Statement on Mississippi Senate Bill 2727

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) was founded in 1902 and is the second oldest state archival program in the country. Though initially founded to protect the “Southern identity” and preserve records of the Civil War, the agency has expanded its reach and mission and now collects, preserves, and provides access to the many and varied archival resources of the state of Mississippi and is heavily involved in managing Mississippi’s historic landscapes and structures.

MDAH is currently run by a Board of Trustees composed of nine individuals drawn from across the state. Members are nominated by the Board itself and confirmed by the Senate. Senate Bill 2727 would strip this nominating power from the Board and transfer it to the Executive Branch of the State of Mississippi. The Society of Mississippi Archivists condemns this action in the strongest possible terms and urges members of the Mississippi House of Representatives to vote “no” on this action. We also urge Mississippi residents to contact their state representatives and share their concerns about the proposed course of action. That this action was proposed without any public notice before the Senate vote is particularly troubling.

Under its current configuration, with former Governor William F. Winter as President of the Board for fifty years and now Judge Reuben Anderson, the Board has worked in a nonpartisan way to preserve this complex history. Working together despite their own political differences, the Board successfully raised resources and support for a new Archives and History Building in 2003, followed by the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History in 2017, allowing Mississippi to not only be a destination for researchers, but also offering a place where difficult, controversial stories can be told by trained historians and archivists in a truthful way without concern for political fallout.

It is critical, now more than ever, that this work continue without political pressure. In 2017, just after the initial opening of the two museums, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter visited. Cotter was especially struck by the brutally honest approach to Mississippi history that the Museum’s curators took, explaining that “to a startling degree, and despite being a state-sponsored institution, the museum refuses to sugarcoat history.” We are also a state that just took a very small step out of this dark, racist past by finally changing the state flag in June 2020, in large part due to the potential major loss of revenue and financial support from entities like the NCAA and other organizations who threatened to pull events and funding from the state. We cannot go back. Placing the Board of Trustees in the hands of the Executive Branch invites significant politicization of the work of the agency and threatens to undo the good that the MDAH has done in telling the stories of this state in a candid, evidence-based way.

Mississippi is a state with a complex and difficult history that still struggles with issues of civil rights and racial justice. The ability to continue work in the preservation and accessibility of Mississippi history unencumbered by political interests is critical to the success of the mission of MDAH. The independence of the MDAH Board has been central to its integrity, and it should remain that way.

The Board of the Society of Mississippi Archivists