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Mississippi city honors Freedom Rider legacy 60 years later

JACKSON •  Mississippi's capital city is honoring the civil rights activism of the late Rev. C.T. Vivian 60 years after he and other Freedom Riders were arrested upon arrival in Jackson as they challenged segregation in interstate buses and bus terminals across the American South.

After several days in a local jail, the young activists were transferred to Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison, where guards beat Vivian and others — one of many times that Vivian faced violence as he worked to dismantle systemic racism and injustice.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba proclaimed Wednesday as C.T. Vivian Day. The mayor's wife, Ebony Lumumba, presented the proclamation to one of Vivian's daughters, Denise Morse, at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

"Rev. Vivian remains a source of inspiration for leaders and advocates for justice at every age, because life teaches us that, among other things, we are never too young, never too old, never inexperienced to be on the front lines of this battle for justice," said Ebony Lumumba, a professor of literature.

Cordy Tindell Vivian began challenging segregation in Illinois in the 1940s, became more involved with civil rights activism when he attended seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1950s and later became an adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Vivian was 95 when he died July 17 in Atlanta — the same day that his friend and fellow civil rights activist U.S. Rep. John Lewis died of cancer at age 80.

In May 1961, Vivian was 37 and almost a generation older than Lewis, Diane Nash and other college-age Freedom Riders who set out from Nashville on buses into the Deep South. A violent white mob attacked Lewis and others in Montgomery, Alabama.

Vivian joined the other Freedom Riders days later in boarding another bus from Montgomery to Jackson. Mississippi's segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, had cut a secret deal with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy: Buses carrying Freedom Riders would be guaranteed safe passage once they crossed into the state, but the activists would be arrested in Jackson.

Black-and-white jail mugshots of Vivian and other Freedom Riders fill a gallery in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum that opened in late 2017.

Morse lives in Fayetteville, Georgia, and visited Jackson for the first time this week. In the civil rights museum Wednesday, she looked proudly at her father's mugshot and another photo that showed him, Nash, Bernard Lafayette and other activists in Nashville.

Morse said her father never bragged about his activism.

"He talked about concepts and values," Morse said. "But he rarely talked about who he knew or where he'd been. He was more concerned about nonviolence and justice. That's what he talked about."

During his final years, Vivian worked on a book about his life with author Steve Fiffer. "It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior" was published in March.

Dozens of people gathered at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Wednesday to hear about Vivian from Morse and Fiffer, with the author appearing by webcast from his home in Evanston, Illinois.

The presentation started with February 1965 TV news footage that grabbed international attention. It showed Vivian trying to help Black residents register to vote in Selma, Alabama. Face-to-face with a recalcitrant white official, Vivian said: "You can't keep anyone in the United States from voting." The sheriff soon punched Vivian in the face, knocking him to the ground.

Three weeks later, thousands of people later marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Months after that, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Vivian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 from then-President Barack Obama, a man who was born months after Vivian and other Freedom Riders were arrested in Mississippi.

Mississippi official won't challenge court on initiatives

JACKSON • Mississippi's top elections official said Thursday that he will not ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling that invalidated the state's initiative process and overturned a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November.

Secretary of State Michael Watson said that, instead, he wants Gov. Tate Reeves to call legislators into special session to revive both issues. Reeves has not said whether he will do so. Both men are Republicans.

In a May 14 ruling, a majority of justices said the medical marijuana proposal was not properly on the ballot because Mississippi's initiative process is outdated and unworkable.

Watson said in a statement Thursday that based on the 6-3 majority and the history that justices cited, he believes there's little chance they would reverse course.

"Rather than giving a sense of false hope and spending taxpayer dollars to no avail, I strongly encourage the governor to reconvene the Legislature in an effort to quickly preserve the will of Mississippians on a few important issues," Watson said.

Watson said legislators should consider establishing a medical marijuana program. He also wants them to ensure two initiatives that voters approved in 2011 could withstand legal challenges. One restricts the government's use of the eminent domain process to take private property. The other requires voters to show government-issued photo identification.

Petitions for eminent domain and voter ID both used the initiative process that justices now say is invalid.

Mississippi requires initiative sponsors to gather one-fifth of their petition signatures from each congressional district. The process was put into the state constitution in the 1990s, when Mississippi had five districts. The state dropped to four districts after the 2000 census because of stagnant population, but the initiative process was not updated.

The state attorney general issued a legal opinion in 2009 saying initiative sponsors should collect signatures from the five old districts. In September 2019, then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said the medical marijuana initiative qualified for the ballot.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler sued the state days before the 2020 general election, arguing that the medical marijuana initiative was not properly on the ballot. Her attorneys argued that the constitution creates a mathematical impossibility: With four districts, more than one-fifth of the signatures must come from each. A majority of justices agreed in the May 14 ruling.

Butler opposed the medical marijuana measure because it would have limited cities' ability to regulate where such businesses may locate.

About 1.3 million people voted in Mississippi in November, and more than 766,000 of them voted in favor of the medical marijuana proposal, Initiative 65. That's about 10,000 more residents than voted in November for then-President Donald Trump, who easily won in Mississippi despite losing his race for a second term.

More than 200 people gathered Tuesday near the state Capitol and the Supreme Court building to demand that Mississippi legalize medical marijuana. A majority of states already have a program.

"In talking with voters around the state, many feel as though their voices are not being heard," Watson said Thursday. "We work for them and should do all we can to honor their decisions at the ballot box."

Two other top Republicans said last week that they want Reeves to call legislators back to the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Hosemann said legislators need to discuss medical marijuana. House Speaker Philip Gunn said he wants to update the initiative process.

Tennessee moves to the forefront with anti-transgender laws

NASHVILLE, Tenn. • Conservative lawmakers nationwide introduced a flurry of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, but no state's political leaders have gone further than Tennessee in enacting new laws targeting transgender people.

Lawmakers passed and Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed five new bills into law, consistently dismissing concerns that they discriminate against an already vulnerable population, that some of the laws are unworkable and that they could damage the state's reputation.

Supporters defend the laws policy by policy, arguing that one protects parental rights, others protect girls and women and one even improves equality. Opponents reject those claims.

Colin Goodbred, a 22-year-old transgender student raised in the Nashville suburbs who attends college in New Hampshire, says the bevy of new laws could keep him from ever calling Tennessee home again.

"I think that these sorts of bills are part of what is pushing me away from identifying Tennessee as my own state, even though I spent the vast majority of my childhood, I grew up, in Tennessee," said Goodbred, a Dartmouth College senior. "I don't feel like I want to return there. I'm already going to college out of state. I'm wanting to work out of state. And they've made it abundantly clear that they do not want trans people in the state."

Tennessee's emergence as an anti-LGBTQ leader grows out of a rightward political shift in a state Republicans already firmly controlled. Lee's Republican predecessor tapped the brakes on some socially conservative legislation, but emphatic GOP election wins fueled by strong support for former President Donald Trump have emboldened lawmakers since then. That's the political landscape in which Lee is launching his 2022 reelection bid.

Legislatures in 30 other states, most of them Republican-controlled, have considered banning trans youth from sports teams that align with their gender identity. Twenty have weighed bans on gender-confirming medical care for transgender minors. The Human Rights Campaign has called 2021 the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history.

Tennessee this year banned transgender athletes from playing girls public high school or middle school sports. The state is poised to become the first to require government buildings and businesses that are open to the public to post signs if they let trans people use multi-person bathrooms and other facilities associated with their gender identity.

Public schools, meanwhile, will soon risk losing lawsuits if they let transgender students or employees use multi-person bathrooms or locker rooms that do not reflect their sex at birth. Lee also signed legislation to require school districts to alert parents 30 days before students are taught about sexual orientation or gender identity, letting them opt out of the lesson.

"Tennessee is taking the crown for the state of hate," said Sasha Buchert, a Lambda Legal senior attorney.

The governor recently defended the school-bathroom rule. "That bill provides equal access to every student," he said.

Neighboring Arkansas is the only other state to ban gender-confirming care for minors, one of three new anti-transgender laws there. Montana has two new legal restrictions for transgender people. Sports bans have also passed in a handful of other states, including Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia.

The decadeslong culture war over LGBTQ rights has focused on transgender Americans in recent years and has increasingly been a topic of discussion on conservative-leaning news outlets.

The recent wave of bills has had support from conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom, with the latter offering model legislation for transgender athletics bills. The push in statehouses follows Democratic President Joe Biden's executive order prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.

A survey by The Trevor Project showed 94% of LGBTQ youth said recent political debates over the issue had negatively affected their mental health. A separate question found more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

The Trevor Project has been contacted by Tennessee youths in crisis 2,400 times over the past year, according to Executive Director Amit Paley.

"Our son asks regularly, 'When can we move, or can you send me to boarding school?'" said Amy Allen, whose 8th grade transgender son is dreading changing from private to public school next fall.

Nashville's mayor warned that the business signage requirement for bathrooms and other facilities could be particularly detrimental for his growing, progressive-leaning city, which is often at odds with social policies coming from the GOP-dominated Capitol downtown.

"This law is part of an anti-LGBT political platform of hate and division," said Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat. "One of the risks for Nashville is that the hostility inherent to these signs can be the equivalent of hanging up another sign: a 'Do not come here' sign. We are an inclusive city, and that won't change."

Some of Tennessee's new laws face practical challenges.

The signage bill's sponsor said people could file lawsuits or district attorneys could ask a judge to force businesses to comply. But Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference President Amy Weirich says the bill "doesn't speak to anything having to do with enforcement," so her group remained neutral on the bill.

"The way it's written, I don't see anything that allows or provides me the responsibility or right to go to civil court and ask a judge to enforce it," said Weirich, Shelby County's district attorney.

Regarding the medical treatment ban, advocates say no doctor in Tennessee currently provides youth hormone therapy before puberty.

Supporters of sports-team bans have largely been unable to cite local cases — in Tennessee or nationwide — where trans athletes were seen to have a competitive advantage. They argue that the rules will ensure a level playing field.

The new laws send a bad signal, said Aly Chapman, mother of a transgender son and advocate.

"I don't know how to see it any other way than it's about oppression, control and power and telling people, 'You do not exist,'" she said.

Advocates say the next few years will be critical. Many fear the barrage of legislation may continue.

"The signaling is, 'Hey, look at what we've been able to do. Here's the road map,'" Chapman said. "They're not done."