Shadrack White likes standing up for his beliefs, even when those beliefs are unpopular.
The director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, a nonprofit watchdog organization that represents individuals around the state whose constitutional rights have been violated, spoke about his organization — and what he loves about it — at the Columbus Kiwanis Club Wednesday. He joked he was one of “four conservative” students at Harvard Law School who used to invite conservative speakers to the university — speakers who were often greeted with backlash from the university’s more liberal students.
“We brought in about 20 speakers,” he said. “I got hate mail on almost every single one. We served free Chick-fil-A at one event. I got hate mail for serving free Chick-fil-A.”
But White said the experience taught him the importance of standing up for unpopular beliefs, and he said he missed that when he moved back to Mississippi in 2015 to work first on a political campaign and later as a special prosecutor.
“I thought back about what life was like in law school, and what it was like to stand up for something that you believed in and I didn’t feel like I was doing that on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
That led to his taking his current position at the Mississippi Justice Institute, which right now is embroiled in a legal battle with the city of Natchez over an alleged public meetings violation.
White said the mayor and board of aldermen were taking bids for a new garbage collection company behind closed doors. Not only that, he said, but they were repeatedly turning away journalists, citizens and attorneys who attempted to sit in on the meetings.
When they eventually chose a new company, the entire city’s garbage collection fees increased — which looks bad, if nothing else, White said.
“You find this in pockets around Mississippi,” White said. “There are these debates about how money should be spent by local government or a state agency, and oftentimes the frustrating thing for me is that I walk in with the knowledge that this money that is being discussed does not belong to the mayor or the city council — it belongs to the taxpayers, the city of Natchez. And because it’s their money, they’ve got a right to see how it’s being spent.”
MJI represented The Commercial Dispatch in an Open Meetings Act case against the city of Columbus in 2016 and 2017, which The Dispatch won.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, who was present at White’s speech Wednesday, pointed out during a question-and-answer session that it often makes governing difficult when city councilmen can’t discuss issues outside public meetings.
“It really makes it hard to govern,” he said. “… I know what you’re trying to do is good, but it seems to me like there’s some problems on the other side of it.”
White was sympathetic. He said his father is a mayor of a Mississippi town who once found himself at church in a discussion with several city councilmen when a city issue came up.
“Dad … said, ‘Guys, you just can’t do that,'” White said. “‘It would be easier right now to just settle this thing right here because we technically have a quorum of the board here and it would be easy to figure out what the solution was. … We just can’t do it.’
“Some of what I try to do is go out and do this, speak, so that people know,” he added.
But White said it’s not just open meetings violations. MJI also takes on infringements on religious liberty. He pointed to a case where a high school football coach in Newton baptized several players off campus. He had gotten a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation who told him they could sue him for violating the separation of church and state. White reached out to represent the coach, and when he responded to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, they dropped the suit.
“There are issues like that that pop up,” White said.
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