Since I returned to Mississippi, it's been Nissan this, Nissan that. The Japanese auto giant announced last November that they would be building a $930 million plant in Canton, just north of Jackson. No doubt, this is amazing news for the state's economy, especially coming at a time when the recent bigoted flag vote is likely to turn off other would-be employers. Gotta get that industry while we still can. The new plant, not set to open until 2003 but already hiring, promises up to 4,000 jobs for Mississippians, and salaries in the $40,000 to $50,000 range for families that have never seen that kind of money.
The problem is, the state bent over backward, way backward, to sweeten the Nissan deal: The state said, oh don't worry Big N, we'll get those 1,500 acres for you, and on the cheap. And if these African-American families who own some of the acreage don't take our initial lowball offers, we'll just go in and take the land from them. We'll use that old government eminent-domain trick on them; never mind that the land isn't technically for public use. We'll just pass it on to you when no one's looking. The whole state's gonna benefit from Nissan's presence anyway. No big deal.
So they did. In a ballsy, nothing's-gonna-stop-us-now move, the Mississippi Development Authority strutted up to Madison County and made quick offers, in some cases offering less to blacks than they offered white landowners. When some of the black families, including the Archies who have owned 100 acres for several generations, refused the initial offer, the state invoked eminent domain. This was after state officials had assured the landowners in December through local supervisor Karl Banks that they did not "want to go that route" -- the bad publicity might scare away Nissan (a meeting reported by Jackson's Clarion Ledger).
Now I don't know about you, but if government officials told me the reason they weren't going to steal my land and hand it over to a multibillion-dollar corporation was because it might end up upsetting that same corporation, I might get a little P.O.-ed myself. The gall.
Of course, Mississippi did choose the eminent-domain route. Almost worse, the Development Commission has met with little challenge from the local Nissan's-gonna-save-us-from-ourselves press. Clarion-Ledger business editor Jack Weatherly felt the landowners' pain on Dec. 3: "I think I know how they feel." He talked about his 160 acres of his "family place" that they've owned for 118 years through five generations of Weatherlys. He compares that to the Archie family which owns 100 acres in Nissan's scope. "The land has been in their family for a long time. So, naturally, they have deep feelings about the property." Naturally.
How condescending. Of course, the difference is the state is not trying to take the Weatherly estate at below-market prices and then hand it over to Nissan. My guess is that the Weatherly family might want the opportunity for a fair-and-square haggle over their property as well, just as a wealthy Texas family wanted when their state used eminent domain to hand over acreage to Texas Rangers part-owner (and then-manager) George W. Bush for a new stadium. (Courts said nuh-uh over the low price, and awarded the owners 10 times the amount offered. They still lost their land, though.) Weatherly cites other land plays, including one by Donald Trump in Atlantic City, who wanted New Jersey to seize him an old woman's land to use as a parking lot, but lost. "For sure, Mississippi isn't the arrogant Donald Trump," Weatherly assures.
Well, it sure is trying to be. Rhetorical question: If this didn't pass court muster for Texas sweetheart Dubya and The Donald, why would Mississippi possibly think it could finagle land from minority land owners and nobody would notice, or care? Moments like these, I remember why I left. This state can be dumb as a post and nearsighted as a possum. Weatherly, though, is optimistic that a jury would wrestle with its collective conscience and then rule for what's right for the collective: the state-Nissan coalition: "[H]ow many of those 12 people, good and true, might have a friend or family member who stood to get a job making $40,000-$50,000 a year at Nissan?"
So let me try to dissect this queer, twisted trickle-down socialism. Nissan is good for Mississippi -- the many -- once the wealth trickles on down our way. These families' land is good only for the few until Nissan gets it in order to be good for Mississippi. Therefore, the state gets to give it to Nissan, which is probably only in Dixie in the first place to hide from the Northern union organizers. This corporate collectivism is beginning to sound too radical even for this bleeding-heart gal.
Most of the stories in the Clarion Ledger news archive (go to ClarionLedger.com and click the Nissan logo, really, to the right) are glowing, rather apologist Nissan elegies. The paper barely mentioned the ongoing land disputes over the past several months until Rev. Jesse Jackson showed up in August to challenge the land scam. Landowner Lonzo Archie said of Jackson to the Associated Press: "Sometimes you need someone that they'll listen to, because they (Mississippi officials) sure won't listen to us."
To one-up Jackson, the C-L's columnists got into the fray, using arguments tinged with that too-familiar "agitator, go home" rhetoric this state is mortifyingly famous for. In an insult to us readers, the perspectives editor talked more about Rev. Jackson's philandering than the actual merits or deficiencies of the landowners' argument.
It's unclear to me whether the state set out to be racist. Frankly, as Jackson said, it shouldn't happen to either race. But regardless of intent, the impact is the same: The state is screwing several black landowners. And that is tragic; anyone perused our Jim Crow history, or those old Black Codes lately? It is particularly moving that in the state of Mississippi, and despite some heavy odds, these black families accumulated valuable land that places them in a league to negotiate with such a large company. Talk about an opportunity to take their investment and turn it into something important for their families. They can benefit here in a purely capitalistic, market-driven, equal fashion. These people have said publicly that they want to see Nissan helping this state; they undoubtedly will sell. They just need to hear the right offer from Nissan. As Rev. Jackson correctly argues, they are entitled to market-value offers for their land.
But, in a bit of déjà vu all over again, the state of Mississippi is squelching these landowners' opportunity. You can't really blame Nissan for agreeing to the scheme, though. It probably sounded like savvy business from where they sit: Let this desperate little state government, scared to death of Confederate flag ramifications and businesses fleeing, save them a little cash.
Clearly, this use of eminent domain was a dumb decision. Last week, after Jackson's awareness-raising, the state agreed to reinstate the original offer of $24,500 per acre to three families, who had previously turned down the same offer. This isn't good enough, though. Nissan should immediately announce that it will negotiate one-on-one with these families and come to a fair-market, true-blue capitalist agreement over buying the land. It's past time for the state of Mississippi to butt out where it doesn't belong.