African American Republicans in Mississippi are standing by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in Tuesday’s Senate runoff, despite her comment expressing a willingness to attend a public hanging — a quip that’s triggered painful reminders of the state’s history of lynching blacks.
“I just choose to look at it as a possible mistake and chalk it up to that,” said John Mosley Jr., an African American Republican who ran for mayor of Moss Point, Mississippi, in 2017. “And I haven’t given it much thought afterward.”
In nearly a dozen interviews, African American Republicans said they are taking Hyde-Smith at her word when she said she meant “no ill will, no intent whatsoever” when she said at a Nov. 2 campaign stop that if a supporter invited her to a public hanging “I’d be on the front row.”
“I’m a Republican. I support Cindy Hyde-Smith,” said Charles Evers. “She didn’t say anything about black folks, she didn’t say anything about white folks. She just said ‘If there’s a hanging I’ll be in the front row’ or something like that. She didn’t mean nothing like that. She was just saying something. I don’t give a damn what other people think.“
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Evers is the 96-year-old brother of the late Medgar Evers, a NAACP leader who was assassinated on June 12, 1963 outside his home in Jackson by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council. Two trials in 1964 resulted in hung juries. Beckwith was convicted of Evers’ murder on Feb. 5, 1994.
Tuesday’s contest is likely to hinge on turnout, which is usually low in runoff elections. Some local and national Republicans are concerned that Hyde-Smith’s remarks might energize more African American Mississippians to vote.
In the Nov. 6 primary to fill the remaining two years of retired Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s term, Hyde-Smith received 4 percent of the black vote while 1 percent voted for conservative GOP firebrand Chris McDaniel, according to network exit polls.
Democrat Mike Espy received 91 percent of the black vote and 15 percent of the white vote. About one-third of all voters were black.
Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comment, coupled with a later remark about suppressing liberal votes — which she also called a joke — has turned Tuesday’s runoff against Espy, an African American, from what should have been an easy win in a ruby red Republican state into a potentially dramatic battle.
Espy still faces daunting odds to overtake Hyde-Smith, but her comments have reduced his chances from improbable to possible, political observers say.
“Am I predicting Espy is going to win? No,” said Marty Wiseman, former director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “But he has a better chance than he had before and, yeah, it’s possible he would win.”
Republicans are worried enough about the outcome that President Donald Trump is traveling to Biloxi and Tupelo on Monday to hold rallies for Hyde-Smith, who has seen key donors, including Major League Baseball to Walmart, seek refunds of their campaign contributions because of her remarks, despite the apology she issued last week.
But several African American Republicans in the state are standing with Hyde-Smith, saying that, controversial comments aside, her conservative political record and beliefs closely align with theirs.
They feel that she would be a better partner in the Senate for Trump than Espy, President Bill Clinton’s former agriculture secretary.
Charles Evers, a civil rights activist, made history when he became the first African American to lead a biracial Mississippi town when was elected mayor of Fayette in 1969.
Though a Republican who backed Ronald Reagan and endorsed Trump, Evers said he voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, helping to elect the nation’s first African American president.
He has no interest in helping elect Espy become become Mississippi’s first African American senator since Reconstruction.
“I just think Cindy Hyde-Smith will work more with the president,” he said. “Espy’s a friend of mine, and he’ll be fighting the president. We don’t need a senator that’s going to be fighting. The president is a supporter of Mississippi.”
The Rev. Charles McKinney, a black Republican and pastor of the Jesus Christ Baptist Church in Ocean Springs, said that Hyde-Smith’s opponents are “playing the race card” with her comments.
“It’s shameful,” said McKinney who, along with his two sons, were among the few African Americans at the Biloxi Monday. “It’s an insult to Mississippi for people to say we’ve had a racist public figure that has served so long and we didn’t know she was a racist. Don’t you think she could have hidden it three more weeks? No one believes Cindy is trying to bring back hanging blacks in Mississippi.”
Rogena Mitchell, an African American Republican from Vancleave, Mississippi, said she was “startled and concerned” about Hyde-Smith’s remark, especially given Mississippi’s lynching history.
Of 4,743 lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968, Mississippi accounted for 581, the most of any state, according to NAACP figures.
Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comment is appalling, Mitchell said, but it won’t stop her from voting for the incumbent senator on Tuesday.
“It’s not going to impact my vote,” said Mitchell, who unsuccessfully ran for Mississippi state senate in 2015. “As we face the scenario of a Republican versus a Democrat and the principles that both parties ascribe to, I’m going to have to support her regardless of her comments.”
Mosley echoed Mitchell’s sentiment.
“I do not believe in this political climate that those were probably the best choice of words, but I choose to stick with what I see as a possibility moving forward. I believe it’s going to be Sen. Hyde-Smith.”
Michael Steele, the first African American to head the Republican National Committee, said Hyde-Smith’s remark was either “a mistake” or she was “parroting the dog whistles we’ve already heard from Donald Trump on matters of race to stir passions for folks who may feel connected to such remarks.”
Seven percent of African Americans nationwide identify with the GOP, and black Republicans already face questions about how they be in a party that critics say opposes diversity cuts programs for the neediest.
Hyde-Smith’s recent remarks have prompted more questions for African Americans who stick with the Republican Party and back Hyde-Smith.
Nic Lott, a Republican who in 2000 was the first African American to be elected associated student body president at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, tweeted that comments like Hyde-Smith’s “are reasons why we can’t grow the party!”
“My fellow black Republicans know that it’s hard enough being Black and a Republican,” Lott, 39, tweeted earlier this month. “Don’t expect us to explain ridiculous remarks to our communities.”
Mitchell said she’s not going to condemn Hyde-Smith, or the Republican Party, over poor choices of words.
“When do-gooders do bad, it happens,” she said. “There are many folks in scripture who do bad things.”