Rev. William Barber II speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign event at Greater Mt. Calvary Baptist Church Wednesday, October 24 in Jackson.

An ill-fated quip about sitting on the “first row” at a “public hanging” from one of Mississippi’s sitting U.S. senators was “ugly,” national civil rights figure Rev. William Barber II said Wednesday.

But not as ugly as policies that hinder people from voting, ensure that hundreds of thousands of Mississippians lack access to health care, or support a growing wage gap between the rich and poor, he stressed.

“The comments bother me but what bothers me more is the policy,” Barber said during a press conference at Christ Tabernacle Church as part of the Poor People Campaign’s “National Call for Moral Revival.”

“People will make stupid comments, racist comments. And that is bothersome, but we have to even go deeper, and the deeper thing is, ‘What are they going to do on policy?’ Because real racism is not what you say, it’s what you do.”

More than half a million people in Mississippi — the state with the highest African American population in the country — live in poverty. More than 350,000 do not have health insurance. Mississippi’s leaders chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance to 130,000 poor residents.

The state’s minimum wage reflects the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour; it is a right-to-work state with minimal worker protections. And in nearly half of its counties, there are more unemployed people than jobs.

Appointed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., right, and Democrat Mike Espy shake hands following their televised Mississippi U.S. Senate debate in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. 

Viewers of the Tuesday Mississippi U.S. Senate runoff debate between Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic candidate Mike Espy heard little about these people or the issues that affect their everyday lives.

Yet, Barber said, “The poor in this state hold the power and the poor are going to have to speak up.”

“When it comes to the Senate race you’re going to have to look at who is talking about addressing the issues that impact the poor, like better wages, or who is just talking about just giving more tax cuts to the wealthy,” Barber said.

Ideology, party allegiances and gaffes have dominated Mississippi’s U.S. Senate runoff. During the debate, Hyde-Smith repeated her commitment to conservative values and lobbed the word “liberal” at her opponent as an insult. “Mike Espy is too liberal for Mississippi” may be the most popular Hyde-Smith campaign slogan.

Her website lists three primary platforms: Outlawing abortion, fighting illegal immigration and supporting the Second Amendment.

The top issues on Espy’s website include job creation and workforce training, reversing tariffs on farmers and government accountability.

On a question about how to address stagnant wages in Mississippi and nationwide, Hyde-Smith touted recent tax cuts for corporations.

“I am so excited in supporting President Trump’s tax cuts,” Hyde-Smith said. “When the corporate tax rate when from 35 percent to 21 percent, that changed this county. That changed this state. Our economy is better than it has been in decades. We have the lowest unemployment rate we have had in a long time. With these tax cuts, our businesses, they have had the opportunity to prosper, to grow, to increase wages, to improve benefits. Mississippi is enjoying President Trump’s tax cuts and they are certainly working here in this state.”

Despite early stories of hourly wage increases by large corporations following the tax cut, there’s little evidence the cut has resulted in higher wages for American workers. The average real wage of private sector workers saw zero growth from 2017 to 2018.

According to financial news website Business Insider, wages in Mississippi actually fell 2.2 percent in roughly that time frame, as Espy noted in his rebuttal before expressing support for tax cuts aimed at the middle class.

In his answer, Espy did not mention raising the minimum wage, legislation ensuring equal pay for equal work or earned income tax credits for the poor, though he has supported these measures in other forums.

But Mississippi’s voting and election day rules make the state one of the hardest places in the country to vote. The state registration deadline is a full month before Election Day, there is no true early or mail-in voting and residents must have an photo identification card to vote.

Still, Barber said the 2018 midterms have signified momentum within underserved and underrepresented communities.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t need a runoff. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have a black candidate in a runoff. You wouldn’t even be close. So, that’s a sign,” Barber said. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have had Stacey Abrams in Georgia and if it weren’t for the voter suppression, she would have won. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have had Gillum. You wouldn’t have had what happened in Texas. That’s a sign. People keep saying they lost. No, they’re treading new territory.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.