Mississippi G — damn: What does a Republican from Mississippi have to Do Not to Be Elected Senator?
Yesterday my home-state, Mississippi, had a runoff election for one of its two United States Senate seats. The election, which garnered national attention, was between African American Democratic candidate Mike Espy and White Republican candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith. In 1986, Espy became the first African American congressman since Reconstruction when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was also the first African American Agricultural Secretary during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Hyde-Smtih, a former Democratic state senator, was appointed to the national seat earlier this year by Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, after Republican Senator Thad Cochran retired.
The election was thrust into the national spotlight primarily because of comments Hyde-Smith made to one of her supporters in Tupelo, MS on November 2, saying “if he invited me to a public hanging I’d be on the front row.” Once the video was published, national attention was not only placed on the election, but on the state. The attention and the conversations surrounding the state were notably negative. Mississippi might have the reputation of being the most racist state in a racially divided country, and its not unearned or undeserved. When it comes to racial equality, civil rights, and progress of any form, Mississippi does not have a good track record. Mississippi has a vile, vicious, and violent racial history. In fact, Mississippi has carried out more lynchings than any other state in the country. So it’s not shocking that Hyde Smith’s reprehensible comments were not well-received.
For her part, Hyde-Smith was unrepentant when asked to apologize for what she said and the offense it caused. She released a statement saying “in referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.” During a press conference, Hyde-Smith was asked to clarify her remarks and at least acknowledge why they were offensive. Any person with decency would have acknowledged the wounds her words opened, and recognized why the words she chose were so problematic to many. Her hanging comments harkened to the images of brutality, horror, and terror that are lifeless bodies of African American men and women beaten, brutalized, and hung from trees as mobs of smiling White Mississippians looked on. Hyde-Smith could not even do this until weeks later when she issued a halfhearted apology during her debate with Espy.
The governor of MS, Phil Bryant, standing beside Hyde-Smith during the news conference, grossly deflected by making unfounded claims that African American women, according to Wikipedia, had aborted so many babies that the African American population would be 48% bigger in America had there been no legal abortion. Scapegoating and demonizing is a common tactic of racists, and Bryant’s assertion that Black women had committed genocide was no exception. This press conference, while a fail for decency, integrity, and humanity, was excellent in highlighting the deeply ingrained perception of racial and moral superiority that motivates the racist. It showcased the mindset of the White Mississippians who elected Hyde-Smith, and Bryant for that matter, and left many uttering in disappointment, Mississippi G — damn.
The truth of the matter is that they find nothing wrong with what Hyde-Smith said. In fact, and I’m not exaggerating, there really isn’t much anything racist that Hyde-Smith or Bryant can say, or do, pertaining to African Americans that the people who voted for them would find wrong. You can also throw Donald Trump into the mix.
As a native, I’m regularly defending, not necessarily my state, but myself to others.
Does MS have horses and buggies? No. Dirt roads? No. Is the Civil Rights Movement still going on? No. Is it like The Help? No, that was set in the 1960s.
The labels attached to MS are backwards, country, uneducated, ignorant, and, of course, racist. As an African American, I’m well aware of the state’s lack of progress when it comes to moving forward from its racist past. MS still flies the Confederate flag, is still largely segregated, and as 54% demonstrated last night, is still exactly what the worst stereotypes perpetuate it to be. The worst aspect of it is that they are proud of their ignorance and otherness. To be so grossly racist, even in relation to the racist United States, that a woman would still be elected after the media circus surrounding Hyde-Smith’s comments.
To those trying to make sense of the results, with my personal experience I will tell you that many would pluck themselves back to the Antebellum South if they could. There is pride in the Confederate roots and the ability to remain largely unchanged as the rest of the country at least tries to move forward. It doesn’t matter if education, economy, commerce, or quality of life suffer, because one group of these White Mississippians believe this only affects Black Mississippians and the group whose voting against their own best interests would rather suffer than progress. Anything to maintain the status quo and their Confederate legacy.
This leads me to one of my main problems with the perception of MS. While MS lives up to its worst stereotypes, that is not all of MS. Mississippi does not belong to White racists anymore than the United States does. Mike Espy’s campaign ran on the premise that MS could move forward and that the perception of MS by the country is inaccurate. A win for Espy would have proven that MS, with all its faults, can move forward and can be better. There’s potential here. Hyde-Smith, on the other hand, said it was only those outside of MS, who had problems with what she said, and that these outsiders were stirring up trouble. She harkened to the days of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s when Northerners who came down South to fight for equal rights were called agitators and outsiders. No, Cindy Hyde-Smith, this is not true. There are Mississippians who see the viciousness in what you said and your entire platform. You are not the face of Mississippi.
Similar to Hyde Smith, President Donald Trump, during a visit to Mississippi on Monday, in support of Hyde-Smith at one of her rallies, asked the question “how does [Espy] fit in with Mississippi.” Easily. Trump is clearly oblivious to the fact that 37% of Mississippi is African American, and that there are Mississippians, African American and White, who did not support Hyde-Smith. This delusion of racist Whites that only they exist must end. Espy, a member of a prominent Mississippi family, answered the question himself by listing his credentials as the first African American in congress since Reconstruction, having been elected four times, and as the first African American and Mississippian to hold the position of Secretary of Agriculture. His grandfather opened the first hospital for African Americans in MS.
The election was not a runaway for Hyde-Smith. Mississippi has not had a Democratic senator in 40 years and Espy performed better than many would imagine for a Democrat and African American in a MS senate race. Many call the results a victory for progress and change. Losing by a single digit percentage point, Espy said “make no mistake — tonight is the beginning, not the end. When this many people show up, stand up, and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a moment. It is a movement.”
While I agree with Espy’s comments, I’m still left shaking my head, and thinking of Nina Simone’s lyrics from her 1964 song about the horror of lynching in the state of Mississippi: Mississippi G — damn.