Thinking of a recent year as eventful as 2020 would be quite the challenge. Nevertheless, the Jackson Free Press chose a handful of Mississippians who have made headlines this year, for better or worse, and reflects on their undertakings over the last year. Read the following intriguing recaps to learn more.
Gov. William Winter
Gov. William Winter passed from this earth on Dec. 18, another tragedy for a year composed of little else. Eulogies emerged rapidly, from across the state and the nation. Winter was a giant in the state's history, an alchemical figure. His story—a segregationist turned devoted racial unifier—remains the lasting dream for Mississippi's lingering institutions of white supremacy.
Winter's extant political opponents refer to him as a gentleman, and true enough: there was something of an entirely different age about his demeanor and his tact. But a diplomatic bearing is not William Winter's legacy.
The governor's legacy is the reward of a ceaseless career of self-critical growth. Winter saw long before his colleagues that the repairing of a broken society requires the powerful to put the reconciliation of generations to come above the alluring nostalgia of the past.
That nostalgia persists. But so does the integrated educational system
created by Winter's landmark achievement, and the Institute for Racial Reconciliation bearing his name, now based in Jackson.
Winter's 97 years of life began between the two governorships of strident racist Theodore Bilbo. In 2020, Mississippi mourns his polar opposite. In the years to come, leadership will come of age that benefited from Gov. Winter's hopeful vision of Mississippi's future, and his honest assessment of its past.
And that will be his greatest legacy of all. —Nick Judin
Dr. Thomas Dobbs
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs rose to the top of the Mississippi State Department of Health in 2018, and he is as surprised as you are that you know his name.
That he was taking on a position of such significance so soon before the public-health crisis of the century is not something that Dobbs could have easily anticipated. But that his role as the state's top medical expert would put him at the crumbling fault line of a culture at war with itself is beyond all imagining.
To many Mississippians, Dobbs is a candid advocate for the state's health-care system. His calm demeanor does little to mask the dire nature of his COVID-19 pronouncements—his repeated warnings, which too few have taken seriously—have consistently come to pass.
To the denialists who have never successfully grappled with the real weight of the pandemic, he is a figure of utter contempt: "Doomsday Dobbs," a regional stand-in for grander subjects of reactionary hatred, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to Bill Gates.
To others still, he is simply not enough, remaining an adviser in a crisis that calls for a general. His position as state health officer is legally distinct from Gov. Tate Reeves' direct authority. His public-health orders carry the weight of law. And yet he consistently defers to the willfully uninformed, inconstant leadership of the governor.
With more than 5,000 Mississippians dead from COVID-19, in Dobbs' own estimations, such a critique has to be entertained. Yet looming above it is a far more grim assessment: The powers legally invested in any position, be it the state health officer or the office of the governor, are only relevant so far as they are heard, understood, enforced and obeyed.
In an earlier era, Dobbs might have been the ironclad authority some now wish for him to be. But in this American twilight, noisy with the din of misinformation, atomized into endless political struggle, he is first and foremost a witness. —Nick Judin
Dr. LouAnn Woodward
Dr. LouAnn Woodward, University of Mississippi Medical Center's vice chancellor, emerged this year as yet another foil to Gov. Tate Reeves as one of the leading voices in a chorus of public-health leadership pressing for stronger measures against the coronavirus. But where Dr. Thomas Dobbs' role was to negotiate with Mississippi's governor, Woodward's was often to challenge him.
It was her letter, in the earliest days of the pandemic, that most visibly contributed to the state's only real attempt at a lockdown. Then, as July's spike threatened the coming school semester, she again leveraged her authority as UMMC chief to pressure the governor into issuing a statewide mask order, leading to the only sustained period of significant viral decline Mississippi has witnessed in the pandemic since the initial lockdown.
Her reward has been the personal enmity of the governor, toward both her and her institution. She was among the public-health leaders he disparaged as "so-called experts" in one of his many sharp denunciations of statewide orders. UMMC itself was a target of Reeves' scorn in the rising tension of the current peak: He minimized the situation in the institution's intensive-care unit after a desperate call from Woodward and other medical professionals from the hospital for more robust measures.
Woodward, like Dobbs, has chosen diplomacy over bombast, never descending to an outright knife fight with Reeves. But her repeated contradictions of the governor's hands-off approach to infection control will remain for posterity to judge. —Nick Judin
Gov. Tate Reeves
Whatever lies in Gov. Tate Reeves' future, he can certainly lay claim to having had the most bizarrely challenging first year in office in modern Mississippi history. Within a month of his inauguration, Reeves inherited a carceral crisis many years in the making and experienced one of the worst floods on record.
Politically, it was a year of reckoning for the man who, in the words of Mississippi political expert Marty Wiseman, left "bodies on the sidelines" in his many contentious years in public office. A unified Legislature dealt the governor and his office itself more than a few bruising blows as the year unfolded, reclaiming authority ceded to previous Republican executives like Gov. Haley Barbour.
That these events rank as footnotes in the story of 2020 is a testament to its exhausting length. Coronavirus has been the background radiation of Reeves' every move. Initially, the new governor attempted to chart a middle course between the medical establishment's desperate calls for a nationwide effort to crush the virus at any cost and the Trump administration's willful ignorance of its threat to the stability of the hospital system.
Failing that cost Reeves—and Mississippi—dearly. As the year closes, the governor fights openly with public-health leadership at their moment of greatest crisis. He puts a pen to executive orders cracking down on social gatherings in between rubbing elbows with unmasked donors at ill-advised parties. He denies the severity of the crisis in the state's largest hospital at the same time as he seeks consent for collective isolation ahead of the vaccine's full distribution.
An analysis of excess deaths shows the cost of the pandemic in Mississippian lives is greater than 5,000. The state is eighth in deaths per capita across the entire pandemic. Outside the epicenter of the initial massive outbreak in New England, it is third. —Nick Judin
Angelique Lee is the newest member of the Jackson City Council, stepping into retiring Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester Jr.'s seat after a convincing special-election and run-off win over Tyrone Lewis, the well-known former Hinds County sheriff. Lee is beginning her political career with a platform built upon support for public education.
Lee's family history in Jackson is a long one: She is the daughter of civil-rights activist and Freedom Rider Mary Harrison Lee and the Big Apple Inn's Geno Lee. Angelique, formerly an education lobbyist and campaign manager for Jennifer Riley-Collins during her 2019 run for attorney general, cast her victory as a win against status-quo politics.
"I want to thank Ward 2," she said following her success in the Dec. 8 runoff election. "The voters and supporters ... saw fit to push back against the status quo, and recognize that we are a ward that values integrity, strength of character and actual hard work."
On the new councilwoman's agenda are reducing blight, improving infrastructure, and pursuing economic development. With the general election coming in a matter of months, she will need to start quickly to prove herself before running again. —Julian Mills
Strong Arms of JXN
Strong Arms of JXN is a group dedicated to preventing and interrupting violence in Jackson, and gun violence in particular. Criminal-justice advocates Rukia Lumumba and Terun Moore started the program in 2018, through their nonprofit called the People's
Advocacy Institute, which pushes for criminal justice reform and community investment.
The group's leadership enlists previously incarcerated individuals like Moore, Benny Ivey and John Knight, lend credibility to their goal of preventing community violence by using their personal experiences to mentor and redirect others from crime and violence. They use the credible-messenger approach, whereby members of the group approach individuals in the community who they feel are soon to be involved in violence. "There's a lot of re-education that's got to go on," said special guest
Omario Moore on the organization's Facebook Live live feed on Dec. 21.
The credible-messenger program itself is based on Cure Violence, a Chicago-developed model now used across the country in programs to interrupt violence. The model suggests treating violence like a disease, stopping the spread on a case-by-case basis.
The People's Advocacy Institute is awarding $100 to 100 families in need this holiday season through their Community Stimulus Fund, which may be found through either programs Facebook page. Read more about the approach at jfp.ms/preventingviolence. —Julian Mills
Despite the global pandemic placing some major limits to the live-music scene, Brandon resident Seth Power has tenaciously worked to make progress in his life and career throughout 2020.
On Jan. 10, the artist released his first full-length album, "Souvenir," and he subsequently embarked on his first regional mini-tour throughout the month. While he planned to tour college campuses later in the year, COVID-19 canceled those ambitions. Instead, Power turned to creating more content for his fan base, releasing an EP over the summer called "Souvenir (Acoustic)," which featured stripped-down remixes of six songs from the original 14-track album, plus two bonus remixes.
Celebrating his one-year wedding anniversary to his wife, Colette Usry, in June, Power followed the personal achievement with a professional one. His single, "I Do," which he wrote and performed as a surprise to his bride at their wedding, hit the airwaves in September, becoming Power's first song to play on live radio in the United States.
Seth and Colette welcomed their firstborn child, William Power, to the world on Oct. 30.
While the Mississippi State University alum has taken a step back from performing to take care of his son, Power is currently raising funds to develop a service called Fan Space, which will help connect local musicians and their fans, and he plans to release more information on the app in 2021.
To learn more about Seth Power, visit sethpowermusic.com. Listen to his music on Spotify, iTunes and other streaming platforms. —Nate Schumann
Rachel Phuong Le
California native Rachel Phuong Le, owner of the Poke Stop sushi restaurant at Cultivation Food Hall at the District at Eastover, launched a new restaurant called Stuffed Asian Street Food inside the food hall earlier this year.
Stuffed serves a variety of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese street food, all with a stuffed theme. The menu includes items such as Chinese egg rolls, Japanese dumplings, Chinese steamed bao buns and more.
"It's very hard to find good Asian food in Mississippi, and the bao buns we have here are something that's certainly not available anywhere else," Le says. "Many people didn't even know about bao before we opened and have started calling them 'fluffy tacos.' I love being able to bring my own flair to authentic Asian food, and it's neat that people have started having their own name for it."
The specialty dish of Stuffed is Vietnamese banh mi, a type of sandwich similar to a po-boy, the recipe for which is Le's own creation and features meats cooked and marinated in-house, including pork belly, lemongrass beef, Asian fried shrimp and more.
"Many people may not be looking for new places, but when they come here and see this and they try it, it's great because it helps get the word out for others just trying to get started again after the pandemic," Le says.
Stuffed is open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call 601-487-5196 or find the restaurant on Facebook @stuffedjxn. —Dustin Cardon
Belhaven resident Chat Phillips launched his own bottled beverage business, Inaka Tea Company, in Jackson in October. Phillips sells homemade barley tea, which is a variety popular in Japan and Korea in which tea leaves are
prepared in a roaster in a manner similar to coffee beans.
"Barley tea is naturally caffeine free, and it has other special qualities like antioxidants that get brought out from both the tea and the roasting process," Phillips says. "It's also low in cholesterol and sugar and is great for helping to regulate your circulatory system and blood sugar levels."
Phillips learned to make barley tea while living in Japan and working as a consultant for international companies in 2010. He roasted his own barley at home to serve to friends and, after returning to the United States, decided to start selling the tea in Jackson due to its scarcity in the U.S.
"The tea became quite popular in my neighborhood as a coffee substitute since I had a lot of friends who were just starting families, and the health benefits were great for them," Phillips says.
Inaka Tea is available in original, mint and ginger flavors. The tea comes in 16-ounce glass bottles, which are roughly $2.49 apiece, though the price may vary by retailer. Phillips sells his tea through local retailers such as Corner Market and is online at inakatea.com.
For more information, follow Inaka Tea Company on Instagram @inaka_tea or on Facebook @drinkinaka. —Dustin Cardon
For Sarah and Jesse Pittman, aged 84 and 75 respectively, 2020 has been a stinker of a year. As Kayode Crown first reported in June, the couple had been living with the smell of sewage from clogged pipes for months. The gases were not only unsavory, but also potentially toxic. Roto-Rooter couldn't fix it, saying it was the city's responsibility. The only city-owned machine nearby capable of fixing the issue wasn't functional.
The neighbors were complaining, and the only escape was into the summer heat. If the air conditioner was on, it would bring the smell inside. "I put the fan on, but I could not turn the air back on because the smell was just too bad," Sarah Pittman told Kayode Crown, who reported on their plight.
In July, help came along in the form of the Real People's Assembly—a Jacksonian coalition between finance worker Greg Griffin and lawyer (and City of Jackson critic and JFP columnist) Adofo Minka. The group organizes around community-driven ideas and individual action at the exclusion of government, as opposed to the older and more closely government-linked Jackson People's Assembly. The RPA raised $1,200 through a GoFundMe and put the Pittmans up at the Westin Hotel downtown for five nights where they could rest and get a cool breath of fresh air.
With Kayode Crown's ongoing reporting and the prodding of the RPA pushing the city to fix the sewage problem, the City finally finished the repairs in September to give the Pittmans relief from the putrid smell. "I am feeling much better because I don't have to smell that scent all night and all day," Sarah Pittman told Kayode. "It took them eight months to do it. I am very happy because now I don't have to smell that smell." —Julian Mills