Cindy Hyde-Smith’s highly publicized, 53 to 46.1 percent victory over former congressman and former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy in Tuesday’s runoff election in Mississippi has given Republicans another Senate seat. They now hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate.
Hyde-Smith won despite telling supporters at a campaign stop in Tupelo, Mississippi, that she would be happy to be in the front row if invited to a “public hanging.” As a result, Hyde-Smith’s victory has come at a high price.
In a state with the nation’s most notorious lynching history—534 reported lynchings between 1882 and 1952—Hyde-Smith, for whom President Trump campaigned, has brought to mind the last time Mississippi was under the intense racial scrutiny it is currently facing. That was over 50 years ago when in 1964 college students under the direction of a coalition of civil rights groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) carried out a massive voting rights campaign known as Mississippi Freedom Summer.
The campaign, which sought to register African-American voters and create Freedom Schools in a state with a highly segregated public education system, was designed to turn the national spotlight on Mississippi. As future Georgia Congressman John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC, observed, “If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country.”
The gains of Freedom Summer were costly. Three Freedom Summer civil rights workers, James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white northerners, were murdered as Freedom Summer began in June.
After a massive search spearheaded by the FBI, the bodies of the three men were found in August buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Those responsible for the killings, who included a deputy sheriff, were brought to trial by the Justice Department for violating the civil rights of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman and after a series of appeals, seven of them were convicted in 1967 and years later another would be found guilty of manslaughter.
Mississippi’s arch segregationists were unmoved by the toll Freedom Summer took on those who were part of it. A week after the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were discovered, Governor Paul Johnson Jr., who in his stump speeches had a line that declared the initials of the NAACP stood for niggers, apes, alligators, coons, and possums, told supporters at the Neshoba County Fair, “Integration is like prohibition, if people don’t want it a whole army can’t enforce it.”
What Johnson and his supporters did not take notice of was how the rest of the country was viewing events in Mississippi. That summer Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law on July 2, and the following year the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.
When in 1986 Mike Espy won a seat in the House of Representatives, his victory was a reflection of what Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement had helped accomplish. In 1989, on the 25th anniversary of Freedom Summer, even white Mississippi showed important signs of political change.
At a 1989 memorial honoring Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, Dick Molpus, Mississippi’s secretary of state, an Ole Miss graduate from a prominent white family, delivered a moving eulogy to the three civil rights workers. “We deeply regret what happened here 25 years ago. We wish we could undo it,” Molpus declared. “Today we pay tribute to those who died. We acknowledge that dark corner in our past.”
Hyde-Smith’s remarks on public hangings and her past Facebook account showing her wearing a Confederate soldier’s cap and holding a musket next to a caption reading, “Mississippi history at its best,” reflect how much her campaign depended on voters who want to turn back the racial clock in a state that Donald Trump won by 18 points.
Nobody else, though, is forgetting how she has campaigned or where her deepest beliefs seem to lie. Major League Baseball, Walmart, AT&T, and Pfizer have already asked for the return of contributions they made to her campaign, and more such requests are certain to follow. From here on in, association with Cindy Hyde-Smith will be toxic for any corporation doing business nationally.