At West Jones High School in Soso in the mid-1970s, Karen Hinton was a star basketball player, cheerleader, part of the homecoming court and dated a star football player.
In Jones County, women like her do not become outspoken liberals, consulting and working for — and even on occasion dating — some of the nation’s most well known Democratic icons. And they don’t author books, like the one Hinton recently published titled “Penis Politics: A Memoir of Women, Men and Power.”
But then again, Karen Hinton was not the average woman.
“I think of Jones County as being very conservative. In my mind it is the most conservative” county in the state, said Hinton, who now lives in New Orleans.
“It is a hard question to answer because I don’t know the date I suddenly said I am a liberal,” she said. “It is hard to know. I believe, though, it is when I started reading books in high school as well at Ole Miss about people of color.”
Hinton, a former journalist, said she was influenced by books she was assigned by West Jones teachers, such as Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” which in part details the racism he experienced growing up in Mississippi, and by movies like “All the President’s Men,” which details the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation that ultimately led to the resignation in disgrace of President Richard Nixon. Hinton admits that her crush on Robert Redford, who portrayed Post reporter Bob Woodward, might have played a role in her obsession with the movie.
For most people growing up in the 1960s and 70s in Jones County, the issue of racial conflict was a part of life. Details of racial violence, such as the firebombing and death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer in nearby Hattiesburg was detailed every night on the 6 p.m. local news. The schools were integrated in Jones County as Hinton entered junior high.
While not describing her parents as racial progressives in 1960s and 70s Jones County, she recalled her father urging a family member not to join the Ku Klux Klan.
In another instance as a young girl, she used a racial slur in her home and her father reminded her that an African American woman who worked for the family was in the house and to watch what she said.
“I was humiliated,” Hinton recalled. “I went straight to my bedroom and closed the door.”
Her interests eventually led her to the University of Mississippi, where she intended to study journalism and play basketball. She soon realized that being tall at West Jones — about 5 feet, 10 inches — was not the same as being tall at Ole Miss. Still, she joined a sorority and played basketball for a while. But eventually her interests led her to relationships with a small group of liberals on the Oxford campus.
“I was always drawn to things about race, about poverty. I really never was drawn to things about women. But I felt bad for myself because I thought I was being treated unfairly,” she said, referencing her treatment at the Jackson Daily News where as a reporter she said she received less pay than her male counterparts and was not taken seriously by her editors and sources.
PODCAST: Mississippi native Karen Hinton discusses her storied political career
Eventually, Hinton left journalism to go to work on the congressional campaign of Mike Espy, who became the first African American elected to the U.S. House from Mississippi since the 1800s. While she said Espy always treated her fairly during her time with him when he was a congressman and later when he was secretary of agriculture, she saw time and again working on Capitol Hill women treated as sexual objects — even by Democratic politicians she would normally support.
She tells the story of such power politics against women by her eventual boss, then-secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo, who most recently resigned his governorship of New York under a cloud of allegations involving improper sexual conduct.
While working at HUD, Hinton writes that Cuomo finally relented and agreed to nominate her for the coveted post of assistant for public affairs, which would require Senate confirmation. But the nomination was later pulled at the request of the Clinton White House because details of an incident at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville where she said then- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton made a pass at her were recounted in a book by journalist Michael Isikoff.
Because of the Greenville incident, Hinton earlier had rejected an opportunity offered by Clinton political strategist James Carville — who Hinton briefly dated — to work on the first Clinton presidential campaign.
Hinton writes that when she tried to tell Carville of the incident, the colorful Louisianan said, “I don’t want to hear it. Clinton is going to win this race as sure as cornbread goes with greens.”
Hinton also worked for the Democratic National Committee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. She also has run her own consulting firm and in more recent years battled to overcome a near fatal accident on a treadmill that left her unconscious for two months. The accident required her to work to regain her speech and aspects of her memory. Writing the book was a type of therapy, she said.
While detailing various stories of sexual misconduct and power politics against women throughout her career, perhaps not surprisingly it begins at West Jones. She tells the story of what she now says was rape by a West Jones faculty member of one of her four best friends, dubbed the Coterie by an English teacher. Early in the book, Hinton recounts a member of the Coterie describing to the other girls a sexual encounter she was forced into by the faculty member.
The girl, though, begs the girls not to tell anyone else, because she believes she would be blamed for the incident. They did not, but did blackmail the faculty member into giving them hall passes and other trivial benefits.
All of the names of the people involved in the West Jones incident have been changed and their identities masked so that Hinton can maintain the promise she made so many years ago to her friend.
The friend would later drop out of high school, though Hinton described her as the smartest member of the Coterie. She dropped out of school to avoid the faculty member.
Decades later her friend died by suicide. Hinton concedes that there were multiple tragedies in her friend’s life that might have led her there, but speculates that the incident at West Jones must have played a major part in some of the life choices that led to her tragic end.
“What was the cost of keeping Janice’s secret?” Hinton asked near the end of the book. “She had carried it with her as she watched us graduate from the back of the gym (in 1976) and for the next thirty-five years. We understood so little about rape in 1974. If Janice had told her parents or a counselor, would the telling have helped her? Changed her life?”