Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Mississippi’s November 27 runoff, stepped into a political minefield earlier this month when, in reference to one of her supporters, she commented, “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
In a sense, Hyde-Smith is absolutely correct that her remark represented “an exaggerated expression of regard,” as she explained in her official statement about the incident. But what she failed to recognize is that being an exaggerated expression of regard is in no way mutually exclusive from also being patently racist.
Apparently, Hyde-Smith is completely unaware of or not concerned about Mississippi’s history of public hangings, which include lynchings. Between 1877 and 1950, Mississippi had more lynchings of Black people than any other state in the country. This history includes murders as famous as that of young Emmett Till in 1955, and possibly as recent as a series of deaths earlier this year when 21-year-old Willie Jones Jr. was found hanging from a tree outside his child’s mother’s home.
It is a history in which the dominant theme involves accusations of inappropriate contact between a Black man and a white woman, in spite of the fact that such accusations often mask political and economic motivations. So when a white woman running against a Black man in a battle for political power in the state of Mississippi chooses to invoke imagery of public hangings, we must call it what it is.
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Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comment has only been magnified by other remarks in which she seemed to support voter suppression, photos of her in 2014 reminiscing about the slavery-based confederacy being “Mississippi history at its best,” and her attempt in 2001 to rename a highway after Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. This is why several groups have called for her to step down and remove herself from the Senate race.
But while most of our attention is on Sen. Hyde-Smith, her response, and the consequences she should face, perhaps the most important response will not come from her, but from the rest of the state.
After all, although Hyde-Smith must own her remarks, the fact of the matter is that her words reflect a certain culture that existed in Mississippi, and the runoff will reveal the extent to which it still exists. Public hangings were, in fact, celebratory events in Mississippi and elsewhere in the United States. They were often treated like county fairs or picnics—events to which even young children could be brought. Undoubtedly, there is a segment of Mississippi voters for whom the remarks were not offensive at all, and there is an even more dangerous segment for whom revisiting this time period would help to “Make America Great Again.”
In Alabama, Roy Moore said as much when he was asked about a period of time in which the United States was last “great.” “I think it was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery—they cared for one another,” he said. Many Alabamians felt that those remarks, combined with allegations of sexual misconduct, disqualified Moore from serving as a U.S. senator.
Now, the question is: What will Mississippi’s response to Cindy Hyde-Smith be?
There is little question as to what the response will be from Black Mississippi voters who turn out. Although both Democrat Mike Espy and Hyde-Smith received roughly 41 percent of total votes on November 6, exit polling shows that Democrat Mike Espy likely received 91 percent of Black support on Election Day.
Hyde-Smith’s comments all but guarantee that percentage will increase in the runoff. The main question is how effectively voting rights organizations will motivate and engage new voters and voters who have been frustrated by the voting process. Moreover, how will such groups overcome the voter suppression that is sure to surface, and what types of financial resources will the Democratic Party and progressive funders invest in this process?
But with all of that said, the burden is not on Black Mississippi, or Black women more specifically, to save the state. White Mississippians of good conscience must step up. Exit polling suggests that Espy received 15 percent of white votes in November. At the end of the day, there has got to be more than just 15 percent of white voters who can stomach voting for a Black man.
I can’t help but be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words in his historic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he states “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”
Whether it be white voters in need of rural hospitals, Medicaid expansion, or coverage for pre-existing conditions; white millennials tired of gun violence in schools; LGBTQ community members in search of equality, or anyone who simply believes in equity: It’s time for white Mississippi voters of conscience to step up and come out of the shadows.
For some, there may actually be a fear factor. Having lived in the rural South, I’ve seen it firsthand. But it is simply not acceptable for white progressives in Mississippi to benefit from the privilege of not facing those fears while Black Mississippi must face the consequences on a daily basis.
More importantly, this is not just an issue for Mississippi progressives or Democrats. It’s time for all of white Mississippi to decide whether Mississippi will remain a pariah state, ridiculed and stuck in the past, or whether it will move into the future as white voters choose to ignore racial dog whistles and stop voting against their own quality of life.
White Mississippi must respond to Hyde-Smith’s remarks. If they don’t, not only are they condoning her comment about public hangings, but like her, they have agreed to accept the invitation.