Mississippi often finds itself the butt of jokes aiming to make the point that the Magnolia State has not advanced at the same pace as the rest of the United States — or even the South. So Mississippians have worked hard to communicate that their state isn’t stuck in a previous era of racial relations and that it is a hospitable place for nonwhite people to live, despite its dark history.
But a string of comments by and discoveries about Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who was appointed earlier this year and is running for election against Democrat Mike Espy, threatens that perception. To critics, seeing one of the state’s most powerful politicians making such racist comments seems to confirm the worst stereotypes about Mississippi.
Espy, who served in the Clinton administration as the nation’s first black agriculture secretary, is by all accounts an underdog in the typically bright-red state. The question of whether the South was ready to put a black person in such a high statewide position was a major topic in the midterm elections, as nearby Southern states Florida and Georgia almost sent black candidates to their governor’s mansions.
Since Election Day, which sent Hyde-Smith and Espy into a runoff this month, Mississippi has broken into national news cycles thanks to some of Hyde-Smith’s comments.
A video of Hyde-Smith emerged on Twitter saying that she thought so highly of a particular supporter that she would join him at a “public hanging.” Mississippi was long infamous for lynchings, many of them hangings, of African Americans.
Not long after, comments surfaced that were interpreted as supporting the suppression of voting rights for those affiliated with the state’s historically black colleges. She also attracted attention after a photo went viral of her dressed in the paraphernalia of the Confederate soldiers who fought to keep black people enslaved.
At a Tuesday debate between the candidates, Espy said Hyde-Smith’s words damaged the reputation of a state that has worked hard to put its racist past behind it.
“It’s given our state another black eye that we don’t need,” Espy said. “It’s just rejuvenated old stereotypes, you know, that we don’t need anymore. And we have companies like Walmart that wrote you today and told you that your comments did not reflect the values of their company.”
Hyde-Smith apologized for her comments at the debate but blamed her opponents for misinterpreting them. She said: “This comment was twisted, was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That’s the type of politics that Mississippians are sick and tired of.”
As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, Hyde-Smith’s words and the photos uncovered Tuesday of her displaying Confederate memorabilia may not harm her electoral chances at all.
But some residents eager to shed the perception that Mississippi is not a welcoming place for black voters — the state has the highest percentage of black Americans in the United States — find nothing in Hyde-Smith’s words suggesting that she has the same goals.
Jayda Fountain, a business owner in Terry, Miss., doubts that Hyde-Smith can adequately represent the state’s black residents. She said: “Congress is meant to be a representation of the people. If Cindy Hyde-Smith goes back to that Senate seat, I guess we should all just buy nooses because that is how she wants us to be represented. Voter suppression is real, her comments are real as far as her feelings are concerned, and racism is still real.”
And Dixie Moody, a teacher in Hattiesburg, Miss., said Hyde-Smith’s comments further harmful views of a state that doesn’t often get positive news coverage.
“I do see her comments as a negative reflection of who Mississippians are. We are already viewed as a racist state, and her comments further perpetuate that image,” Moody said.
President Trump defended Hyde-Smith, claiming that her statement was said in “jest” and calling it a “shame” that Hyde-Smith was being criticized over the hanging comment. And Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who is supporting the senator, attempted to pivot the conversation away from lynchings to abortions in the black community.
“See, in my heart, I am confused about where the outrage is at about 20 million African American children that have been aborted. No one wants to say anything about that. No one wants to talk about that,” he said at a news conference last week, according to the Jackson Free Press.
Jemar Tisby, a history doctoral candidate at the University of Mississippi, told The Fix that residents he has spoken with view Hyde-Smith’s actions as an embarrassment.
“It’s a step backwards and demonstrates the ongoing racial obstinacy of the Mississippi and national GOP,” he said.
According to an Associated Press Election Day voter survey, nearly 6 in 10 — 57 percent — white voters supported Hyde-Smith. Only about 1 in 5 — 21 percent — backed Espy. The overwhelming majority — 83 percent — of black voters supported Espy. But as The Washington Post’s Matt Viser reported, black voters make up only 38 percent of the population in Mississippi.
Tisby said electing Hyde-Smith could send a signal that would imperil the state’s ability to attract talent and businesses that could stimulate the economy — which could cause real harm to Mississippi, one of the country’s poorest states.
“Mississippi will remain the ‘closed society,’ young people will continue to migrate away from the state, and citizens will miss yet another opportunity to decisively break from a racist past and present to chart a new path toward a racially inclusive future,” he said.
Mississippi residents often find themselves at the top of lists about poor education, health problems and other rankings that don’t encourage people to view the state positively. In this highly watched race — no longer competing for attention with other contests — there is a real question about which vision will attract the majority of the state’s voters.