Some Other News from Around the Deep South #11

Welcome to the eleventh installment of “Some Other News from Around the Deep South,” my quarterly look at news stories from around the region that may not have gotten so much attention.

We may still be reeling down here in Alabama and Mississippi from all four of our teams losing their bowl games, but life goes on . . . The national championship game in January ended up as a struggle between two teams—well, that both aren’t from the SEC. For us down here, it’s kind of like that old question, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? About that game, we have to ask: if the Big 10 champion and the PAC 12 champion play for the national championship, does anyone care? Anyway . . .

We’ll start this time in South Carolina, where in mid-December a court threw out the 1944 conviction and death sentence of a fourteen-year-old boy named George Stinney. (Read Reuters’ coverage of the judge’s decision.) Stinney’s disconsolate and sadly expressive black-and-white mugshot has become the face of inordinately cruel sentences given to young black men accused of crimes against white victims, particularly in the pre-Civil Rights South. In the final years of World War II, Stinney was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two white girls, ages eleven and seven, who had been playing and picking flowers earlier that day. The factors of his likely-coerced confession to white police, the lack of a defense at trial, the all-white jury, and the harshness and swiftness of the sentence have combined to make Stinney a symbol of Deep Southern injustice.

Also in mid-December, in South Carolina, Republican state legislator and retired police officer Mike Pitts pre-filed a bill to “decriminalize marijuana,” a strange wording since it will still be illegal if the bill passes. The bill would make marijuana possession a minor crime with fines as the penalty. According to coverage from Spartanburg-based TV station WSPA, Pitts made the following remarks about his rationale:

“I never once had to fight a pothead. I never once had to chase a pothead. They just did not create problems. The only problems they created were for themselves,” he says.

Pitts clarified in the coverage that he is not in favor of legalizing marijuana, which he believes would be a mistake.

However, a group called Mississippi for Cannabis wants just that. On New Year’s Day, Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger reported that the group is collecting signatures “to try to have an initiative placed on the November 2016 ballot.” The report tells us:

If the ballot initiative get the necessary signatures and is approved by voters in referendum, it would make it legal for adults to possess cannabis in unlimited quantities, to use as they wish, just like alcohol or cigarettes. However, it would have to be kept from minors.

To be expected, the plan has its opponents, among them Mississippi’s head of corrections, formerly the head of drug enforcement, who says it will “lead to drug addiction.”

Finally, from Mississippi, this one from the ICYMI files: in November, Smithsonian magazine did a really nice article on the Great Flood of 1927 that is written in an unusually poetic style and includes some haunting images from the time. “Flood of Time” by Jeff McGregor describes a new film by Bill Morrison about “one of America’s greatest natural disasters.” Most modern Americans are familiar with the flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005; this flood, which involved the Mississippi River overtaking its banks, covered a much wider geographic expanse along the river’s route.

Moving on, al.com’s Brendan Kirby authored two nearly identical pieces, published in early January, in which he tries to explain why Alabama’s and Mississippi’s $7.25 minimum wage is actually higher than California’s $9.00 wage, due to the differences in cost of living. Ignoring the surreal nature of the two pieces’ eerie similarity, the Alabama-focused piece tells us:

After adjusting for cost of living, the $7.25 hourly minimum wage mandated by the federal government is worth more in Alabama than the $9 minimum wage in effect in California. The $7.25 in Alabama is worth the equivalent of $8.23, while California‘s higher rate is worth just $7.97 in adjusted dollars.

(To access the Mississippi-focused piece, click here.) Through the rest of the dense, fact-heavy piece, various states’ minimum wages and costs of living are compared to each other in fits and snatches. What is left out of this discussion is the acknowledgment that $7.25 per hour, even in low cost-of-living Alabama, only yields a full-time worker $290 per week before taxes . . . so a full-time, minimum-wage employee would bring home less than $1000 per month. We can argue economic theory all day—it’s still poverty wages, which is the reason for wanting to raise it.

Staying in Alabama, The New Yorker’s Paige Williams focused her attention, in the magazine’s November 17, 2014 issue, on the state’s peculiar habit of allowing judges to sentence people to death even after juries have recommended life.  “Double Jeopardy,” a piece of long-form journalism, uses the case of Shonelle Jackson, who was sentenced to death for a killing in Montgomery, to discuss the wider legal, ethical, governmental and political issues of Alabama’s death penalty. About its practice of allowing judges to override jury recommendations, Williams writes:

In thirty-one of the past thirty-two years, Alabama’s judges have condemned someone to death through override at least once.

Nearly seventy Alabama judges have single-handedly ordered an inmate’s execution, and collectively they have done so more than a hundred times. Thirty-six of the nearly two hundred convicts on death row are there because of override.

The New Yorker piece continues by giving the reader glimpses into the minds of retired and current judges, who attempt to wax philosophic about the problems, including the expansive disparities in sentencing along racial lines, before returning in the end to Jackson, who is still incarcerated and awaiting execution.

On a brighter note coming out of Alabama, Tuscaloosa native Deontay Wilder won the WBC heavyweight championship in boxing earlier this month. USA Today’s coverage of his title-winning victory explains:

Wilder (33-0, 32 KOs), from Tuscaloosa, Ala., becomes the first American to hold the heavyweight belt since Shannon Briggs in 2006. He’s the first undefeated American heavyweight champion since Riddick Bowe in 1993.

Congratulations to “the Bronze Bomber”!

On another bright note, the early January report “22 new laws go into effect in Louisiana today” shares news of this progressive addition to that state’s code:

Another new law allows sixteen-year-olds to register to vote. But they can’t exercise the right to vote until they reach age 18.

When they reach age of 18, registrar of voters sends them a card telling them they can now vote.

Similar in concept to the Motor Voter Bill, the state will use their eager attendance at the DMV to register these young people to vote, then remind them later when it’s time to do it. In my opinion, this law could and should be replicated in every state (where it isn’t already).

Last but certainly not least . . . when you type in the name of any Deep Southern state in the News tab of a search engine, the majority of what you’ll get is about football— even in the off-season. This college football-related last story comes out of that.

The Sporting News online ran a story titled “Worker behind Alabama flag prank commits suicide” in early January. According to the report, a construction worker in Texas was fired from his job, working on renovations to Texas A&M’s stadium, for inappropriate Facebook posts about botching the work and for hanging a University of Alabama football flag on the stadium. After being fired, the circumstances of what he done were traceable by other potential employers, and he could no longer find work. According to the article, the man killed himself last September.

While his college-football University of Alabama fanhood didn’t cause his death, the Deep South is known for its rabid rivalries. The common assertion is that football is a “religion” down here. I’m just sayin’ . . .

As January ends, we in the Deep South begin the long march to next August when football begins again. In the meantime, we will pass our days by hunting in the winter, going to our kids’ little league games in the spring, going to the lake and the beach in the summer. For now, we’re hunkered down against what we consider to be “cold,” and I’ll catch you again in the spring with installment number twelve.

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