Last night, Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won the runoff election for her Mississippi Senate seat, despite controversial statements that left her struggling against charges of racism in the final weeks of the campaign. The senator’s racially charged remarks reveal a politician who, if not consciously racist, is profoundly ignorant of her state’s history and insensitive toward her African American constituents.
While her offhand comments about a public hanging and voter suppression have received the most attention, perhaps most disturbing are Hyde-Smith’s views on the Civil War and its legacy, which have emerged from her record as a public official over the past 20 years.
Hyde-Smith seems to view Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy and, before that, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, as a source of state pride. In 2001, she introduced a bill in the state Senate to rename a portion of U.S. Highway 51 in Lincoln County (named for Abraham Lincoln in 1870) as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.
The measure failed to make it out of the Highway and Transportation Committee.
In 2014, Hyde-Smith, then serving as the state commissioner of agriculture and commerce, visited Beauvoir, Davis’s postwar home in Biloxi and now home to a museum housing papers and artifacts relating to Davis and the Confederacy. Photos of her visit appear on her Facebook page under the caption “Mississippi history at its best!”
The senator’s enthusiasm for the Confederate president and the Southern cause is troubling because Davis and his fellow secessionists made no attempt to hide that the rebellion was an effort to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery. In his April 29, 1861, message to the Confederate Congress, Davis denounced the North, accusing it of violating the constitutional rights of the Southern states by resisting the Fugitive Slave Act and by attempting to restrict slavery to the states where it already existed, “thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”
Davis then repeated the argument, frequently made in the antebellum South, that slavery was a blessing to those held in bondage. Under the care of a “superior race,” he explained, black slaves “had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction.”
One might protest that Hyde-Smith has merely extolled the bravery and sacrifice of the Confederacy’s fighting men, the vast majority of whom were non-slaveholders.
It is true that only one-fourth of all Southern white families owned slaves on the eve of the Civil War. Yet slavery was much more than a source of wealth. It was an important social institution. Black slavery divided society by race rather than class. By stigmatizing people of African descent as inferior, slavery defined all white people as superior. In so doing, it fostered an assumption that all white people were equal, regardless of class. A white man could be as poor as dirt and as dumb as a fence post and still wear his skin as a badge of superiority.
Southern politicians constantly reminded their constituents that the “Black Republican” Party’s antislavery agenda posed a threat to white supremacy. Davis told the Senate in 1859 that the enslavement of “a lower race of human beings . . . elevates every white man in our community.” On the eve of Lincoln’s election, Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Albert Gallatin Brown, insisted that whites living in slave states enjoyed perfect social equality: “Color, and not birth, fortune, family or occupation, draws the line.” Mississippi’s envoy to Georgia, William L. Harris, addressing that state’s legislature in December 1860, concluded that Mississippi would “rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the Negro race.”
And it was this issue that drove Mississippi to war: The state secession convention issued a declaration condemning “Negro equality” and northern hostility to slavery.
It is perhaps not surprising that white Mississippians were particularly vehement defenders of that peculiar institution, given that 55.2 percent of their state’s population was black and enslaved.
Despite the historical record, which clearly shows that the defense of slavery was the primary impetus behind the secession of Mississippi and 10 other slaveholding states, Hyde-Smith has consistently chosen to laud Confederate leaders and soldiers as heroes. In 2007, she co-sponsored a resolution honoring the daughter of a Confederate soldier who had “fought to defend his homeland” in “The War Between the States.” In her time as a state official, she also declined to add her voice to those demanding the replacement of Mississippi’s state flag — the last in the South to include the Confederate battle flag.
The idea that Confederate troops deserved veneration for fighting to protect their community arose as part of the Lost Cause mythology pushed by white Southerners and Northerners seeking reconciliation in the decades following Appomattox. This came at the expense of a full appreciation for those who truly did fight for “a new birth of freedom,” for a nation that would represent the will of the majority and secure the rights of all men.
Confederate history properly belongs in classrooms, museums, and state and national historic sites, where its purpose is to educate. It does not belong, as Hyde-Smith and other Southern apologists would have it, within public parks, on state capitol grounds or in other places where it is intended as a sign of public respect and approval. The removal of Confederate monuments in recent years demonstrates a rising awareness that they serve as symbols of slavery and white supremacy.
While the anger engendered by her pro-Confederate remarks and actions is a hopeful sign, the election of Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate is evidence that too many Mississippians have failed to confront the truth of their state’s Confederate past.