Saturday, January 8, 2011

Monica Moorhead: The Scott Sisters' Release and Mississippi Racism

By Monica Moorehead
Published Jan 5, 2011 4:17 PM

The anti-racist movement celebrated an important victory when it was announced on Dec. 30 that the prison sentences of Jamie Scott and Gladys Scott would be suspended by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

The Scott Sisters, who are African American, have spent 16 years of their lives at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for the “crime” of taking $11 from a convenience store in December 1993. At the time of their arrest, Jamie was 22 years old and Gladys was 19 years old and pregnant. Two African-American youth, who admitted taking the money, stated at the Scott Sisters’ trial that they falsely implicated the sisters in order to receive a reduced sentence.

This testimony did not stop the Scott Sisters from being found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 1994. Neither sister had a prior arrest record nor did any violence take place during the so-called robbery. They are now 38 and 36 years old, respectively.

Courts have turned down appeal after appeal. When the sisters first entered prison, they were healthy women. Due to inhumane prison conditions, including the lack of nutritious food and inadequate health care, one of Jamie Scott’s kidneys is failing. The prison has denied her regular dialysis treatments, inaction that could have resulted in her death. Gladys Scott has offered one of her kidneys since Jamie is in need of a transplant.

How did the sisters find out about Barbour’s announcement? Did the governor’s office contact the sisters directly? No. Gladys Scott found out while looking at the news. Their mother, Evelyn Rasco, got the news when a reporter called her at her home in Florida.

Before the Dec. 30 announcement, any demands that the sisters be pardoned were ignored by the governor and the Mississippi Parole Board. Bob Herbert, the African-American op-ed writer for the New York Times, wrote two columns last fall in support of the Scott Sisters. He pointed out cases of prisoners who had been convicted of murder being pardoned or paroled in Mississippi.

Many demonstrations held throughout the state in support of the Scott Sisters have been led by the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights; Southern Human Rights Organizing Conference activists; Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer for the sisters; and others. In June 2010 Mississippi protesters traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., to demand that the Department of Justice put pressure on Barbour to release the sisters. Support from NAACP National President Ben Jealous and comedian-activist Dick Gregory, along with Herbert’s columns, have helped to bring national and international attention to the racist injustice suffered by these two women.

Mississippi: a modern-day plantation

Barbour made it clear in his Dec. 30 statement that he was suspending the sisters’ sentences, not pardoning them, because he wanted to avoid having taxpayers pay $200,000 annually to sustain Jamie on dialysis.

A pardon would have led to an almost immediate release of the sisters. In fact, one of the main conditions for the suspended sentences is that Gladys Scott will have to give one of her kidneys to her sister, which she has already offered to do. It has not been determined what will happen if Gladys is not a match for her sister or if Jamie’s body rejects her sister’s kidney.

Activists say that the release of the sisters could take another 45 days or more under the rules of this suspension. The parole board stated as of Jan. 3 that they have not received any orders to release the sisters.

Nowhere in Barbour’s speech did he say that the sisters suffered a travesty of justice, nor did he apologize for their ordeal. Rather than even trying to sound remorseful, Barbour’s statement was dripping with racist contempt for the sisters and dismissive of the hellish nightmare they and their family have dealt with for more than 17 years. Some commentators say that Barbour wants to use the Scott announcement to help clean up his image in order to make a run for president in the 2012 election.

Barbour’s racist attitude should not come as a shock to anyone. It reflects Mississippi’s racist history. Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center, told Workers World, “Governor Haley Barbour is cut from the same cloth as [Alabama Sheriff] Bull Connor and former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.”

Mississippi is a modern-day plantation and Barbour is its main slavemaster. It is the poorest state in the U.S., with a high rural poverty rate and overall underdevelopment, especially for Black people, who are affected in highly disproportionate numbers.

The legacy of slavery continues in Mississippi with countless lynchings of young Black men, like Emmett Till in 1955 and Frederick Jermaine Carter, who was founding hanging from a tree in Greenwood, Miss., on Dec. 3.

In a Dec. 20 interview with The Weekly Standard, Barbour heaped praise on the pro-segregationist White Citizens Council, which, along with the fascistic Ku Klux Klan, terrorized the Black community in the South, mainly by using economic intimidation to reinforce segregation at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. When asked about the Civil Rights era, Barbour stated, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” (The Clarion-Ledger, Dec. 21)

While Barbour gives credit to the WCC for integrating schools in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, refutes that notion: “If you look at Yazoo City, their approach to integration was very similar to other communities across the state, where the parents pulled their children out of the public school system so white children would not have to attend an integrated school system. They established a private segregated academy which still exists today.” (Huffington Post, Dec. 20)

It is within this historical and social context that the progressive movement should not rest until the Scott Sisters are finally released. As Herbert stated in his Dec. 31 op-ed column, “The Scott sisters may go free, but they will never receive justice.”
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