for a family of four. CHIP enrollment in Mississippi has grown from about 42,000 children at the start of the unwinding process a year ago to over 50,000 in May. 

This change – 8,000 additional children covered – makes only a small dent in the 110,000 young people who lost Medicaid coverage in the past year. 

When children are deemed ineligible for Medicaid coverage in Mississippi, they are automatically enrolled in CHIP when they meet eligibility requirements. 

Adults, too, are impacted

To date, about 74.5% of completed reviews for adults have resulted in a renewal.

Most were completed by recipients filling out a renewal form. The other 31% were ex parte renewals, or automated decisions the agency made using existing information.

Of Mississippians who have lost coverage during the unwinding process, 26.2% were deemed ineligible. The remaining 73.8% were dropped for procedural reasons, or for reasons other than being determined ineligible. This may mean they did not return, complete or receive required paperwork.

The state does not report how many procedural disenrollments were children. 

At the start of the unwinding process, the rate of procedural disenrollments neared 80% for enrollees who lost coverage. In April, procedural reasons accounted for 72.4% of terminations. 

This is slightly higher than the nation’s average of 69% for procedural disenrollments, according to KFF.

Scott said she is concerned by the state’s high rates of procedural disenrollment. 

“We’re seeing [them] go down over time, but they’re not where we would like them to be,” she noted. “... We don’t want kids to be caught up in the red tape issues of this unwinding process.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced waivers, or opportunities for increased flexibility in making determinations, to states last year in response to high procedural disenrollment rates and to ensure that eligible people nationwide maintained coverage. 

Mississippi has since adopted six waivers to increase ex parte renewal rates, support enrollees with renewal form submissions and ensure the department has access to accurate contact information. 

Westerfield said the waivers have had a “positive impact” on the disenrollment process. 

He said that the department has also instituted monthly text blasts to families with information about when and how to return renewal forms and launched a self-service portal to make it easier to complete renewals online. 

Nationwide, most people disenrolled from Medicaid have been able to regain coverage, though they may have experienced a temporary lapse. 

According to a KFF survey, 47% report that they were able to re-enroll in Medicaid, 28% acquired other health care and about 23% remain uninsured. 

Mississippi, along with 39 other states, is projected to complete the unwinding process this month, as reported by CMS. The state has 2,000 cases left to review out of 750,000 total cases, according to Westerfield.

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Lt. Gov. Hosemann announces task forces to improve workforce, help women and children

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced the creation of two Senate study committees – one new group and the other task force reinstituted from 2022.

Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, announced a Labor Force Participation Study Group. That committee, chaired by second term Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, will look at the issue of Mississippi continuing to have a lower percentage of people 16 and older in the workforce than any state in the nation.

Hosemann and others, including state Economist Corey Miller, have repeatedly said that the low workforce participation rate is a primary reason Mississippi lags the rest of the nation economically.

Hosemann also announced he is re-starting the Study Group on Women, Children, and Families.  It again will be chaired by second-term Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford.

The group was formed by the lieutenant governor in part due to the 2022 ruling overturning Roe V. Wade, which guaranteed a national right to abortions. Mississippi had laws in place when Roe was overturned banning most abortions in Mississippi.

It was estimated that with the abortion ban there would be an additional 5,000 births annually in Mississippi. That increase, based on an analysis of early data, has not occurred. But the decline in births in Mississippi since 2007 has slowed and more unwanted pregnancies have been reported, according to research by the Institute of Labor Economics. Experts surmised that women were traveling out of state for abortions or were receiving abortion-inducing medication via the mail.

READ MORE: ‘We’re 50th by a mile.’ Experts tell lawmakers where Mississippi stands with health of mothers, children

Researchers stressed it is too soon after the overturning of Roe to reach definitive conclusions.

“It is the Legislature’s job to examine how our state laws and appropriations help or hinder Mississippi’s opportunities for positive growth and prosperity,” Hosemann said in announcing the task forces. “Both of these topics have tremendous potential to move the needle in terms of economic development, tourism, health outcomes, educational attainment, and other major factors which determine our future trajectory as a state and in our communities.”

As of April, the state’s labor force participation rate was 53.75% compared to the national average of 62.75%, Hosemann said.

After the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, the Senate study group discussed multiple issues that later became law with the stated aim of helping women and children.

Those include:

  • Expanding Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a year for women after giving birth
  • Providing presumptive Medicaid eligibility for a pregnant woman receiving health care
  • Increasing tax credits for people adopting children and for pregnancy crisis centers
  • Extending the time a parent can surrender a new born to emergency providers from seven days to 45 days
  • Making other changes to adoption and foster care laws

Noteworthy, the state has not expanded Medicaid to provide health care coverage to the working poor and presumably help low income families.

People wanting to make recommendations can do so at LaborStudyGroup@senate.ms.gov or at WCPStudyGroup@senate.ms.gov.

Both study groups will hold public hearings later this year.

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 Broadband expansion in Mississippi continues with $70.9 million in grants

In the latest push to expand broadband access in Mississippi, internet service providers across the state will receive $70.9 million in grants for infrastructure projects.

This first round of grants is expected to expand access to 26,500 homes across 19 counties. More grants will be announced throughout the summer and into the fall. 

“BEAM is working to reach the most homes possible as quickly as possible,” Sally Doty, director of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi, said in an email. “With this first round of funding reaching 26,500 (homes), I would estimate that the total reach of the Capital Projects Fund will be 35,000 – 40,000 homes.”

The money is part of the $152 million in Mississippi Capital Projects Funds awarded to the state by the U.S. Department of the Treasury through the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in 2021.

Since BEAM was established in 2022, it has received a windfall of federal dollars aimed at increasing access to broadband internet service in Mississippi, which consistently ranks among the last nationwide for broadband availability, infrastructure and subscription rate. 

Broadband, or high-speed internet connection, is the modern standard for internet service. Its availability enables individuals to get the most out of the internet. According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband service is defined as internet connection with at least 100 Mbps – megabits per second –  download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed. 

Uplink Internet, one of the grant recipients, has been providing internet access to people in the rural Mississippi Delta for more than a decade. What began as a group of farmers attempting to bring internet access to their homes in the country blossomed into a business after it became clear the demand was there. 

“These grants are really helping us meet the needs of people who have been requesting it (internet service) for a long time,” Scott Litwiller, chief operating officer of Uplink, said.“It’s very gratifying to be able to get these rural communities the internet they’ve been wanting for a long time.”

Litwiller said that demand skyrocketed during the pandemic, which is when Uplink decided to take the leap and apply for the grants. Most of Uplink’s clients are people who have not had internet access before or were dissatisfied with their current service. Nationwide, the pandemic brought into focus how essential broadband internet access was as everything, from work to school, shifted online. 

“It does a lot for people — access to the digital economy, being able to get goods cheaper through the internet, and being able to work from home,” he said. “We have a lot of single parent families that have a hard time working a job and providing childcare. With being a parent, having the ability to work from home anywhere in the world is helpful.” 

Many use high speed internet service to take advantage of online degree programs. 

“I talked to a customer the other day who got her bachelor’s degree from her house. She wouldn’t have been able to do that if she had to go to a physical classroom because she’s at a stage in her life where she can’t quit work and go back to school,” he said. “My wife got two nursing degrees from home using the internet. It does impact people in ways you don’t even think of. It’s a very powerful tool.”

Uplink currently serves Coahoma and parts of Bolivar counties in the Mississippi Delta, and is expanding service into Tunica and Quitman counties. 

BEAM received over $550 million in applications for the $152 million of funding. According to Doty, a rubric was used to determine which projects would receive the funding. 

Sally Doty Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

“A scoring rubric was used that was made available to all applicants prior to opening of the application portal,” Doty said. “Scoring took into consideration the number of locations to be served, matching funds to be provided, cost per passing, and all federal and state requirements.”

Other factors considered in the merit review process included affordability and the ability to complete the project by the end of the year in 2026 — the point when the Treasury Department stipulates that all funds are to be spent. 

In the Mississippi Delta, where concerns were raised that BEAM was not doing enough to meet the area’s needs, projects are underway. 

“There are many providers in the Delta who are actively building out using private funding and also through current grant funding. Delta Electric’s broadband subsidiary DE Lightspeed is actively building,” Doty said. 

“USDA and the FCC have provided funding to Uplink, Arriva, Tech Info, Belzoni Cable, Franklin Telephone, and other Delta providers. The upcoming BEAD funding will fill in the gaps for coverage in the Delta through grants to many of those same providers,” she said, referring to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.

Of the most recent grants announced, the Mississippi Delta counties of Coahoma, DeSoto, Sunflower, Quitman and Tunica will be receiving service. In Tunica County, broadband expansion is being used to address health and safety concerns that the BEAM office was made aware of during a community engagement event. 

“There had been a recent incident where they could not call for an ambulance when needed,” Doty said. “BEAM left with an understanding of the seriousness of the situation. Within six months we were able to announce reprogramming of some grant funding to reach this area.”
BEAM recently completed projects associated with money received through the CARES Act, and is in the process of accessing $1.2 billion from the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program. Other major funding in recent years includes $32.7 million from the Broadband Infrastructure program and $10.7 million for the state’s Digital Skills and Accessibility Program, which will be used to increase digital skills in Mississippi.

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