No U.S. Senate race in the country could be more of a game-changer in 2018 than the one in Mississippi, where Democrat Mike Espy is running for the seat vacated by Thad Cochran.
That was the proclamation of Sen. Cory Booker.
“That is the star that I see rising in the South,” the New Jersey Democrat said of Espy. “That is the hope that this nation must have in Washington, D.C. And — God willing, the people of Mississippi willing — we will have Mike Espy as the next United States senator.”
As Espy and his GOP opponent, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, gear up for a Nov. 27 runoff election, the two agreed to a one-hour debate on Tuesday, Nov. 20.
Until now, Espy’s campaign against Hyde-Smith had flown almost completely under the radar despite implications of historic proportions and a chance for Democrats to change the dynamics in the United States Senate.
Down in the Delta — where the public lynching of African Americans were the rule and not the exception and the Ku Klux Klan was usually judge, jury and executioner — Espy, a black man, has forced a runoff against Hyde-Smith.
As stunning as Espy’s rise in one of the classic “good ol’ boy” regions, Hyde-Smith, perhaps in a fit of desperation or a time lapse, helped to shine the spotlight on the race that had taken a back seat to the historic runs for governor in the southern states of Florida and Georgia.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith said of supporter and cattle rancher Colin Hutchinson during a small campaign event in Tupelo this month.
Hyde-Smith later tried to walk back the inflammatory comment.
“In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement,” she said. “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.”
If the comment was an exaggerated expression of regard, folks in the onetime civil rights hotbed and those around the nation didn’t see it that way. It not only ignited interest in the under-the-radar Senate race, it galvanized Espy’s supporters.
“Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s shameful remarks prove once again how [President Donald] Trump has created a social and political climate that normalizes hateful and racist rhetoric,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “We’ve seen this in Florida from Ron DeSantis and others during this election season and denounce it.
“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ in a state known for its violent and terroristic history toward African Americans is sick,” Johnson said. “To envision this brutal and degenerate type of frame during a time when Black people, Jewish People and immigrants are still being targeted for violence by White nationalists and racists is hateful and hurtful.”
According to the NAACP, Mississippi had 581 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, more than any other state. The state’s population has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state — 37 percent — according to the last census.
“Any politician seeking to serve as the national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better,” Johnson said. “Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgment, but her lack of empathy, and most of all lack of character.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is Black, agreed.
“Senator Hyde-Smith’s remark that she would ‘be on the front row’ of a ‘public hanging’ is repulsive and her flippant disregard for our state’s deep history of inhumanity tied to lynching is incensing,” Lumumba said. “What is worse is her tone-deaf justification for the comment.”
Activist Shaun King expressed his disbelief in the comment.
“A sitting United States Senator. In Mississippi just said ‘If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.’ Really? She just said this in the heart of lynching country. She’s running against a black man. Unthinkable,” King said.
The ACLU of Mississippi released a statement calling Hyde-Smith’s comments “despicable and abhorrent.”
“We expect and demand that Mississippi leaders represent and remain committed to inclusion and diversity. Sitting senators should not be referencing public hangings unless they are condemning them,” The ACLU’s statement said.
Espy himself weighed in.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible,” Espy said. “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 judgment to represent the people of our state.”
The race for the Senate out of Mississippi has grown in its importance since election day. With the Democrats taking control of the House, the party has continued to narrow the majority in the Senate.
After a stunning victory in Arizona by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, Republicans hold a narrow majority of 51 to 47, with two other Senate races still unresolved — in Florida between GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and the Mississippi contest.
Espy once served as agriculture secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton and in 1986 became the first African-American from Mississippi elected to Congress since the Reconstruction period.
Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Espy received a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1975 and then attended the University of Santa Clara where he received his law degree in 1978. Espy returned to Mississippi after law school and worked as an attorney for Central Mississippi Legal Services from 1978 to 1980, according to blackpast.org.
Between 1980 and 1984, Espy served as assistant secretary of the Public Lands Division for the State of Mississippi and then took the post of assistant state attorney general for consumer protection, a position he held until 1985.
The following year Espy won the 2nd Congressional District seat, which included much of the Mississippi Delta, becoming the only black Congressman to represent a predominately rural district.
Now, in Mississippi, Washington and as far away as New Jersey, Espy’s race has gained prominence.
“Mike Espy has a deep-rooted dedication to the people of Mississippi — and the nation,” Booker said. “Mike worked to expand and extend economic opportunity for those who needed it most — including young people, businesses and farmers.Now Mississippi voters have the chance to put him back to work in the Senate, fighting for the things we desperately need today — like better jobs, improved educational opportunities and affordable health care.”