raceAhead: What We Can Learn From Mississippi’s Past
The final Senate contest of the midterm season is happening now in Mississippi, between incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and her Democratic challenger Mike Espy, who hopes to become the first black Senator from the state since Blanche Bruce left office in 1881.
At 37%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black voters in the country, a fact that would normally signal a robust competition. But instead, the state’s difficult history of voter suppression and deep racial polarization has led to, among other things, chronically low voter turnout. As The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk states in this must-read analysis, “like all black candidates for statewide office in the blackest state in the country, the odds are against [Espy].”
And yet, thanks to the disturbing remarks that tumbled out of the mouth of Sen. Hyde-Smith recently, the country is talking about Mississippi today for reasons beyond the political horse race.
Within the past two weeks, the sitting Senator made a joke about attending a public hanging that actually drew polite laughter from a crowd; said that she thought voter suppression was a great idea; posted a photo of herself posing in a Confederate soldier cap and holding a rifle and was revealed to have attended a “segregation academy” as a student. While the Lawrence County Academy in Brookhaven, Mississippi is now closed, it was part of a wave of schools opened as a workaround to integration.
Hyde-Smith’s attempt at an apology fell flat, perhaps because she doesn’t feel that one was necessary. This is just how the people she knows talks. But she has paid a price for just being herself. A host of corporate donors from Google, Pfizer, AT&T and Major League Baseball have asked that their political donations be refunded.
And now, with the kind of name recognition that politicians prefer not to have, she’s surfaced a lot of history that deserves to be considered long after one of the two candidates gives a concession speech.
For one thing, the last person the state of Mississippi hanged was Hilton Fortenberry, a black man, on January 11, 1940. The charge was murder. But the last person found hanging from a tree was Willie Andrew Jones, Jr. on February 8, 2018. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but his family disputes that claim. He joins a short but alarming list of men who have died by hanging under suspicious circumstances in the state in the last few years, all unresolved.
For another, it’s worth noting that many of us attended unofficial “segregation academies,” better known as high school. Black-white segregation has steadily worsened since the 1970s in every part of the country.
And Mississippi is in good company when it comes to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and intimidation. These tactics have returned in ugly ways since key provisions of the Voting Rights Act were repealed five years ago.
While the outcome of today’s race is now in the hands of Mississippi voters, local columnist and government reporter Caleb Bedillion offers an important perspective that may come in handy for anyone who is surprised to discover that how people around you normally speak might be deeply problematic.
He begins with a confession. “At first hearing, I found her words a little strange, even a bit crude, but I didn’t then think much on them,” he says, referring to her public hanging quip. Why?
The answer, as honest and straightforward as I can say it, is that reporting these remarks didn’t occur to me. To the best of my recollection, I heard “public hanging” as a play upon the senator’s background as a cattle farmer, a forced and clumsy invocation of frontier bravado.
More bluntly put, however, I heard what I heard because I am white.
From some quarters, there will be howls of outrage at this sentiment. I’ll receive angry emails. But the point is not that I am white and therefore a covert racist. The point is that, like everyone, I’ve had a limited life experience. And for me, that experience has been influenced by the history of whiteness in the American South.
I have no family members who were lynched. I have no relatives who were threatened with lynching. The words “public hanging” bring no particular menace to mind, other than a personal aversion to the grotesque spectacle of public executions. I had the luxury to hear those comments only within the context of pop culture’s western mythology.
Now, my confession: I am absolutely incapable of hearing Hyde-Smith’s remarks as some sort of hat tip to the good old days where law-abidin’ folks felt free to string up some cattle rustlers when they needed hangin’. (See? I can’t even fake it.)
But I will take his bigger point, that as painful as it is, this is the kind of work everyone needs to do.
For Bedillion, it starts at home: “If we white Southerners are proud of the progress our region has made, then we must honor the sacrifices that made this progress possible with a fresh willingness to risk anew a painful education.”
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