Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) demanded a public apology — for all Mississippians — from Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), who drew harsh criticism for a line made while campaigning in early November.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith is heard saying in a video posted to Twitter by journalist and blogger Lamar White Jr. on Sunday morning.
Thompson released a statement Monday, calling the senator’s comments on public hanging “beyond disrespectful and offensive,” adding that Mississippi’s history includes “one of the highest numbers of public lynching, that we know of, than any other state in this country.”
Hyde-Smith, who in a Sunday statement called the remark an “exaggerated expression of regard,” refused to elaborate Monday when reporters asked for more context. She appeared in Jackson, the state’s capital, with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) — who appointed Hyde-Smith to Congress earlier this year — after accepting an endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee.
“I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m gonna say about it,” Hyde-Smith said when asked by reporters if she was familiar with the history of hangings in Mississippi. She was also asked if the phrasing was in her everyday vocabulary and to specify why the remark should not be viewed with a negative connotation.
Unable to get an answer from Hyde-Smith, reporters turned to Bryant for answers.
“I can tell you all of us in public life have said things that we could’ve phrased better,” Bryant said, adding, “I know this woman, and I know her heart, and I knew that when I appointed her, and I know it now. She meant no offense by that statement.”
Hyde-Smith, who has been endorsed by Trump, became the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress in April after she was appointed to replace Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who stepped down because of health problems.
She faces Democrat Mike Espy in a Nov. 27 runoff to determine who will serve the remaining two years of Cochran’s term. Neither candidate was able to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 special election.
Espy and Hyde-Smith had the top two vote tallies, each receiving about 41 percent. If Espy were to win, he would be become the first black senator to represent the state since the Reconstruction era. Espy served three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1987 to 1993.
In a statement Sunday, Espy called Hyde-Smith’s comments “reprehensible.” He added, “They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country. We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state.”
Many critics of Hyde-Smith’s comment noted the history of racism and hangings in the state. Statistics from the NAACP show that nearly one-eighth of the 4,743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 that occurred in the United States took place in Mississippi.
“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ when the history of African-Americans is marred by countless incidents of this barbarous act, is sick,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement Sunday. “Any politician seeking to serve as a national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better.”
Cristen Hemmins, chairwoman of the Lafayette County Democrats in Mississippi, said the video was “absolutely stunning.”
“With the history of lynching of Mississippi, you just don’t say something like that,” Hemmins said in an interview Sunday. “I can’t even imagine the kind of mind that would come up with a throwaway phrase like that. I’m a Mississippian. Nobody I know talks like that. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven is a former Democratic state senator and agriculture commissioner. In 2010, she switched to the Republican Party, according to the Clarion Ledger. Last week, she vowed to keep pushing Trump’s agenda, asserting “Republicans are going to keep this seat” and that she would “fight like nobody’s business the next three weeks.”
Trump has been vocal in his support for Hyde-Smith, tweeting in August that she is “strong” on issues such as job creation and his proposed wall on the southern border to help him “put America First!”
He added, “Cindy has voted for our Agenda in the Senate 100% of the time and has my complete and total Endorsement. We need Cindy to win in Mississippi!”
At an Oct. 2 rally in Southaven, Trump continued to stump for Hyde-Smith.
“She’s always had my back,” he said. “She’s always had your back, and a vote for Cindy is a vote for me.”
Republicans are expected to gain seats in the Senate. The majority they held before the election, 51 seats, could rise to as high as 54 depending on races in Florida, Arizona, and Mississippi.