Last Friday, Nov. 9th, while fans of Ole Miss football watched their team falter to Texas A&M in the fourth quarter and Mississippi State fans psyched themselves up for what would turn out to be a shutout defeat against Nick Saban’s Alabama, I received a stunning clip of video from a reliable source. A week before, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stood before a small crowd of supporters in Tupelo, arms locked with a man named Colin Hutchinson, a cattle rancher. The entire event, I was told, lasted less than thirty minutes.
To be clear, I had first been sent a slightly longer clip of the video than the version I posted, and although it was evident Hutchinson was there to praise Hyde-Smith, most of his comments are muted by the boom of a passing train.
That, I was later told by a reporter who had covered the region for many years, was obvious proof the event was definitely in Tupelo. The train, apparently, has a reputation for interrupting events.
The other obvious proof, aside from the fact the event appeared on Hyde-Smith’s calendar, was the enormous statue of the small city’s most iconic native son, Elvis Aaron Presley.
The King had been made to hold one of Hyde-Smith’s campaign signs, which some in Tupelo may consider to be an act of lèse-majesté.
As Hutchinson ends his remarks, the train’s boom begins to fade, and Hyde-Smith can be heard, clear as day, saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
I had been warned in advance about Hyde-Smith’s outrageous comment, which, some in the media subsequently characterized as a “joke.” To me, the only thing even remotely amusing was that it was somewhat reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s microphone kicking back on at the tail end of his speech at a war protest: “And that’s all I have to say about the war in Vietnam.”
But the fictional character Forrest Gump, the audience understood, had been speaking about the brutalities of war; the real-life Cindy Hyde-Smith, however, was trivializing the horrific terror of racist murders that haunt the present and stain the history of Mississippi and the entire Deep South.
Her comments are even more egregious considering they were delivered in the context of a campaign for the United States Senate. Hyde-Smith faces Democratic candidate Mike Espy in a runoff election on Nov. 27th.
In 1986, Espy, who was later appointed Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, became the first African American from Mississippi elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Hyde-Smith was the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture before Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to the U.S. Senate in April, after longtime Sen. Thad Cochran retired. The two are competing to complete the remainder of Cochran’s term, which expires in 2021.
As of the time of publication, the video has been viewed through my Twitter account more than 3.9 million times and through my Facebook account 300,000 times. That, of course, does not include the millions more who watched the video on cable news.
The population of Mississippi is approximately 2.9 million, according to the most recent estimate by the American Community Survey.
Before I address exactly why I am hesitant to characterize Sen. Hyde-Smith’s comment as a poor attempt at humor, there are a few things I need to make abundantly clear: The video is authentic; it has not been altered or manipulated. Although it has obviously been truncated, it has not been taken out of context. I will not reveal who provided me with the video, which, frankly, is irrelevant: Hyde-Smith was well-aware that she was being recorded.
I received the video, as I understand it, because of the work I have done over the past twelve years exposing racism and bigotry in the Deep South. I personally decided to wait to post the video clip on Sunday morning, instead of Saturday (when I received it), because, as a Southerner myself, I recognized the distinct possibility that the people who needed to hear the comments the most- that is, the voters of Mississippi- were likely inundated with media coverage about college football. Some may disagree with my decision to wait until Sunday morning. Others may question why the video had not been made public immediately; I cannot speak to that.
Regardless though, in my opinion, questions about timing are ultimately irrelevant; they’re not a legitimate defense of Hyde-Smith. They’re a cynical deflection about what her comments reveal about the casual ways in which far too many white Southerners trivialize the brutalities of racism.
During the past day and a half, I have personally received thousands of responses to the video, but for me, the most meaningful was from Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Language is powerful, and King’s use of the word “blithely” gets much closer to the underlying truth about intentionality. Still, though, it may not be sufficient.
Consider how Hyde-Smith responded after I published the video. Quoting from her written statement (emphasis added):
In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. 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.
She not only refuses to apologize; she actually characterizes a reference to lynchings as an “expression of regard” and patronizes those who are understandably offended as “ridiculous.”
The impulse to characterize her comments as a joke, even- and with all due respect to Ms. King- a blithe joke, is based on a belief in a shared sense of common decency. We are all guilty of saying things we regret. We are all capable of uttering something we intend as a joke or as an attempt at levity and failing miserably.
But when decent human beings realize their words inflict harm, they apologize.
That’s not what Hyde-Smith did, however. Instead, she callously disregarded the entire premise that anyone could possibly take offense, and in so doing, she dismissed the essential humanity of millions of African Americans and the experience lived and a legacy inherited by 37% of the population of Mississippi.
Adam Ganucheau and Larrison Campbell of Mississippi Today, which, like The Bayou Brief in Louisiana, serves as its state’s only nonprofit digitally-oriented publication, offer some critically important historical context in their initial report on Hyde-Smith’s comments. Their coverage deserves attention from anyone interested in learning more about the dynamics currently unfolding in the upcoming special election, but this is particularly relevant. Quoting at length:
For many in Mississippi and beyond, the mention of public hangings stirs memories of Mississippi’s history of racist violence.
The state of Mississippi carried out public hangings for decades as an official method of capital punishment under state law. The last man sentenced to public hanging in Mississippi was Hilton Fortenberry, hanged in 1940 in Jefferson Davis County, according to newspaper archives.
In addition to court-sanctioned hangings, Mississippi has a well-known history of allowing white mobs and citizens to commit extrajudicial lynchings of African Americans. No state saw more lynchings than Mississippi, according to a comprehensive report published by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative. In Mississippi, 654 reported lynchings were conducted, and many of them were public.
“At these often festive community gatherings, large crowds of whites watched and participated in the black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake,” write the authors of the EJI report.
The Associated Press provides more context.
“You would have to be ignorant and not familiar with history, or of a particular mindset that represents a Mississippi that inflicted terrorism on its black citizens,” Brown said. “Either way, she is not fit to represent the folks of Mississippi, either black or white.”
According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968, and nearly 73 percent of the victims were black. Mississippi had 581 during that time — more than any other state.
I must admit that in my very first draft of the tweet containing Hyde-Smith’s remarks, I had written something like, “Sen. Hyde-Smith jokes about public lynchings.” Before I hit send, though, I called a friend of mine and gave him the context. I also asked him a question that had been bothering me.
“How do I know if she was joking?”
“You don’t,” he said.
That is why instead the tweet reads, “‘If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row’- Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith says in Tupelo, MS after Colin Hutchinson, cattle rancher, praises her.”
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