On May 13, the US Department of Education sent a letter to school districts across the country clarifying that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools, applies to transgender students — most notably, their right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
The letter brought backlash from many quarters. But some of the harshest came from my home state of Mississippi, which has a long and brutal tradition of fighting the expansion of civil rights. Declaring his opposition on Facebook, Governor Phil Bryant chose language that evoked the ugliest ghosts of the state’s past:
Because these decisions are better left to the states, and not made at the point of a federal bayonet, Mississippi’s public schools should not participate in the president’s social experiment.
Throughout Mississippi’s history, political leaders have masked social anxieties with cries of “states’ rights.” Governor Bryant’s statement could easily be read in the voice of Ross Barnett, the governor whose confrontation with President Kennedy over the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962 required the deployment of 30,000 federal troops carrying tear gas, rifles, and, yes, bayonets.
The governor’s response exemplifies a troubling reversion to the politics of exclusion and defiance that once made Mississippi a national pariah. Despite abundant progress over the past half-century, two recent political decisions have again brought widespread condemnation upon the state.
First, in January, the legislature refused to remove the Confederate battle cross from the state flag. Then, in April, it passed HB 1523, a bill that permits certain types of anti-LGBT discrimination by government officials, religious organizations, adoptive and foster parents, schools, and business owners. The law, which has already drawn three…