Before I begin, let me just say that I’m humbled by the messages many of you sent me as I relaunched this project yesterday. My secret hope – that this would inspire others to do their own similar projects – is coming to fruition. This is just one tiny blog and my contributions are small, but the more of us that do this, the more positive change can happen. So thank YOU for doing the work too.
Today we revisit the social justice work happening thanks to the Mississippi Center for Justice. I appreciate Beth Orlansky and Dana Thomas taking the time to email with me this week and update me on what’s happened since 2016. I hope you’ll also join me in making a donation today.
What was your organization’s biggest win(s) in 2017?
In September, MCJ filed suit against Mississippi officials on behalf of ex-felons who have been denied the right to vote upon reentering society due to a disenfranchisement provision in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution. The particular disenfranchising crimes were chosen in 1890 as more likely to be committed by blacks than whites, and we are suing based on the discriminatory intent and impact. This was part of the post-reconstruction plan of the 1890 framers to take the vote away from American-Americans. While the other vote suppression tools included in that Constitution have been swept away, this one remains. At a time when some cities and states are removing Confederate monuments, it is appropriate that we remove from Mississippi’s Constitution this lingering vestige of white supremacy.
What has been your organization’s biggest challenge(s) in 2017?
Mississippi’s political leadership remains our biggest challenge; it is virtually impossible to pass or block a bill that would ease the burdens placed on low income families in Mississippi. Specifically however, in 2016, MCJ filed suit to enjoin Mississippi’s HB 1523, which targeted LGBTQ individuals, particularly in the area of marriage, by allowing individuals and organizations to abstain from providing services to LGBTQ people based on specific religious beliefs or moral convictions. In June, 2016, the US District Court granted an injunction, holding that the law violated both the 1st and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution. In 2017, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that our plaintiffs lacked standing because they had not been denied services under the law, making the suit untimely. We have appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, and we are hopeful that the Court will hear the case in 2018.
Please share a story about one individual in your state who has truly made an impact this year who you’d like the rest of the world to know about.
Born prematurely, twins Drew and Gage spent the first several weeks of their lives in a neonatal intensive care unit struggling to survive. When the fragile babies were finally released, their homecoming was not a happy one. At three and a half months old, the boys were put into emergency foster care following horrific abuse. Drew’s tiny body had suffered 19 broken bones; Gage’s shattered body bore 21.
“They came to me in tiny little body casts,” their foster mother, Becky Watkins, recalls.
Becky and her husband, Steve, legally adopted Drew and Gage two years later. Becky and Steve knew that Drew and Gage had developmental delays and faced ongoing orthopedic problems as a result of the abuse. The list of challenges grew when the twins were diagnosed with autism. But one of the Watkins family’s biggest challenges wouldn’t come from Drew and Gage’s violent past, traumatic injuries, or even their autism. It would come from their public school district.
When Drew and Gage began sixth grade, the school district denied them the accommodations specified in their Individualized Education Plans – accommodations that were critical to keeping the boys in a mainstream classroom. As the months wore on, Drew and Gage floundered in school, losing precious ground they’d worked hard to gain.
Then Becky Watkins contacted the Mississippi Center for Justice.
Over a five-year period, MCJ represented the Watkins family in multiple proceedings. MCJ eventually filed a suit against the school district in chancery court, at which point the district relented and allowed Drew and Gage the accommodations they needed to thrive.
Drew and Gage earned their diplomas in 2017, but graduating from high school was only the beginning. Both received scholarships to Jones County Junior College.
“We are living proof that with the right resources, a child can succeed,” Becky Watkins says. “If ever there were two children that MCJ has made a difference for, they are Drew and Gage Watkins. I just wonder how many kids with the same potential are sitting in an institution somewhere because they didn’t get the resources they needed and they didn’t have the Mississippi Center for Justice.”