Now Mississippi must decide — between the future or the past, between coming together or dividing even more. The special election for the U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday is reportedly a very close race. Much will depend on who turns out to vote.
Does hope drive turnout? Or will hate and fear? Tuesday will tell.
The contrast is clear. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed to replace Thad Cochran when he resigned for health reasons, now must face the electorate. She votes down the line for President Trump, who will join her for rallies Monday.
She has told us exactly who she is. On Nov. 2, after a supporter praised her, she said, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Her Facebook page shows a photo of her wearing a cap of a Confederate soldier and holding a musket, with a caption: “Mississippi history at its best.” She was also caught on video saying, “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.” She now says she was joking.
No, those comments aren’t a joke, not in Mississippi with its history of lynching and of violent voter suppression; they are blatant racial appeals. They were so hateful that Walmart, Major League Baseball, Union Pacific, Pfizer, Amgen, AT&T and others have asked for the return of donations they made to her campaign.
Her opponent is Mike Espy, the first black Mississippian to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction and the first black secretary of agriculture, appointed by Bill Clinton. He is a centrist by temperament and politics. He is a supporter of the Second Amendment, wants to increase paid family leave and the minimum wage and supports the expansion of Medicaid funding. His campaign is a call for Mississippi to more forward, not backward.
Mississippi has been notorious for its racial divisions. “Everybody knows about Mississippi goddam,” Nina Simone used to sing. This is where lynching was used to intimidate African-Americans in opposition to the emancipation of the slaves. This is where civil rights activists were murdered for the crime of simply trying to register people to vote.
The state has paid a terrible price for this. It is the poorest state in the union. The effort to keep African-Americans down has pushed white working people into the ditch with them. The state finds it hard to attract investment. Its lack of basic public investment — in education, in health care, in the environment — makes it unattractive to modern day companies.
Now Mississippi has a chance. When Tunica went from a sugar ditch of poverty and despair to casinos, hotels, restaurants and jobs, the new Mississippi emerged and was made proud.
Mississippi is not just the Black Delta now. It is also the white sandy beaches to the south. The new Mississippi is more economically attractive to businesses.
The new Mississippi is home to Toyota and Nissan representing a new South agenda. Mississippi State playing on Thanksgiving Day is the new Mississippi where fans cheered the uniform color and not skin color. This is the new and rising South.
There is a choice. There is a candidate who can help bring it into the New South. The right to vote, while still impeded, now exists. The contrast is clear. The question is whether people have the courage to move forward.
Espy, the pundits say, has only an outside chance of winning. That’s true if the past sustains its hold over the present. Yet this is a time of change. Increasingly, working people of all races understand that the current course doesn’t work for them. The grip of Republicans, appealing to racial division, has not served the state well; a few have prospered, but many have not. Old habits and old hatreds are hard to break. Yet Mississippi has a chance and a choice. African-Americans must have the courage to vote in large numbers. People of conscience must vote their values; working people vote in their own interests.
Electing Hyde-Smith will condemn Mississippi to the past. Electing Espy will be a clear statement that Mississippi is moving forward. The people now must decide.