Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican senator from Mississippi, at her swearing-in ceremony in April 2018.
Photo: Tom Williams
Cindy Hyde-Smith took time during Tuesday night’s senatorial debate in Jackson, Mississippi, to read an apology from her notes. “For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” she said. “There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements.” She was referring to video from November 2 showing her respond to praise from a Tupelo cattle rancher, Colin Hutchinson, by remarking, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Hyde-Smith rebuked the suggestion this was a reference to Mississippi’s history of lynchings and accused her critics of taking it out of context. “This comment was twisted, and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me — a political weapon, used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent.”
Hyde-Smith, a white Republican and the state’s junior United States senator, is facing a runoff election against Mike Espy, a black Democrat, on November 27. Neither secured the 50 percent of the vote needed to declare victory on November 6, resulting in this cycle’s last undecided U.S. senate race. The weeks since have been bumpy for Hyde-Smith. Shortly after the “hanging” video surfaced on November 11, another video went public of her purportedly “making a joke” about suppressing unfavorable votes. “And then they remind me that there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote,” she said during a campaign stop in Columbus on November 3. “Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.”
Either comment might be interpreted plausibly as a slip of the tongue, in isolation. Hyde-Smith is new to campaigns with national implications, having been previously appointed to the Senate, not elected. What might fly locally — as far as jokes and off-color remarks — invites more scrutiny with the country watching. But on Monday, Politico uncovered Facebook photos that Hyde-Smith posted in 2014, depicting the then-state commissioner of agriculture and commerce at the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, the former Biloxi residence of the Confederate leader and slavery proponent. She was wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat. “This is a must see,” she wrote. “Currently on display are artifacts connected to the daily life of the Confederate Soldier including weapons. Mississippi history at its best!”
At this point, this is no accident. Mississippi history holds many lessons, good and bad. That its white governors and their foot soldiers among the citizenry fought a war to preserve the routine bondage, forced labor, and torture of black men, women, and children, is among the most damning, even without the century of segregation and terrorism that followed. The “best” of that history has come when mostly black Mississippians have fought back — people like Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, and the civil-rights workers who flooded the state in the 1950s and 1960s to register black voters and subvert Jim Crow through protest. Both threads are well-known and ripe for dissection, including praise and critique. But neither is ambiguous in its morality.
So what does it mean to understand this history and expressly reverse its highs and lows? The answer is ascertainable through even the most cursory overview. Public hangings are not neutral events anywhere, but in Mississippi, they and similar forms of extrajudicial torture and execution long served as tools of racist terrorism. The state led the nation in such violence over the course of nearly 75 years, with 654 incidents between 1877 and 1950, according to a database developed by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Few who witnessed or narrowly escaped these attacks ever forgot them. “I will never forget,” said Mamie Kirkland, 109, during events in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in April. In 1915, when she was 7, Kirkland was forced to pack her bags and flee her home in Ellisville along with her family after they learned local whites planned to lynch her father and an acquaintance named John Hartfield. Hartfield made the error of returning, and was lynched in June 1919.
In her book On the Courthouse Lawn, Sherrilyn Ifill describes the multigenerational impact of such violence in black communities. “Kay Mills describes an incident in the late 1950s when northern civil rights workers tried to persuade black sharecroppers in Sunflower County, Mississippi, to register to vote,” she writes, citing the Hamer biography This Little Light of Mine. The sharecroppers were reluctant to do so, citing a lynching that had occurred nearby 50 years earlier, in 1904. One of its victims, Luther Holbert, had been accused of murdering a white man. “While one thousand white spectators watched, [Holbert and his wife’s] fingers and toes were cut off and large corkscrews were bored into their flesh,” Ifill wrote. “After a prolonged torture, the Holberts were burned alive. Three other black field workers who reportedly looked like Holbert were also killed that day by members of the posse organized to search for Holbert.”
Mississippi’s history of suppressing votes is equally brutal. Making voting “a little more difficult” for opposing constituencies often meant white citizens terrorizing black people into avoiding the ballot box altogether. Several involved in registration efforts during the mid-20th century attest to this. “We had some 63 people killed around the question of the vote before ,” Mississippi civil-rights activist Lawrence Guyot said in the oral history, My Soul Is Rested. “None of them were white. Lord knows how many people were run out of homes, run out of the state.” Guyot later described being black and registering as “talkin’ death” in places like Yazoo County. “Why don’t I just shoot myself? It’d be quicker,” he said.
Activist Charles Cobb described in further detail the violence that often faced such efforts. “Right after the first attempt to register people to vote [in Indianola in 1962], nightriders came through the black community and shot up three houses, wounding the daughter of a neighbor of the person we were staying with.” Such stories are not rare. When journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones visited Greenwood in 2014, she met Silas McGhee, a local black man who had tried to register other black locals under Jim Crow. “At the height of the Mississippi civil rights struggle, a white man pulled up in a car and shot McGhee in his face when McGhee was sitting outside of a Greenwood restaurant,” she wrote. “The bullet barreled through his mouth, taking his front teeth with it.” And although suppressive efforts are more subtle today, they often achieve similar ends. Roll purges, frivolous voter fraud prosecutions, and local citizens empowered to challenge and treat as suspect black voters and voting-rights workers alike, have all marred recent elections and discouraged black turnout in neighboring states like Georgia.
As for Hyde-Smith’s celebration of Confederate history, Mississippi’s own declaration of secession outlines the reasons for its rude departure in stark terms. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” it reads. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth … These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
The record is clear. That a candidate for U.S. senate has made such a persistent habit of winking at these gory strands of Mississippi history erases plausible deniability that she meant them innocently. Such gleeful treatment, further, leaves little doubt she finds them unimportant enough to be flippant about them at best, and worth celebrating at worst. There are likely those who appreciate this approach. Many likely sympathize. But nobody is required to give her the benefit of the doubt. Nor are her non-apology or attempts to shift blame onto Mike Espy, her opponent, distractions that voters must entertain. “I don’t know what’s in your heart,” Espy said during Tuesday’s debate, “but we all know what came out of your mouth.” What is in Hyde-Smith’s heart may interest those seeking to get to know her personally, but is less crucial for those determining whether she should represent their interests in Congress. Polls currently have Hyde-Smith ahead by five points. Next Tuesday, Mississippi will have its answer.