The 2018 midterm elections aren’t quite over yet. Not only are there still several pending races where the votes are still being tallied, but there’s also a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi that’s headed for a runoff.
At first blush, given Mississippi’s partisan leanings, it may be tempting to assume the contest won’t be competitive. But as we were reminded over the weekend, this Senate race is worth watching for all sorts of reasons.
A video of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., who faces a runoff against an African-American opponent, joking about attending “a public hanging” went viral Sunday as she insisted there was nothing negative about her remark.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith said during a campaign stop in Tupelo, Mississippi. The man she was referring to was identified as a local rancher.
The video was first posted online by Lamar White Jr., the publisher of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news site in Louisiana.
As always, context is everything: Hyde-Smith, an appointed Senate incumbent, is running against Mike Espy, the first African American to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and who, 30 years ago, became the first African American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Given the state’s history, and her opponent’s race, it’s not unreasonable to argue that Hyde-Smith should’ve avoided unprompted comments about public hangings.
The Jackson Free Press provided some additional historical context that’s worth keeping in mind:
Between 1877 and 1950, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings of African Americans of any state in the United States, just as the state had been the wealthiest from slavery before the Civil War, and then later passed the most onerous laws after Reconstruction to stop black people from voting and gain equal rights in the state.
Across Mississippi, 654 lynchings were reported in that period, including two in Lee County, where Hyde-Smith’s comments were made. Lynchings – extrajudicial mob justice used to intimidate African Americans – were usually done by hanging, often in front of crowds of joyous whites who even mailed postcards with lynching photographs to friends and family.
In all likelihood, Cindy Hyde-Smith is aware of this history. It makes her choice of words that much more unsettling.
Espy called the Republican senator’s comments “reprehensible,” while Derrick Johnson, a native Mississippian who serves as president of the NAACP, added in a written statement, “Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgement, but her lack of empathy and lack of character.”
I expected a non-apology apology in which Hyde-Smith expressed some tepid regret “if anyone was offended,” but she wasn’t willing to even go that far. “In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous,” the senator said in a statement.
Last week, in a multi-candidate field, Hyde-Smith finished with 41.5% of the vote, to Espy’s 40.6%. Because neither candidate reached the 50% threshold, there will be a special election on Nov. 27, which is two weeks from tomorrow. The two candidates are also scheduled to participate in a debate on Nov. 20.