In December of 1991, I moved from Raleigh, N.C., to a faraway land called Mississippi. I knew little about it beyond what I had heard and read, but I was about to be educated quickly about the state’s past and how its past hadn’t entirely passed.
I went there as a cub reporter for the Associated Press, so was constantly asking questions to better understand my new home. A few months into my new job, I covered a panel discussion in Jackson that included Mike Espy, who was running for reelection to Congress.
“What is the single biggest problem facing Mississippi?” I asked him, because I had already learned there were a lot to choose from.
He barely paused. “Race relations,” he said. The first black congressman in Mississippi since Reconstruction went on to explain how, even in 1992, race relations remained the defining issue in a state with a shameful history around race. My news story from that event ran, much to my surprise, on front pages across the state.
That memory may be why I was so struck and saddened by the headline that popped into my inbox last week: “Racial politics take center stage in Mississippi,” it said. More than a quarter-century after Mike Espy named race as the state’s biggest problem, Espy is embroiled in a US Senate campaign being defined by racial tensions. How tragic that in 26 years we haven’t come further. How tragic that progress on racial reconciliation in America has not only seemed to slow but in recent years to have reversed.
Espy, a Democrat, faces Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a bid to replace long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. The two meet in a runoff on Tuesday. Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1982 and hasn’t had a black senator since 1881.
But the election turned competitive when Hyde-Smith said she liked a supporter so much that “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” In a state where whites terrorized blacks for generations, including through lynchings that were public spectacles, it was a horrific thing to say. Hyde-Smith didn’t apologize for nine days after it came out. When she finally did in a debate last Tuesday, it was half-hearted and paired with an allegation that Espy had twisted what she said.
Hyde-Smith followed the original public hanging comment a day later by saying she thought it was “a great idea” to make it harder for liberals (who are almost all black in Mississippi) to vote. Her campaign said she was kidding. There were also photos of Hyde-Smith at Jefferson Davis’s home holding a rifle and wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat with the caption “Mississippi history at its best!”
Of course, it’s not just Mississippi. In Florida, one candidate warned voters not to “monkey this up” by electing a black man to be governor. A white supremacist group placed bigoted robocalls in the gubernatorial races in both Florida and Georgia.
Closer to home, we see racist postings at Davidson College, swastikas painted on bridges at Duke University and racial tension around Silent Sam in Chapel Hill.
The biggest news story when I lived in Mississippi was Byron De La Beckwith finally being put on trial again for the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. So things have progressed, even in Mississippi. But my, is that progress slow.
Taylor Batten is a columnist with The Charlotte Observer.