The real story on Eminent Domain

On Nov. 8 Mississippi voters will have the opportunity to vote on the controversial issue of eminent domain, setting into law where and when the state can legally condemn property for alternate use.

As the law is written now, it allows for the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority (MMEIA) to make decisions on which private companies can use eminent domain to acquire private land for their own private use based on, as their name suggest, Major Economic Impact. This law was challenged in the State Legislature in 2009 with House Bill 803 (H.B. 803), which passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate and soon after vetoed by Gov. Haley Barbour citing that “it would do more damage to job creation and economic development.” H.B. 803 sponsored by State Representatives Edward Blackmon, Jessica Upshaw and Mark Duvall changes the language to not allow any private entities to take advantage of condemning private property for private use. It states in Section 1 (2) (a): Notwithstanding the provisions of this chapter or any other provisions of law to the contrary, the right of eminent domain shall not be exercised for the purpose of taking or damaging privately-owned real property for private development or for a private purpose; or for enhancement of tax revenue; or for transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation or other business entity. The measure to get the issue of eminent domain before the Mississippi voters, pushed primarily by the Mississippi Farm Bureau, was submitted to the Secretary of State Sept. 30, with over 100,000 petitioners signatures, well over the 80,000 needed to get initiative 31 on the 2012 ballot.

The opposition to initiative 31 has echoed the sentiments of Barbour touting that the initiative will hinder job creation, economic development and be unattractive to businesses like Nissan, Toyota (both who have already taken advantage of the current law) and other companies that want to take advantage of Mississippi’s labor pool and lax eminent domain law. Unlikely opposers like Democratic State Sen. John Horhn, who originally supported the Bill in 2009 and religious leader Bishop Ronnie Crudup, have made public statements urging voters to vote no on initiative 31. Developer Leland Speed who is also the executive Director of Mississippi Development Authority filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State (as a private citizen not acting on behalf of the MDA) in an effort to block the initiative from appearing on the Nov 8 ballot. He is quoted as saying “This initiative will hurt opportunities for thousands of Mississippians for better jobs and for better lives.” What Horhn, Bishop Crudup, and Speed all fail to take into account is the historic impact eminent domain and similiar practices has had on the black community and the potential impact it will have on the future of black community.

According to the Associated Press, the census data from 1910 estimated that blacks in the south owned 15 million acres of land and as of 2010 owned 1.0 million alone, and 1.7 million in partnership with others. What happened to black people’s land over time? To answer this question, we have to first examine how African Americans originally attained land in the south post the emancipation proclamation.

The Federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, established to help create a society for African Americans in the south when many of them were left homeless, jobless and in despair after they were freed from the chattel slavery system. Through the bureau, many African Americans were able to own property once owned by former confederate army members and slave owners. Whether the property was abandoned or confiscated by the union army; it was made available for African Americans and often referred to within the promise of 40 acres and a mule. In addition to land ownership for African Americans through the Bureau, African American men returning from fighting for the Union Army received pay for their service and often times chose to buy land while others received land through benevolence.

Land at this time in America was particularly inexpensive after the war and nationwide financial turmoil and economic downfall, which made land more affordable for these returning soldiers. Owning land (and being a white male) in America was once the qualification to vote and remained so until 1850 when property ownership and tax restrictions were removed from voting restriction, 20 years before the 15th Amendment went into effect guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, color, and previous status of servitude. African Americans knew how important owning land was to establishing themselves in America, as well as building wealth for their future generations.

Now after examining how African Americans attained land initially, we have to look at what forces have caused blacks to go from owning 15 million acres at the beginning of the 20th century to owning significantly less during the start of the 21st century. African Americans faced a huge out lash from angry whites who desperately wanted to preserve their hierarchy in the south during the time of reconstruction and post reconstruction, often times through means of intimidation, theft, murder and political maneuvering. The land that African Americans once owned was taken or abandoned as African Americans fled the south due to the racial conditions. During the 1950’s when the Ross Barnett Reservoir projects was proposed, the use of eminent domain, though legal, was expressly used to justify the acquiring of land in the Rankin and Madison County areas, areas that were at one time majorly owned by African Americans. In 2000, when the plans for the Nissan auto plant where made public, it was understood that eminent domain would be used to attain some of the necessary land needed to build the plant in Canton, another area densely populated by African Americans and representing substantial African American land ownership.

Today African Americans in Mississippi are facing declining land values due to foreclosures, the loss or lack of employment in their communities, and the many other side effects of the current economic crisis.

Land ownership is the essential fundamental component to building wealth in the African-American community, initiative 31 aims to protect this right. Opponents of initiative 31 have greedy corporations and heartless capitalists in mind when they attempt to sway Mississippi voters to vote no. They fail to keep a perspective on who will feel the impact if private companies are allowed to continue to use eminent domain to acquire land in Mississippi. Mississippi has a great amount of African American history with much of the land preserved to maintain its historical context and often times passed down from generation to generation creating wealth in many of Mississippi African American communities. Voting YES for initiative 31 Nov. 8 will send the message to those who wish to take private property and give it to wealthy private companies that this is OUR LAND and Mississippians will not stand for it.

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