Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Next Tuesday, Mississippi voters will go to the polls in a runoff election for the Senate between Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy. No one thought this race was going to be close. But that was before an issue that is usually lurking in the shadows of Mississippi elections was brought out into the light of day: racism.

The first sign that a white Republican woman might be losing ground to an African American Democratic man came when she joked about going to a public hanging.

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith says in the 10-second clip, standing next to a man with his arm around her shoulder.

The fact that she said that in Mississippi—the state that set the record for the most lynchings of African Americans—shook things up quite a bit. Some of her supporters tried to pretend that her remarks about a “public hanging” weren’t a reference to lynchings. But a little history puts it into context.

Angus Johnson, a historian at the City University of New York, called her comment “an obscenity.”

“The last execution by hanging in Mississippi occurred in 1940,” Johnson tweeted. “The last alleged lynching by hanging in Mississippi occurred in 2018. Cindy Hyde-Smith was born in 1959. Public executions aren’t part of the history of Mississippi in her lifetime. Lynchings are.”

“And, of course, many of Mississippi’s public executions were themselves legal lynchings,” Johnson continued. “To speak of ‘public hangings’ in Mississippi is to evoke a long and brutal history of racial terror. To joke about it is to utter an obscenity. Whatever her intention, Hyde-Smith’s joke amounts to this: ‘We are not the kind of people who are hanged. We are the kind of people who do the hanging.’”

That reference to the last alleged lynching in Mississippi, which occurred in 2018, might have caught you off guard. Here are some things that are important to keep in mind:

While public lynchings are thought of as a thing of the past, several suspected cases have occurred in Mississippi in recent decades.

In Scott County, the family of Willie Jones, Jr. is still seeking answers after he was found hanging from a tree outside his mother’s home in February. The family rejected a suicide ruling, and, in a press release, pointed to the fact that he had been dating a white woman for years whom he had a child with.

In an eerily similar story, 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was found hanging outside his family’s home in Kokomo, Miss., in 2000. In that case, the family also rejected a suicide ruling, and pointed to the fact that he was known for dating white girls…

In 2003, Nick Naylor was found hanging from a dog leash in Kemper County after he took his dogs for a walk and never returned. His death, too, was ruled a suicide, and his family also rejected the ruling.

In 2017, Mississippi State Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, called for lynchings after then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of Confederate monuments in that city.

For an exclamation point to all of that, this is how one man in Mississippi showed up to vote in the midterms.

That is the environment in which Hyde-Smith made her “joke” about a public hanging. She also went on to “joke” about voter suppression.

I have to admit that my first reaction to seeing the Hyde-Smith video clips was that she isn’t the sharpest knife in the racism drawer. But there might be a strategy here. The reason there is a runoff in the first place is that, initially, there was a third candidate on the ballot who siphoned votes away from Hyde-Smith—Republican Congressman Chris McDaniel. He mounted a challenge from her right as the insurgent to Mitch McConnell’s establishment. In the process, he did things like suggest that his message to African Americans would be to ask them, “After 100 years of begging for federal government scraps, where are you today?”

While McDaniel lost decisively in the three-way race, the runoff election will take place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and turnout will be decisive. Will Hyde-Smith be able to count on McDaniel’s voters—most of whom are probably the true-blue Republican base in the state—to go to the polls? One way to ensure that is to ramp up the racist appeals.

If that is the strategy, it mirrors what we’ve seen in elections around the country over the last two years. Racism energizes not only the Republican base, but Democratic voters as well. Mississippi has the highest proportion of black citizens in the country, standing at over 37 percent of the population. They might already be motivated to vote for the first African American senator from the state since reconstruction, but Hyde-Smith’s racist comments could take things up a notch. There’s also the question of whether there might be some white moderates in the state who are tired of its reputation and want to vote for a qualified black man.

There are no public polls of this race so far, but some reports are suggesting that internal polls show Espy within a few points of Hyde-Smith. The one and only debate between the two of them will take place tonight and could play a significant role in the outcome. No matter what, Cindy Hyde-Smith has ensured that racism will be on the ballot in Mississippi next week.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.