Let's Not Give Haley Barbour Too Much Praise

Haley Barbour (Getty Images)
Haley Barbour (Getty Images)

Haley Barbour, Mississippi's governor, wants everyone to believe he is the good guy in the case of two black women who have spent nearly 20 years in prison because of an $11 robbery that they may not have even committed.


Once the heat over his recent civil rights flap got a little too warm for his big backside, Barbour generously decided that they should be released on the condition that one donates a kidney to the other. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote in October about the cascading pleas for mercy: "This should be an easy call for a law-and-order governor who has, nevertheless, displayed a willingness to set free individuals convicted of far more serious crimes. Mr. Barbour has already pardoned four killers and suspended the life sentence of a fifth."

The judge who essentially sentenced the Scott sisters, Jamie and Gladys, to life in prison was downright lenient in 2005 when it came to sentencing one of the ringleaders of the lynching of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. That despicable human being was given 60 years — 20 years for each murder? — but left free while appealing his conviction.

As Nina Simone would say if she were still among us and seeing what Judge Marcus Gordon has wrought, "Mississippi, goddam!" The NAACP, which has pushed hard for the release of the Scotts, is grateful that Jamie and Gladys are about to be freed (the process may take 45 days), but the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as well as other civil rights organizations — and especially individual lawyers like Chokwe Lumumba — want this kind of miscarriage of justice to never happen again.

The Scott sisters, like the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama decades ago, have learned all about rural Southern justice and the politics that control that justice. We must learn from this. And in 2010 and beyond, we must mean it when we say, "Never again!" Let's keep up with these sisters once they are on the outside; being symbols is not enough. Oprah, do you hear me? Reverends, do you hear me? Imams, do you hear me? Greeks, do you hear me? Professional athletes, do you hear me?

Barbour is not only a governor; he is the former national chair of the Republican Party and heads the GOP Governors Association. He clearly has his eyes on the 2012 race against President Obama or whoever is the Democratic candidate. So he's counting on black folks giving him some love — and votes — for releasing Gladys and Jamie Scott.

This is the statement Barbour issued:

… I have issued two orders indefinitely suspending the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott. In 1994, a Scott County jury convicted the sisters of armed robbery and imposed two life sentences for the crime. Their convictions and their sentences were affirmed by the Mississippi Court of Appeals in 1996.


To date, the sisters have served 16 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole in 2014. Jamie Scott requires regular dialysis, and her sister has offered to donate one of her kidneys to her. The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society. Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott's medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.

The Mississippi Parole Board reviewed the sisters' request for a pardon and recommended that I neither pardon them, nor commute their sentence. At my request, the Parole Board subsequently reviewed whether the sisters should be granted an indefinite suspension of sentence, which is tantamount to parole, and have concurred with my decision to suspend their sentence indefinitely.


Well, la-di-da. Humanitarian. Tough on crime. Watching the bottom line. All in a stroke or two of the pen, after these women have been in prison since 1994 for what is less than the cost of a couple of sandwiches, some chips and a soda or two. And definitely less than the cost of the lives of three young men whose only crime was trying to register black folks to vote in 1964. Mississippi, goddam.

The kissing-up has already begun. One Mississippi legislator, Willie Simmons, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that Barbour had made a "courageous move." Jealous also considers him courageous for standing up to the parole board. I respect Jealous and others who see Barbour as a good guy in this drama, but I think that what Barbour did was about as courageous as my trying to make a chicken parmesan dinner for a friend's birthday the other night.


E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York and a frequent contributor to The Root.