A video featuring Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is spreading rapidly across social media as critics say her comments invoke Mississippi’s violent history of lynching.
The video was first posted just before 8 a.m. on Sunday by Lamar White Jr., the publisher and founder of The Bayou Brief, a nonprofit news organization based in Louisiana. The website calls White “one of Louisiana’s most acclaimed online journalists and prominent progressive activists.”
According to White’s post, after a supporter praised Hyde-Smith, she said to a crowd gathered in Tupelo: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
In an interview with Mississippi Today, White said he did not take the video, which he says was recorded on Nov. 2 — before the election — and has been viewed close to 90,000 times on Facebook. White added that he has not seen the full recording.
Hyde-Smith said she was referring to 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,” Hyde-Smith said through a statement.
The campaign of Democrat Mike Espy, who is African American and faces Hyde-Smith in an upcoming runoff election, saw the statement differently, however.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible,” said Danny Blanton, a spokesperson for the Espy campaign in a statement sent to media outlets. “They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country. We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgement to represent the people of our state.”
In 1986, Espy became the first African American congressman from Mississippi in modern history and, later, the nation’s first African-American agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton. If he is successful in his bid against Hyde-Smith, Espy would be the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate on an interim basis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The video controversy also comes days after a white Memphis hospital employee was fired when an Election Day photograph of him wearing a T-shirt featuring a Confederate flag, a hangman’s noose and the words “Mississippi Justice” went viral online.
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 president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, who is a native Mississippian, drew a parallel between Hyde-Smith’s remarks and the state’s violent history.
“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ when the history of African Americans is marred by countless incidents of this barbarous act, is sick,'” Johnson said in a statement Sunday. “… Any politician seeking to serve as the voice of Mississippi should know better. Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgement, but her lack of empathy and lack of character,” Johnson said.
Often, whites lynched African Americans for attempting to vote or register.
In August 1955, a white man shot and killed a civil rights activist named Lamar Smith in broad daylight outside the Lincoln County courthouse in Brookhaven, where Sen. Hyde-Smith currently lives.
Hyde-Smith and Espy are battling in an officially nonpartisan special election to fill the seat left vacant by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired earlier this year. Hyde-Smith and Espy received more votes than four total candidates on Nov. 6. Because no single candidate received 50 percent of the vote, they will be alone on a runoff ballot on November 27.
Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, called Sen. Hyde-Smith’s comments distasteful and said he expects they will motivate voters to turn out to the polls on Nov. 27.
“It speaks to the public discourse, where people can use such rhetoric, be emboldened and not have any context. They’re not talking in a way that’s inclusive of all Americans,” Wiggins said.
“It’s like the country is at a moral and cultural crossroads. Who are the people who will stand up for the people in this country?”
Contributing: R.L. Nave