Everyday bold racist statements emerge in the media. A recent appalling racist statement was made by Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. She praised support for someone by saying: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” As an African American who is a descendant of slaves, I can never get used to the bigoted statements and bigotry in the U.S. In response, Hyde-Smith says “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.” She’s running in a run-off election against Mike Epsy, an African American and former Congressman.
I don’t know what Hyde-Smith thinks about a public lynching. But I can tell her that it’s no joking matter—now or never. It is a negative part of U.S. history. Billy Holliday sang Strange Fruit in which the lyrics describe lynching of Blacks in the south. Those words in part were:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”
During the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s lynching of Blacks in the south and beyond was almost like a national past time. The forms of lynching varied from hanging, burning, tarring or splitting with a hatchet, to name a few. The purpose was to punish and terrorize African Americans. African Americans were lynched due to hatred by whites and a distorted fear of Blacks refusing to stay in their place.
Senator Hyde-Smith is consciously using her hanging analogy to remind racist white supporters that Espy is not in his place. The lynching of community leaders were most common in the period of 1915 and 1940 to remind Blacks to stay in their place—of below, beneath, behind and after white Americans. That is the essence of white supremacy.
Lynchings often escalated into large-scale violence targeting the entire African American community in places such as Mississippi. The Equal Justice Initiative researched and found 4084 racial terror lynchings in 12 southern states and 300 in other states, including California from the period between 1877-1950. Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings. Counties in Mississippi were sites of mass killings of African Americans in single-incident violence.
Senator Hyde-Smith’s racist remarks harkens back to a time in history when lynchings were mainstream and whites wanted a front row view just to see a Black person lynched. In places like Mississippi, during the height of lynching, public lynchings often held white spectators of 500-1000 and sometimes upwards of 2,000 or more. Hyde-Smith is saying if she lived during this time that she would have been on the front row.
During the high period of lynchings in the U.S., many were carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. This is what Hyde-Smith wanted to watch. And during the height of lynching in the U.S., spectators watching included elected officials and prominent citizens while white press coverage regularly a lynching. No one was brought to justice for a public hanging of a Black person.
These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a clear message that African Americans were less than human. The message behind Hyde-Smith’s statement is clear and resonates with many whites today. These bold racist statements have no place in politics or anywhere else in the U.S. Ever since the election of Trump, many white persons feel emboldened to publicly make such racist comments.
On November 27, 2018 Mississippians should send a clear message to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. The message to Hyde-Smith should be the joke is on her by voting her out of office.
Debbie Hines is a lawyer, legal and political commentator and former Baltimore prosecutor.