Mississippi House rejects plan to restructure history board

Published 4:42 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Mississippi House on Tuesday rejected a proposal to restructure the board that governs the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The nine-member board was established in 1902. Its members have always nominated their own successors and those nominees have been confirmed by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 2727 said the Archives and History board could recommend nominees, but the governor or lieutenant governor could ignore those recommendations and nominate any person they want. The nominees would still need Senate confirmation.

The proposal was pushed by Senate leaders, who argued that Archives and History board members would be more accountable to the public if they were nominated by elected officials. But the plan was broadly condemned by historians who said the change could politicize the way Mississippi examines its own legacy.

The House voted Tuesday to kill the bill, with only 19 members voting for it and 103 voting against it. The bill was held for the possibility of more debate in coming days, but supporters need to persuade 43 members to change their votes to revive it.

Democratic Rep. John Hines of Greenville spoke against the bill, saying the current Archives and History board “is nationally recognized for the great work it’s been doing in changing the image of Mississippi.”

Among other duties, the Department of Archives and History operates the side-by-side Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History that both opened in late 2017. The civil rights museum, in particular, has been praised for an unflinching presentation of the state’s violent history.

The department in 2020 also worked with a commission that designed a new Mississippi flag after legislators retired the last state flag in the U.S. that included the Confederate battle emblem. The Archives and History board president, former state Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, also served as commission chairman.

Hines called the Archives and History Board “a beacon of light and hope.” Then, switching metaphors, he added: “If you make the best biscuits in town, why change the recipe?”

No House members argued for the bill. House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee Chairman Randy Boyd, a Republican from Mantachie, tried to keep it alive by saying a final version could be negotiated to make changes in the Senate proposal. But Boyd did not offer specifics, and he said he was unaware of any problems with the way board members have been selected.
Forty-six scholars who teach history at Mississippi colleges and universities signed a letter last month praising the Department of Archives and History and saying the method of selecting board members should not change.

“Whether conducting research in its vast archives, examining its artifacts spanning 13,000 years of Mississippi history, or participating in one of the Department’s many public events, we have directly experienced the incredible asset of a competent and well-run state history department,” wrote the historians, including Mississippi Humanities Council director Stuart Rockoff.