In this photo provided by WLBT-TV a noose hangs on a tree on the state capitol grounds in Jackson, Miss. on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. A Mississippi official says two nooses and six signs were found on the grounds of the Mississippi state Capitol. Chuck McIntosh, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees the Capitol, says the nooses and signs were found Monday morning between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m.

The day before Mississippi’s U.S. Senate runoff — a race characterized and catapulted into the national spotlight by one candidate’s comments about attending a “public “hanging” — officers found nooses hung from trees at the Mississippi Capitol.

But while media outlets, local and national, characterized accompanying signs attached to the trees as “hate signs,” the demonstration actually appeared to be a critique of recent events surrounding the election.

“We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed,” one sign reads, according to Chuck McIntosh, spokesperson for Mississippi Department of Finance, which oversees the Capitol and other state buildings.

Another sign appeared to criticize incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s apology following her “public hanging” gaffe, which some opponents called lukewarm and insincere.

“On Tuesday November 27th thousands of Mississippians will vote for a Senator. We need someone who respects the lives of lynching victims,” a third sign read.

Now, Republican state leaders and officials are promising to prosecute the perpetrators of what they are calling “acts of hate and intimidation.”

Capitol Police, the agency responsible for patrolling the Mississippi State Capitol grounds, found two nooses and five signs attached to the trees on the South side of the building Monday morning between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m.

WLBT-TV first notified the police about the items after a caller alerted reporters to the scene, McIntosh said. Officers removed the signs from the trees shortly after their discovery.

Officials did not release descriptions of the signs until Monday afternoon — after a story about “hate signs” accompanying the nooses had widely circulated. Mississippi Department of Public Safety posted pictures of the signs to Facebook just before 3 p.m.

“I don’t know how it got so much traction that these are hate signs,” McIntosh said. “Almost every reporter I’ve talked to has asked, ‘Are these hate signs?’”

Law enforcement was still reviewing surveillance footage Monday afternoon as part of the investigation.

In a statement released to WLBT, Gov. Phil Bryant said, “The perpetrators of this act will be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I have contacted the Department of Public Safety and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance.”

Two other signs reference the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was brutally murdered by two white men in 1955, and the 2018 death of Willie Jones Jr., who was found hanging from a tree in Forest, Miss.

The state’s Nov. 27 Senate runoff that has been defined in recent weeks by the emergence of video capturing Hyde-Smith’s comments about public hangings.

In expressing her admiration of a constituent, Hyde-Smith told onlookers at a campaign event in early November that she would sit in “the front row” at a “public hanging,” if he asked her to.

At a debate nine days after her comments surfaced, Hyde-Smith delivered an apology “for anyone that was offended by my comments.”

“There was no ill-will, no ill-intent whatsoever in my statement,” she said.

Her opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, immediately responded: “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”

A week later, someone attached a sign to a tree outside the statehouse that read: “We want leaders who give honest apologies and can be humble enough to admit when they’re wrong!!!!!”

Espy declined to comment on the Monday incident and Mississippi Today is awaiting response from the Hyde-Smith campaign.

“We don’t know what message they were trying to send. At this point we’re just focused on people getting out and voting,” said Danny Blanton, an Espy campaign spokesperson.

The election, Blanton added, is “not about divisiveness, whether that be rhetoric or iconography.”

State Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, who ran in the June U.S. Senate Democratic primary to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, said because of Mississippi’s history, the state seems to “pay a much larger price” when incidents like this occur.

Speaker Philip Gunn’s spokesperson Meg Annison said Gunn condemns these acts and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves released a statement calling the act “reprehensible” and promised to provide the resources necessary “to find those responsible.”

U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst also weighed in, calling the placement of nooses and signs “acts of hate and intimidation.”

“Let me be perfectly clear — there is absolutely no place in our state for these unacceptable symbols or tactics to intimidate others,” Hurst said in a statement. “If we find evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that a federal crime has occurred, these criminals will be swiftly prosecuted and held accountable. Let us all respond to these despicable acts by voting, working, raising our families, practicing our faith, and pursuing the American dream here in our great state without fear or trepidation and in harmony with our fellow citizens.”

Gov. Phil Bryant did not respond to request for comment from Mississippi Today.

“There is no place in society for that kind of thing anymore,” said longtime Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. “It’s very detrimental and damaging to the goodwill and the progress of the state of Mississippi, no matter who does it. There’s nothing positive about that and if it’s a joke, it’s a cruel joke.”

Hyde-Smith is not the only public official to reference public hangings recently. Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, came under fire last year for suggesting that Louisiana leaders should be “LYNCHED!” for removing Confederate monuments from public spaces.

State leaders in Mississippi — the state with the greatest number of lynchings between 1882 and 1968 — condemned Oliver’s language.

In defending Hyde-Smith on Sunday, state Sen. Charles Younger, R-Columbus, expressed approval for publicly hanging criminals as a crime deterrent. 

Reached Monday afternoon shortly after Mississippi Today published his comments, and before the intention of the noose demonstration was clear, Younger had not learned of the incident.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “That’s just crazy. That’s stupid. That could be the other side doing that to make Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith look bad … Nobody else in their right mind would do anything that stupid.”

Scott said surveillance cameras can capture activity on Capitol grounds and expects it will lead to a suspect.

“It is my hope that this is not something that’s going to be some underlying systemic problem that we’re experiencing in our state,” Scott said before the content of the signs became public. “We’re last in everything and it’s hard for us to compete with other states, that when we have these unfortunate things said and done, it makes it very difficult for us to try to present to people that we are living in 2018.”

“We’ve got to try to live together after all,” Scott said.

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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.