The US Senate Race in Mississippi and Accusations of Racism

November 23, 2018 Updated: November 26, 2018


In the recent midterm elections, to no one’s surprise, the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives. Perhaps slightly more surprising, Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate. As this is being written, there are still a couple of undecided House races, but in most places, the ink is dry and the business of governing can commence. The exception is in my state, Mississippi.

Mississippi voters had two senatorial seats to fill. Incumbent Republican Roger Wicker easily won reelection over his Democrat challenger, David Baria, for one seat. The race for the other seat has been a bit more complicated.

Long-serving Sen. Thad Cochran was unable to finish out his term, due to age and health concerns. Earlier this year, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to Cochran’s seat and scheduled the recent election that just took place. Hyde-Smith had served in the Mississippi state Senate as a Democrat, but she eventually switched parties. She was elected Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner in 2011 as a Republican, becoming the first woman elected to that office.

Four candidates were on the midterm ballot to fill the senatorial seat to which Hyde-Smith had been appointed. She sought (and is still seeking) reelection as a Republican. Both she and the leading Democrat candidate, Mike Espy, received about 41 percent of the vote. A second, more conservative Republican candidate received about 16 percent, and a second Democrat candidate received about 1 percent. Since no one received more than 50 percent of the vote, the law required a runoff election.

In reliably red Mississippi, Hyde-Smith seemed to be a shoo-in. The votes she lost to the other Republican candidate seemed highly unlikely to migrate to Espy, the former U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton who left office under suspicion of impropriety (he was indicted, tried, and acquitted, but others to whom he was close were held responsible). The only big concern for Hyde-Smith seemed to be whether her voters would be too complacent and stay home. If that happened, Espy had a shot.

Then came the gaffe. Hyde-Smith was seen in a video praising a supporter by telling him that if he invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Did I mention that her runoff opponent, Espy, is African-American? If elected, he would be the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction. National groups and super PACs have come to Mississippi to help him, and two prominent Democrats who are likely to run for president, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, have also volunteered to help. Most of Espy’s supporters are using Hyde-Smith’s statement to suggest that she harbors racist views.

Deeper Inspection

The statement that gave Democrats this opening is worth considering carefully. On the surface, a white candidate put forth the idea of being happy to attend a lynching while she was engaged in a political campaign against a black opponent. According to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), about 73 percent of the victims of lynchings were black, so that raises the specter of racism. Hyde-Smith’s statement, however, deserves deeper thinking than that.

As an initial matter, lynchings tended to be very different from public hangings. They were most common in the South more than 50 years ago, between the 1880s and the 1960s. A prototypical example was the threat posed by the mob in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (which stood down in the face of Atticus Finch, with help from Scout). Lynchings were extra-legal events, not scheduled, not always done in public, and certainly not the kind of thing that someone would invite another to attend.

Public hangings were different. They were conducted in various ways at different points in U.S. history, but they often were big community events. They followed a public trial. People got dressed up and took their family for a picnic spectacle. Condemned prisoners often made statements, sometimes encouraging young people not to follow in their footsteps. Someone might indeed invite another to attend such an event.

Of course, not everyone found public hangings to be enjoyable. Many people avoided them. Death-penalty opponents often favored their “public” nature precisely because they thought that when people saw executions, it would be so unpleasant that it would cause them to oppose capital punishment. My take on Hyde-Smith’s comment is that she wasn’t in any way expressing a desire to attend a public hanging.

The press took Hyde-Smith to task for “joking” about the death penalty, but it never struck me as a joke. Rather, it sounded like an old country saying that, as Hyde-Smith explained, was intended as an “exaggerated expression of regard.” It was like someone saying, “I’d rather not go to this unpleasant event, but I will be happy to go if you invite me, because I like you that much.” I think that’s the way she intended it. At the very least, it is a reasonable way to interpret the words that she actually said.

Charges of racism are very serious, and they are thrown around far too easily. In this case, the strongest legitimate argument against Hyde-Smith is that she may have been tone-deaf. Regardless of whether my fellow Mississippians elect Hyde-Smith or Espy in the runoff, I hope that they do it for policy and practical reasons, and not because of manufactured indignation over an offhand comment that political operatives have tried to present as overt racism.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.