He has always kept lists. Lists of what he had to do today, lists of evidence needed for a trial, lists of how much money he should save by certain dates. He purposefully overloaded these lists, figuring if he got 80 percent accomplished he was doing well.
A week after he became the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, Mike Espy was home in Yazoo City and found a list written eight years ago when he was a legal services lawyer. It was one of those Improve Your Life lists, full of financial goals, social goals, and then this: "Run for Congress. Ha, ha, ha."
When he tells this story, the state's first black assistant secretary of state and first black assistant attorney general, whose Mississippi-cadenced voice is sometimes so quiet that you have to lean closer to hear it, laughs lustily.
"It was out of my imagination, right? 'Forget it, you can't do it.' ... Ha, ha, ha. Like you'll be 50."
He was 32 when he won on Nov. 4, defeating two-term Republican incumbent Webb Franklin, and overcoming initial doubts of white and black political observers.
"They saw me as a nice, shy, capable government lawyer who did not identify with grass roots nor speak to them and motivate them," says Espy, who turned 33 Nov. 30.
For Election Day, $ 65,000 in get-out-the-vote money was set aside from his campaign funds. The 2nd Congressional District is rural and poor, and it's tough to get people to the polls. Espy saw nightmares everywhere: In one heavily black precinct, his name was not at the top of the ballot as voters had been told (important in a district where many cannot read); in another precinct, the voting machine was broken during crucial prework morning hours.
And throughout the district, it was raining.
"We really did more than just win," he says, chuckling. "We've been through the baptismal fire. I know I'm the congressman ... by vote of the people, by finding of the jury."
As a high school student, Espy carried a stick to protect himself from white kids; as assistant secretary of state he often went to white homes to tell people they were illegally occupying land. His life has spanned the transition from the old South to the new, and he is a fusion of both.
And how did victory feel?
"Peaceful," he says without hesitation.
Both black-owned and white-owned newspapers in Mississippi proclaimed it a new day. And they did more than congratulate Espy -- they congratulated themselves. "The election of Mike Espy ... did more thanshatter the age-old color barrier," read an editorial in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. "... It is further evidence that Mississippi is ready for change."
As might be expected, there was more restraint among blacks. "That's one more milestone," says Ed Cole, a staff assistant in Jackson to Sen. John C. Stennis, and a friend and informal adviser to Espy, "but we've got miles to go. Miles."
The state has come miles already -- from Gov. Ross Barnett, segregation, murdered civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers. "Blacks and whites coexist peacefully," observes one Mississippian. That celebrated southern graciousness can now be seen between blacks and whites in stores and hotels, and on the street. " 'In the Heat of the Night' and Rod Steiger -- that was outdated in the '70s," says white Jackson attorney Wilson Golden, a friend and early supporter of Espy.
"I think the thing that people don't understand is that there are no backwaters here," says state auditor Ray Mabus, one of former Mississippi governor William Winter's reform-minded aides. Mabus, who is white, endorsed and campaigned for Espy. "The image of Mississippi is at least a decade behind the reality of the state."
There are blacks in the power structure -- lawyers and judges and journalists. But there is still a sense of two worlds here: There are black churches and white churches; in the 2nd District, where most Mississippi blacks (who make up 35 percent of the state's total population) live, the public schools are predominantly black, the expensive private academies are mostly white. On a Saturday night, a trendy watering hole in Greenville is solidly white; in another part of the same town, a packed dance club is completely black. There is the state bar association and there is a black bar association. (Blacks join both.)
"I have to say that all the perceptions of Mississippi are real," says Cole, who is one of two vice chairmen of the state Democratic Party. "It was a vicious place. We still have two societies. We used to have two societies that had no intercourse. Mississippi is becoming a little more homogenized ... Racially, economically, it's fast getting like the rest of the world."
The 2nd District, on the western side of the state, runs from the Tennessee border south to Natchez, bounded on the west by the Mississippi River. Antebellum homes with Greek columns, symbols of the old South, are now bed-and-breakfast hotels. In Natchez, visitors can make "pilgrimages" from house to house, greeted by guides in period costumes as if in a pre-Civil War fantasy.
It is the poorest congressional district in the poorest state in the union. Federal transfer payments are the number one source of income in the state, according to Mabus, who says that of 2.5 million people in the state, 700,000 are illiterate.
But the district also contains rich farmland -- the Delta. Flat cotton fields stretch to the horizon, rows of trees so far away they look like hedges. The harvest is past now, and dark brown stalks stand in rows, just scraps of white cotton remaining. Bits of it blow along the sides of the road.
In late fall, the Delta looks desolate -- stretches of land punctuated by a snatch of a small town with a gas station and a store or sometimes just a sign with an arrow pointing down a winding road. Outside the Onward General Store, in the town of that name, you can smell the barbecue. In Alligator, just past the Alligator Car Wash, there are two wretched shacks with laundry hanging on the line and two cows grazing in the front yard. Off the highway, in Tunica, narrow roads define blocks of little box houses in such disrepair they look abandoned.
And everywhere there are railroad tracks, built to carry the cargo of cotton and cotton products. Tracks run so close to a block of houses in Vicksburg you could step off your front porch onto the rails. Blacks, lured by prospects of jobs, migrated north by train, often to Chicago.
History creeps up on you in the Delta. In the middle of Jackson's business district of concrete-and-glass high-rises, there is the Greek Revival old state capitol -- now a museum -- where the order of secession from the Union was passed in 1861. A corner of the state flag incorporates the Confederate Stars and Bars.
In the middle of a block of drab houses in a predominantly black neighborhood in Vicksburg there suddenly rises Anchuca, a huge yellow antebellum home with massive white columns. A faded Confederate flag flies from the second-story balcony where Jefferson Davis once stood. Today, residents, black and white, go about their business, seemingly oblivious to this relic.
The Huddleston Dynasty In the early 1900s, a black entrepreneur named T.J. Huddleston Sr. decided to build a hospital. A powerful orator, he went around the state speaking to blacks, asking each person to give him $ 1 for a brick. In 1921, he opened the 75-bed Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital in the small town of Yazoo City. It was the first black hospital in the state.
In the next decade, Huddleston started opening funeral homes -- white parlors wouldn't bury blacks -- and eventually had 28 of them.
Huddleston's grandson, Mike Espy, was born in 1953 in the hospital his grandfather built. Huddleston died several years later, one of the largest black landholders in the state, and today the Espy family owns nine of the funeral homes scattered across the Delta.
"Any black person over 50 would remember him," Espy says of his grandfather. "I used him throughout the campaign ... He would go around saying, 'Give me a dollar for a brick and I will build you a hospital.' And I would quote him: 'We can get us a congressman. Just like you built the hospital. Give me a vote.' "
Espy never marched in the front lines of the civil rights movement. And his is hardly the preacher-politician style. He's a bright student who went north to Howard University, then to the University of Santa Clara law school. A week after law school graduation, he was back in Mississippi, living in his family's modest corner house in Yazoo City.
"It was always home," he says, "and I always intended to just be temporarily absent ... As I grew older I began to realize that Mississippi really wasn't that bad. The basis for progress has always been there. And the opportunity is limitless. As a matter of fact, it's probably better for young people than California or Washington [where] there's so much competition. There's no way that I could be a congressman in a California district at 32."
He and his twin sister are the youngest of seven children. He was named Alphonso Michael and she was named Althea Michelle. Both dropped their first names.
Espy's parents, educated at Tuskegee, made sure that all the children had duties in the family business. Tom, Henry and Mike made wood-and-cloth caskets in the back yard. Their mother, who died last year, kept the books. The daughters worked in the office. Espy's father, who died in 1977, was also a county agent for the Agriculture Department.
When the boys were old enough to drive, they often took the bodies to the graves, then picked up the mourners. The black Cadillac doubled as the family car. The Espy boys, who drove before they were old enough to be licensed, used to take their grandfather out to his family farm.
"I was so little I had to look between the horn and the steering wheel," recalls Espy's brother Tom, with a chuckle. "Everyone knew my grandfather ... He was probably 80. The police would stop us and say, 'Damn, one's too young to drive, the other's too old.' But they'd let us go."
The public injustices of growing up black in the South were a fact of life neither ignored nor dwelt upon. "The [separate] water fountains and different restrooms, that was everywhere," he says. "... You could never go in the front door of the doctor's office unless it was a black doctor. And we only had one."
Like his siblings, Espy (a Baptist) attended a Catholic school until it closed down after his 10th grade. Instead of sending him to the all-black public high school, his parents transferred him in the fall of 1969 to the overwhelmingly white Yazoo High School, where he carried a stick to defend himself.
"Relative to the civil rights experiences of snarling dogs and whips and things it was pretty tame," he says. "But I'd always have a fight. The teacher would leave the room, and then you're one among 35 in a classroom and they'd make racial jeers."
But everything was changing. Within a year of Espy's arrival, the black high school closed and Yazoo High was fully integrated.
After college and law school, Espy chose to do legal service work -- "I figured that that was a good way to serve" -- first in Jackson and then in Yazoo City. In 1979, he was appointed director of the public lands commission and later made an assistant secretary of state.
It was his job to enforce Mississippi's historic rule that designates one square mile out of every 36 as state-owned land for the benefit of local schools. Legally, the land should be leased at market value and the money directly paid to the school system. As part of statewide reforms, Espy traveled the state, explaining the law and ferreting out violations.
"Go tell them [that] out in the country with a shotgun ...," he says. "... I got some trouble but I was telling people that they didn't own the land -- so I expected trouble."
He found less racial prejudice than generational prejudice -- "as a young person coming up, being in an authority position over older people, I got a lot."
In 1984 he was appointed assistant attorney general and became director of the consumer protection division, the job that most enhanced his reputation in the state. "You have a demonstrated effect," he says. "You either got the money back or you didn't." In the first 18 months of his tenure, the office collected $ 2.4 million for consumers -- more than the total collected in the previous nine years of the agency, according to Espy.
Meanwhile, he was giving speeches -- 18 a month -- and contemplating his big political move.
It came in the wake of black state legislator Robert Clark's narrow 1984 congressional loss to Webb Franklin. Despite the 52.8 percent black voting population in the district -- specifically drawn to give blacks a majority -- Franklin squeaked to victory with 50.6 percent of the vote. But Espy saw his chance:
"The time was right," Espy says. "It was hot. I saw it in the numbers." Knowing that 1986 would be a low-voter turnout year, Espy decided to work hard to get out the black vote.
By summer 1985, he was meeting with a handful of people who served as something of an informal sounding board. And he was tracing Clark's unsuccessful steps. "I tore his FEC [Federal Election Commission] report apart. I went to see everyone in Mississippi who gave him $ 200 or more."
Some political activists, white and black, initially thought the ideal black candidate for this seat would be well-known and a veteran of the civil rights movement. Espy was neither. But Espy friend and adviser Ed Cole had become "convinced ... that a civil rights activist could not win an election requiring black and white votes."
Attorney Wilson Golden thought he "would not be intimidating ... His politics, background, coming from a well-respected business family -- all the things were there to make him perfectly acceptable to a Greenville Kiwanis Club."
"The Espy election represents freedom as much to whites as anyone else," Cole muses. "People all over this state realize there are restrictions on white politicians that black politicians don't have: the freedom to represent poor people ... If you were to take a benefit roll from this state, you'd find more whites on it than blacks."
The race was on. In the black community, where voter registration was reduced by reluctance and apathy, Espy knocked on doors: "Because if I come to your door and shake your hand and ask you whether you feel like it's going to do you any good or not, if you give me your word you're probably going to vote for me."
Espy's brother Tom, 42, calls the 300 insurance agents who worked for his family's business "secret weapons." In most cases they had been selling burial insurance to Delta families for years. "All we had to do was say Mike was running and they would go back to their people's houses and tell them," Tom Espy says.
In the June 3 Democratic primary, Espy bested two white candidates -- Pete Johnson, the grandson of former Mississippi governor Paul B. Johnson, and Hiram Eastland, the cousin of the late segregationist Sen. James Eastland. Johnson alleged fraud in three counties and after several hearings, Democratic Party officials dismissed his charges. When the dust had settled, Eastland enthusiastically backed Espy, and Johnson released a lukewarm endorsement.
By the end, Mike Espy says, he had driven 2,200 miles a week, fired two field directors and lost eight pounds.
His brother Tom's house was something of a refuge. "If it was 11 p.m., he'd come over and stay until 2 a.m," says Tom Espy. "He'd unwind. We'd talk and plan."
When he returned to the campaign trail, he was sometimes with his wife Sheila -- and their two children, Jemillah, 7, and Mike, 4.
"It was hard playing mother and father and that's what happened," says Sheila Espy, 29, who met her husband when he was a first-year law student and she was a Santa Clara freshman. Sometimes out of necessity, she bundled the children along to campaign rallies and fish fries. "People would say, 'Everytime I see you, Sheila, you have those kids.' " She shrugs. "They're my kids. It was a good education."
When he came home at night, they tried to avoid talk of politics. "He slept this race, he drank it, he was consumed by it," she says. "He didn't want to come home and talk about it ... I knew what was going on."
Three Campaign Workers
In Greenville, the old river port of the Delta, everybody knows Betty Jo Hines. On a given Saturday night, she greets friends as she goes from the popular Doe's Eat Place to a black dance club to a bleak but friendly tavern with a great jukebox on Nelson Street, once a thriving black business district, now a desolate stretch of shabby or abandoned storefronts. There, she seems to know everybody -- which in the wee hours of a rainy weekend night includes the owner (a distant relative of Mike Espy) and a passel of campaign workers. This was the hangout for many of the Greenville campaigners.
Hines, 55, called herself "a facilitator" in the campaign, an all-around aide. The daughter of a white Greenville businessman who built a thriving tugboat towing business and the wife of a former minister, she has long been active in civil rights and Democratic politics.
"In my view," says Hines, "it's important that someone of the seven we send to Washington be black. In a state with the number of blacks we have ... it's ridiculous to talk about sending seven white males. If you get to know anything about society, you know that whites -- even if they mean to be fair and impartial -- don't represent blacks in the same way that blacks do." She laughs. "I would have settled for a senator."
Also in the bar is Karen Hinton, a 28-year-old white high school teacher who worked as Clark's press secretary in his 1984 campaign against Franklin. She grew up in Jones County, where her next-door neighbor was convicted of manslaughter for killing an NAACP official. In the late '60s, her father supported private schools as an alternative to integrated public ones. "I didn't have really progressive parents," Hinton says.
During the campaign, she says, "My mother would call and say, 'Where were you last weekend?' I'd say 'I was out campaigning for Mike.' ... 'Who was there?' 'A whole bunch of us.' 'Now who was black and who was white?' " Hinton sighs. "She's so afraid I'm going to bring home a black man."
LaOuida Glover, standing nearby, had recently returned to Mississippi after the University of Illinois and a job in Chicago. She's 37 and black. Her mother was in the civil rights movement: "She marched and she was jailed in Jackson -- the whole bit," says Glover, who came back to the state "to look at opportunities" and ended up working for legal services and Mike Espy. As soon as she knew he'd won, she went to the phone and called her mother.
On Election Day, outside a polling place where Hines stood wearing an Espy T-shirt and holding an Espy poster, a white man walked by and "said something about 'working for that nigger,' " Hines remembers. "They're not gone. They're still out there -- they've calmed down a little bit. And a lot of people who used to feel that way have changed and found out what the world is really about."
A Question of Race
Espy got few hate calls and heard few racial epithets. Still, some whites wouldn't shake his hand at public gatherings.
"This was a racially polarized race," he says. "The likelihood would be that I would get the majority of black votes. The likelihood would be he would get the majority of white votes." The race, he said, would be in the margins.
Some whites contributed surreptitiously. "One man in Yazoo City gave $ 199.99," recalls Michelle Espy Leach, "because $ 200 and over had to be published ..."
Yet a Mississippi farmer allowed Espy to use his farm as the backdrop for a commercial and appeared in it, strolling with the candidate across his land, chatting. The biggest coup was getting the white sheriff of Grenada County, Jesse Strider, to endorse him. Strider appears on screen, solemn-faced, the Mississippi flag waving behind him, to tout the qualities of "a good Democratic candidate."
Political media consultant Jody Jaeger also filmed Espy in a law office and with his family in their living room. "We didn't try to hide the fact that he was black," says Jaeger. While Jaeger -- who is white -- was working on the farm spot, he and a black campaign worker, stuck in traffic, encountered Richard Barrett, who ran unsuccessfully in the primary for state supreme court. When Barrett saw the Espy sticker, he asked, "Which one of you is Mr. Espy?"
"I introduced myself and tried to be polite," Jaeger says. Barrett, who calls the Voting Rights Act "unconstitutional," refused to sit next to Espy at a candidates forum.
Few groups were more disenchanted with the status quo than Mississippi farmers. According to Wayne Dodd, a farming consultant in Greenville who helps farmers through the tortuous bureaucracy of federal loan applications, "40 to 45 percent of Delta farmers won't farm this year unless we have some help from Washington to bail us out."
Espy played hard to this group, even holding a farm hearing a month before the election, lining up Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.) and Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Buck Ross. In addition, he campaigned partially on a commitment from the House Agriculture Committee to assign him a seat if he was elected. Espy got his Agriculture seat and he also won a plum assignment on the Budget Committee.
"We thought of him maybe as a hope," says one white Greenville farmer. Michael Patterson, who voted for Espy, is one of the few black farmers remaining in the Delta. The white farmers' debt crisis is not new to blacks, he says. "The problems they're having now ... we've had all the time," says Patterson, who farms in Leland with his brothers. "We've had those problems for 20 years."
"Webb [Franklin] told one farmer that not everyone who wanted to farm could farm," said a white Greenville farmer. "The message from the farmers to the congressman was, 'Not everyone can be a congressman.' "
The Old Guard
On the second floor of the State House in Jackson is the office of the House speaker, Buddy Newman. A framed art print hangs behind his receptionist's desk, depicting three black field hands, stooped over, picking cotton. (All the cotton in Mississippi today is picked by machine.)
Newman, 65, has served in the state House since 1952. He is known as an old-guard politician whose leavetaking from Mississippi politics is considered just a matter of time.
He describes himself as "conservative in so far as fiscal terms are concerned. On race? I'd say I was a moderate. That means I'm middle of the road. That means everybody in this state should be given the same opportunities."
He did not campaign for Espy and will not reveal if he voted for him, but says diplomatically, "I have no doubt he'll do a good job in the Congress."
Besides, Newman says, "Black folks and white folks have been living together in the South for all this time -- I don't know why they're making a big deal." And he ticks off examples of black politicians statewide.
"I come from the rural areas of Mississippi," Newman says. "Colored folks and white folks live right next door to each other. They get along ... No question about it. I played with colored boys, played baseball with them."
He says, "It's maybe something you don't understand. You're not from here. Where I was raised in Mississippi there never has been any hatred between the races. We've all gotten along real well ... Mississippi made adjustments as far as race was concerned. Although there was trouble, there was less than in some other, northern states. They've had more continuous trouble in Boston than they have in the whole state of Mississippi."
For eight months before he announced his candidacy, Espy kept a diary. "I figured I was going to write a book one day, but it got to be too much," he says. "I was seeing too many people."
At first, the comments from others reflected skepticism:
" 'You can't win' ... 'You wear ties ...' 'You can't speak. You don't know how to motivate a crowd.' "
But he counters, "They'd never heard me. I think they saw me as the person announcing a consumer investigation on television. They never saw me in church speaking, because they never went to my church."
Perceptions, he vowed, would change. "I knew if I kept plugging along, in time the qualities they were looking for would be revealed. I knew."