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  • December 7th, 2018


Joel M. Vance

Well, it’s official, the United States Senate welcomes into its ranks the state of Mississippi’s most prominent aficionado of public lynching, reaffirming Mississippi’s status as the nation’s most prominent bastion of racial intolerance.


Anyone who read the news over the last several weeks before the runoff election in Mississippi, knows that Cindy Hyde-Smith commented that if a supporter “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” This was taken by many as a reference to Mississippi’s leading role as a hotspot for African-American lynchings over the last century and, although Ms. Hyde-Smith apologized, sort of, the mud clung to her, along with several other racially insensitive episodes— wearing Confederate paraphernalia in the Jefferson Davis Museum, attending a whites only school, and sending her daughter to another one.


All these clues pointing to the possibility that Ms. Hyde-Smith is not exactly a paragon of racial equality made no difference to the majority of voters who upheld Mississippi’s reputation as the capital of racial intolerance in the Western world.  Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose resemblance to Margaret Hamilton made up as the Wicked Witch of the West, save for the fact that she is not green (and, for God’s sake, don’t color her black) is remarkable, defeated Mike Espy, an African-American, for the interim Senate seat vacated by retired Thad Cochran.


It was a runoff election that was closer than it was supposed to be in Mississippi where the world redneck population routinely elects racist candidates, and has done so since Republicans were Democrats. I know this is true because from 1956 to 1959 I lived and worked in Montgomery Alabama, a similarly racist state, and was surrounded by the racial turbulence of the time— it was kind of like swimming in a cesspool.


When I worked in Montgomery, the South was solidly Democrat and solidly segregated and solidly represented by such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and, especially, the White Citizen’s Councils, which really were no different than the Klan except they didn’t cover themselves with bedclothes. The poster child for Alabama was Bull Connors the police chief of Birmingham, who turned police dogs and fire hoses loose on civil rights workers who were there to get black voters registered.  Elected representatives of the South as I experienced it were universally white andwere an All-Star team of historic racists, including Mississippi’s own Senator James Eastland.


Eastland was a Mississippi senator twice—once in 1941, and then from 1947 to 1978. He teamed with John Stennis who also was a Democrat for 36 years. Eastland was the son of a cotton planter and, as an ironic twist of history, began his Senate career as an interim appointee in 1941, serving out the term of Pat Harrison who died in office— and Ms. Hyde-Smith likewise is serving as an interim appointee.


The fact that Eastland was a Democrat, Hyde-Smith a Republican is meaningless. Between the 1950s and now the South underwent a convulsive party shift during which Democrats became more progressive and racially tolerant and the reverse was true for the Republican Party. Sure, Mike Espy is a Democrat but that doesn’t mean that the South is reverting to its Democrat heritage. Mike Espy is an African-American and served in the Obama administration. He is black and I can’t help but feel the historic racial animosity is why Hyde-Smith edged him out. Perhaps it is consoling in the fact that the race was closer than anyone expected but that still is small consolation when a white person with a history of racial intolerance goes to the Senate and the far more qualified candidate is defeated.


There is much that I admire about the state of Mississippi. Some of the greatest blues musicians in history hailed from the Delta region of the state, especially Mississippi John Hurt, a gentle innovator who developed a fingerpicking blues style unlike that of any of his contemporaries. And that same Delta region produced and continues to produce some of the finest duck hunting in North America. And let’s not forget some pretty good writers— William Faulkner for starters, Eudora Welty, whose short stories are as good as short stories get, and, despite his nickname, renowned playwright Tennessee Williams. How about Richard Wright whose landmark book Native Son is among the best novels ever written by an African-American….or anyone else


In 1890 Mississippi passed a state constitution which included  poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries to exclude African-American voters. There have been enough reforms over the years to allow African-American voters a muted voice in Mississippi politics—enough that Mike Espy became a serious challenger to a white candidate, but the state still retains enough of its racist identity to deny black people a voice in the United States government. For Espy to have won the Senate seat, he needed the majority of African-American votes plus a percentage of white voters, maybe as many as a quarter of those who went to the polls. He didn’t get it. Thus, the American system of “People’s choice” operated, but you have to question whether the way it worked is to the benefit of everyone in the country. The Republican ruled Senate continues to be a good old white boys club. There are 42 white male Republican senators and, although there are several woman Republican senators, only one is African-American.


The South, during my interminable three years living there was a stewpot of social injustice. Alabama featured such political lowlifes as George Wallace and James Patterson. There was Orville Faubus in Arkansas, Strom Thurmond in South Carolina (who fathered a child with a black family maid) and, of course, Eastland in Mississippi—all paragons of white supremacy, trading their hooded robes for the conservative garb of political leadership. Occasionally, a shaft of racial reform pierced the storm clouds of racism like a ray of welcome sunshine—but those moments were rare.


Alabama’s goofy governor, Big Jim Folsom, ignited a firestorm of criticism when he invited black congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stay in the Governor’s mansion. But everybody knew that Big Jim was a nutty drunk and forgave him his trespass. And in the next door state, Louisiana’s governor, Earl Long, was a free thinker (with emphasis on the “thinker”) who crusaded for improved teacher pay, minority voting rights, and expanding school lunch programs.  Folsom said this, “As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them.”  Unfortunately, big Jim died long ago and his legacy is more as an eccentric oddity, rather than a progressive.


Now, Alabama features such political senatorial wannabes as Roy Moore, a pedophile who was so odious as a candidate that even the endorsement of the racist President, Donald J Trump, couldn’t save him. It’s worth noting that Trump, whose father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, also traveled to Mississippi to stump for Hyde-Smith. I admit that it’s not fair to saddle the son with the sins of the father, but in this case the father set up his arrogant kid in business and together they forged a history of corruption in both business and politics which should permeate every voting booth in the country with an unbearable stink. But in places like Mississippi, too many voters just hold their noses and checkmark the box marked GOP. Does that stand for Grand Old Party or Grungy Old Putrid?


Earl Long once joked that “One day the people of Louisiana will elect good government and they won’t like it!” Long was rewarded for his progressive mindset by, among others, his wife who tried to have him removed from office on the grounds of mental instability. For a while he was confined to a mental institution. His legacy as a reformer is largely forgotten, but movie aficionados remember actor Paul Newman portraying him in the 1989 film Blaze about an alleged affair burlesque Queen Blaze Starr had with Long.  So, the southern political scene during the tumultuous days of civil-rights awakening, was enlivened by the notoriety of a couple of screwballs. By contrast, Cindy Hyde-Smith coughs up a pale imitation.


Lest you think that Mississippi has narrowed its racial divide in the years between James Eastland and Cindy Hyde-Smith, it was not that many years ago that Mississippian Trent Lott, once a Democrat who switched to the Republican Party in 1972 and who ultimately became the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and later the Republican Senate majority leader said at a function honoring Strom Thurmond, “We’re proud of voting for Strom Thurmond for president in 1948. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either”


That remark earned him a rebuke from his Republican president George W. Bush and ultimately forced his resignation as Majority Leader. He quit the Senate in 2007 and today is a lobbyist. Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen conned Lott into filming a television promo supporting a fictional program calling for arming gifted children, ages four through 12, called “Kinder Guardians”.  Lott actually said “It’s something that we should think about America, about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens—good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers.  Lott obviously shares a tendency with the President of the United States, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and other prominent Republicans to let his mouth run away with common sense.


At the same time there was a glimmering of hope with Folsom and Long, other politicians around the South were taking more traditional racial stands— literally. George Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in 1956 to prevent Autherine Lucy, an African-American, from entering. James Meredith was just as adamantly barred from entering the University of Mississippi in 1962. And Orville Faubus in Arkansas was doing his best to keep nine black children from attending school at the all white Little Rock Central high school in 1957. The southern tradition of “separate but decidedly unequal” was in full flower.  As a side note, when George Wallace ran for president in 1968, he got nearly 207,000 votes in Missouri, mostly from rural areas.  To this day, my home state, Missouri, has an uncomfortable cadre of racists.


My high school, from which I graduated in 1952 , still was segregated eight years after the Supreme Court decision and would be for some time thereafter. In fact, the local school board, withdrew the school’s basketball team from a tournament because it featured a team from a black school. So, Mississippi had no monopoly on racial inequality. And, in fact, there are fewer de facto segregated schools in today’s South than there are in the nation as a whole.


School segregation largely is no longer an issue in the South—but the fact that Hyde-Smith chose to attend (and send her daughter to) a segregated school is an issue. Segregation in public schools legally ended in 1954 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. The yearbook at Hyde-Smith’s segregated school was titled The Rebel.


Once, en route to a meeting in Florida, my wife, Marty, and I spent a night in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is a pleasant town of pleasant people, but there is a dark cloud over it which never will dissipate, the legacy of an incident in 1964 when a black church was firebombed and burned to the ground, one of 37 churches and 30 businesses that were burned in Mississippi by white supremacists. Three young civil-rights volunteers including one from Mississippi, were in Neshoba County trying to register African-Americans so they could vote.


A sheriff’s deputy pulled the three over and they vanished and 44 days later their bodies were discovered in roadside dirt pile. They were killed by the self-styled “white knights” of the Ku Klux Klan. If you think the Klan types have vanished , think back a year or so to Charlottesville Virginia where, according to Donald Trump there were some “very good people” among the white supremacists who organized what they called a “unite the right” rally during which one of these “white knights” rammed a car into a group of counter protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.


It’s unfair to blame a town for what happened more than half a century ago, but I was relieved to get out of that sunlit Mississippi town just as I was relieved to get out of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. Today, my old high school has long been integrated and Missouri, Arkansas, even Alabama are far more racially balanced than they were so many years ago.


Mississippi has given us great literature, great blues, and a history of oppression of black people by white people. Pick any two of three and decide how the state shakes out today. Mississippi? Ask Cindy Hyde-Smith or Trent Lott.




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