‘Public hanging’ comment creates a stir in Hyde-Smith’s hometown as race emerges as key issue in Senate runoff

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Adam Ganucheau | Mississippi Today

A cattle farmer bids on a cow at the Lincoln County sale barn, operated by Cindy Hyde-Smith’s family.

BROOKHAVEN — As Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith flew to Washington Tuesday morning for the first Senate votes in several weeks, her husband Michael Smith got to work.

A fourth generation cattle farmer, Smith, his wife and their family operate the Lincoln County sale barn. Tuesdays are auction days, and area farmers bring hundreds of cattle each week to be sold.

Inside the sale barn, three dozen or so farmers watched as cows were quickly ushered from the holding barn through the turnstiles to the small arena. An employee on the floor yelled out the type of cow that was next up and prodded them along with a long stick as they tried to adjust to their new surroundings. A couple of bulls charged at the employees on the floor, drawing jeers and whistles from the farmers in attendance. Outside, the loud moos from the holding barn drowned out the noise of traffic from the nearby highway.

As the auctioneer at the microphone rattled off bids, Michael Smith sat behind him on the platform and stamped receipts of the animals that sold. An employee of the sale barn and a relative of Hyde-Smith’s had to ask Michael Smith if this reporter could observe the auction. That same relative later went through the reporter’s phone to ensure no video of the auction was taken.

The Smith family has had better weeks. The talk of Brookhaven and Mississippi is a video of Sen. Hyde-Smith, who in April rose from relative political obscurity as Mississippi’s commissioner of agriculture to the U.S. Senate. The video shows Hyde-Smith at a campaign rally on Nov. 2 saying she would attend a “public hanging.”

Given Mississippi’s gruesome history of racial violence and that Hyde-Smith’s Senate runoff opponent Mike Espy is seeking to become the state’s first African American ever elected to the Senate, the video immediately garnered national headlines and stirred racial animus within the state.

It also led to an unusual press conference on Monday in which Hyde-Smith ignored questions about the comment, and Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate in April, attempted to change the subject by talking about abortions and black women — what he referred to as “genocide.”

Outside the auction on Tuesday, Lincoln County cattle farmer Darryl Jordan tightened his jacket in the crisp wind when asked about the video.

“She said ‘hanging,’ and people turn it around to say ‘lynching’ and all that crap,” said Jordan, who is white. “She didn’t mean it that way. I think what she meant was if you hang a few of these suckers that’s doing all the killings, it would change your mind. They need to start hanging people again, to be honest with you. It’s like the guy who killed all those police officers here a couple years ago. If they take that sucker out and hang him, let all the people see him, sure, it’s gonna make a difference.”

As Republican leaders blame Democrats and the media for sensationalizing the story, and Hyde-Smith’s campaign criticizes reporters for not talking about “real issues,” the video has made race the runoff’s real issue — if the buzz this week around Brookhaven is any indication.

Several black cattle farmers at the sale barn declined to talk on the record Tuesday, but around town, other African Americans did not hold back.

“If you had any intention on representing everyone — poor folks, rich folks, black folks, white folks — those words wouldn’t have come out of your mouth,” said Loretta Campbell, who lives just north of town in Wesson. “As a black woman or a black person, that lets me know she’s not for everybody. And then the governor is up there talking for her and talking about he knows her heart. He doesn’t know her heart because he doesn’t even know his own heart.”

Bones of Lincoln County

Adam Ganucheau | Mississippi Today

A sign in downtown Brookhaven calling the town “a home seeker’s paradise.”

When Brookhaven resident Bernetta Character first heard Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comment, she thought about Lamar Smith.

In August 1955, Smith, a 63-year-old black farmer and voting rights activist, exited his car and walked toward the Lincoln County Courthouse in downtown Brookhaven. He was trying to encourage black voters in the county to vote in an upcoming runoff election. In broad daylight there on the courthouse lawn, he was shot and killed.

Police reports from the time documented dozens of white witnesses, but no one came forward. Three white men were arrested, but no one was ever indicted or tried for the murder. The FBI reopened Smith’s case in 2009 and asked for public comments, but no breaks were made.

Lamar Smith’s murder was one of several racially-motivated killings in Mississippi that year, including the abduction and murder of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta, also in August 1955.

For many in Brookhaven, any mention of a public hanging brings back traumatic memories.

“I don’t like it. I think it is very small of her,” said Character, who is president of the Brookhaven/Lincoln County Chapter of the NAACP. “To run for public office to represent all of the people of the state, I think it is small of her.”

The city of Brookhaven is essentially evenly split among white and black residents. In the 2010 Census, 48 percent of its residents were white, and 51 percent of its residents were black. The city’s mayor is white, and the police chief is black. Four of the seven city alderman are white.

The town serves as the county seat to Lincoln County, which is named after Civil War victor Abraham Lincoln and was founded in 1870 by the state’s majority-black Legislature during Reconstruction.

Adam Ganucheau | Mississippi Today

One of dozens of state flags lined along both sides of Brookway Boulevard, the main drag in the town of Brookhaven.

A drive down Brookway Boulevard, the main drag in Brookhaven, is a living testament to the racial complexities of Mississippi. As dozens of towns across the state have stopped flying the state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, Brookhaven has doubled down: A state flag flies every 50 yards on both sides of the two-mile stretch of road.

About a mile east of the interstate, Brookway Boulevard intersects with U.S Highway 51. In 2001, Hyde-Smith’s second year in the state Senate, she introduced legislation to name a portion of Highway 51 for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy who had no ties to the area. The bill died in committee.

During her time in the state Legislature, Hyde-Smith also voted for resolutions honoring civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the Freedom Riders and Hiram Rhodes Revels, who, through legislative appointment during Reconstruction, became the first African American to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. 

Of those interviewed in Brookhaven this week, opinions of the Hyde-Smith “public hanging” comment were split along racial lines with white residents defending Hyde-Smith, and black residents condemning her.

“I think it was taken out of context,” said Brookhaven resident Brenda Case, who is white. “She’s human. I don’t think she meant it the way it’s being portrayed. She is the best person for the job.”

Sidney Tate knows Hyde-Smith better than most, having styled the senator’s hair for 15 years. When Gov. Bryant formally announced his appointment of Hyde-Smith back in April, Tate met Hyde-Smith at her shop early that morning to do her hair.

“There isn’t a racist bone in her body,” Tate said. “She’s just a great person all around, and I don’t know anyone who would say otherwise.”

Conflict in criticism?

Before the comment from their hometown politician came to light, Brookhaven had just escaped the media spotlight.

On Oct. 5, the Forest Hill High School marching band gave a halftime performance in Brookhaven featuring students pointing fake guns at other students pretending to be law enforcement, recreating a scene from the movie “John Q.” The performance drew swift ire from the public and government officials because days earlier two Brookhaven police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty. Hyde-Smith did not make a public comment about the band’s performance, but many of her strong supporters did.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today / Report for America

Governor Phil Bryant, right, stands behind Republican interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith as she speaks to supporters during her watch party at the Westin Jackson Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

“This is unacceptable in a civilized society,” Gov. Bryant tweeted of the performance. “Someone should be held accountable.”

Forest Hill High School, a Jackson public school, is 97 percent black. Many suggested racial motivations were at the heart of a punishment handed down by the Mississippi High School Activities Association. Even after the Jackson school district took personnel action against the band director, the MHSAA placed the band on restrictive probation for the rest of the school year, meaning the students would not be able to play another football game or enter competitions.

“The halftime performance was wrong, it’s been condemned by our mayor and by our superintendent,” state Sen. David Blount, (D-Jackson) said at the time. “People will be held accountable, but our high school students need to be able to take part in that activity with proper adult supervisions.”

The fallout from the band’s performance was recalled by several influential Mississippians with massive social media followings this week, after Hyde-Smith’s comment came to light.

“Dear @PhilBryantMS, you called for the kids of Forest Hill to be punished severely,” tweeted famed “The Hate U Give” author and Mississippian Angie Thomas. “I expect you to hold Senator Hyde-Smith to an even higher standard. They are children who acted under an adult’s direction. She’s an adult who is supposed to represent ALL citizens of this state.”

Quick to assign blame for the Forest Hill band’s performance and silent about the punishment of the students, Bryant has steadfastly defended Hyde-Smith this week.

“I think we all realize that it’s very easy for people to get offended and hurt by a number of things that could be said,” Bryant said on Tuesday morning. “But again, I know her. And everything is not about race.”

Several others in Brookhaven defended their hometown politician. At her downtown shoe store across the street from where Hyde-Smith accepted the Senate appointment, Judy Hart said the video and its “unfortunate coverage” actually boosted her previous support of Hyde-Smith and cast blame on Democrats and spiritual forces.

“It’s sad. It’s just something else,” said Hart, who is white. “If you’ll go back in history, the Democrats are who sold black people out… I worked at Walmart, and I’m gonna tell you something: The mentality, the mindset out there is unreal. They still have that slavery mentality. We understand all that is behind this, and it’s Satan. We know it’s his agenda, and he’s pushing it fast because you know, his day is coming.”

Contributing: Bobby Harrison

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.