The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Mississippi senator joked about ‘public hanging.’ Here’s why that’s unacceptable.

Mississippi has a long and sordid history of lynching

"If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

When Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith spoke these words at a campaign event this month, she evoked the state’s sordid history of racial killings — whether she intended to or not.

As controversy has erupted around Hyde-Smith this week, the Republican senator and a phalanx of defensive state officials have resorted to defiance on matters of race. From the virulently white supremacist governor (and later U.S. senator) Theodore Bilbo, who told civil rights activists to “go to hell” after they requested an investigation into a quadruple lynching in 1918, to the die-hard segregationist governor Ross Barnett, Mississippi has a history of rewarding this sort of inflammatory rhetoric.

Yet Hyde-Smith's comments — and her response to the controversy they have generated — reflect as much about our political present as the state's brutal past. That she did so jokingly, or unintentionally, is beside the point, particularly in light of her refusal to concede that such a statement was problematic. That a public official would pine for the days of public hangings, with little apparent regard for the pain this evokes and even less for the history it ignores, suggests how thoroughly we have normalized and trivialized political violence.

Any mention of a “public hanging” taps a deep well of racial memory in Mississippi, and for good reason. The state led the nation in lynchings, with more than 650 killings between the Civil War and the civil rights era documented in the Equal Justice Initiative’s recent report, “Lynching in America.” While public execution by hanging persisted in Southern communities into the 20th century, spectacle lynchings outpaced and eventually replaced these “official” killings as the South’s preferred form of “public hanging.” While many lynchings occurred under cover of darkness or at the hands of small gangs of vigilantes, white Mississippians gathered by the hundreds, and occasionally thousands, to witness racial killings.

As the enforcers of white supremacy, lynchers sent the message that no black person — and certainly no Mississippi community — was beyond their reach. Certainly not Brookhaven, Hyde-Smith’s birthplace and the hub of the district she later represented in the state legislature, where white supremacists killed with impunity across three generations.

In 1908, a mob estimated at 2,000 strong seized Eli Pigot, a black man accused of raping a white woman, from local authorities and hanged him from a telegraph pole. Twenty years later, several hundred local citizens seized two brothers, Stanley and James Bearden, from the local jail. An estimated 5,000 viewed their bodies — one riddled with bullets and the other shredded from being dragged behind an automobile — after the mob hanged the corpses from a nearby bridge. Three decades after that, in 1955, a white assassin gunned down Lamar Smith, a black World War I veteran and voting rights activist, on the county courthouse lawn, in broad daylight and in front of dozens of white witnesses.

Hyde-Smith does not hail from a singularly violent corner of Mississippi. Indeed, no corner of the state was immune from generations of racial killings sanctioned by entire communities. The same historical legacy haunts the home district of Mississippi state legislator Karl Oliver, the funeral home director who announced last year on Facebook that lawmakers who supported the removal of Confederate monuments “should be LYNCHED.” That his district includes both Duck Hill, the site of a 1937 double-lynching in which a mob tortured their victims with a blowtorch, and Money, the site of Emmett Till’s fateful encounter with Carolyn Bryant, reveals how history echoes in our remembering and in our forgetting.

To ignore that history, or dismiss the concerns of those who refuse to do so, does not mean that one is free from it. The lesson of lynching was that whites could kill with impunity, particularly in times of political upheaval. Lynching was a tactical centerpiece of the terror of white supremacy, critical to maintaining it in rhetoric and reality. A “public hanging,” as historian Seth Kotch eloquently puts it, “took place at the pleasure of and for the pleasure of whites” — even if the victims were white. To evoke racial violence is to draw lines, just as the act itself does.

This historical legacy allows whites to forget with impunity, and mock without fear of consequence. After all, it was not their communities that were terrorized, nor their relatives who were killed. In a state with the highest percentage of African Americans, such rhetoric sends the message that the only audience — and constituency — of consequence is other white folks.

The ease with which whites can forget this sordid history fits conveniently with the rhetoric and reality of Trump-style politics, when the worst thing an official can do is apologize. In Oliver's case, the national outcry compelled an apology and a legislative committee demotion, but he serves still in elected office. In the case of Hyde-Smith, a full-throated defense from state leaders and political allies, despite the senator's refusal to apologize or even acknowledge a poor choice of words, suggests not only that the age of apology is over, but also that the distance between Mississippi's past and America's present is shorter than many care to admit.

A central lesson of the state’s history of racial violence, and of its civil rights struggle, is that telling the world to “go to hell” will not make it go away. But another key lesson is that some will keep doing just that, particularly in historical moments when that which is violent — in word and increasingly in deed — is celebrated as often as it is condemned.