In Mis­sis­sippi and be­yond, progress on race is too slow

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY TAY­LOR BAT­TEN Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor tbat­[email protected]­lot­teob­

In De­cem­ber of 1991, I moved from Raleigh to a far­away land called Mis­sis­sippi. I knew lit­tle about it be­yond what I had heard and read, but I was about to be ed­u­cated quickly about the state’s past and how its past hadn’t en­tirely passed.

I went there as a cub re­porter for The As­so­ci­ated Press, so was con­stantly ask­ing ques­tions to bet­ter un­der­stand my new home. A few months into my new job I cov­ered a panel dis­cus­sion in Jack­son that in­cluded Mike Espy, who was run­ning for re-elec­tion to Con­gress.

“What is the sin­gle big­gest prob­lem fac­ing Mis­sis­sippi?” I asked him, be­cause I had al­ready learned there were a lot to choose from.

He barely paused. “Race re­la­tions,” he said. The first black con­gress­man in Mis­sis­sippi since Re­con­struc­tion went on to ex­plain how, even in 1992, race re­la­tions re­mained the defin­ing is­sue in a state with a shame­ful his­tory around race. My news story from that event ran, much to my sur­prise, on front pages across the state.

That mem­ory may be why I was so struck and sad­dened by the head­line that popped into my in­box last week: “Racial pol­i­tics take cen­ter stage in Mis­sis­sippi,” it said. More than a quar­ter-cen­tury af­ter Mike Espy named race as the state’s big­gest prob­lem, Espy is em­broiled in a US Se­nate cam­paign be­ing de­fined by racial ten­sions. How tragic that in 26 years we haven’t come fur­ther. How tragic that progress on racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in Amer­ica has not only seemed to slow but in re­cent years to have re­versed.

Espy, a Demo­crat, faces Re- pub­li­can Cindy Hyde-Smith in a bid to re­place long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. The two meet in a runoff Tues­day. Mis­sis­sippi hasn’t elected a Demo­cratic sen­a­tor since 1982 and hasn’t had a black sen­a­tor since 1881.

But the elec­tion turned com­pet­i­tive when Hyde-Smith said she liked a sup­porter so much that “If he in­vited me to a pub­lic hang­ing, I’d be on the front row.” In a state where whites ter­ror­ized blacks for gen­er­a­tions in­clud­ing through lynch­ings that were pub­lic spec­ta­cles, it was a hor­rific thing to say. Hy­deSmith didn’t apol­o­gize for nine days af­ter it came out. When she fi­nally did in a de­bate last Tues­day, it was half-hearted and paired with an al­le­ga­tion that Espy had twisted what she said.

Hyde-Smith fol­lowed the orig­i­nal pub­lic hang­ing com­ment a day later by say­ing she thought it was “a great idea” to make it harder for lib­er­als (who are al­most all black in Mis­sis­sippi) to vote. Her cam­paign said she was kid­ding. There were also pho­tos of Hyde-Smith at Jef­fer­son Davis’s home hold­ing a ri­fle and wear­ing a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier’s hat with the cap­tion “Mis­sis­sippi his­tory at its best!”

Of course, it’s not just Mis­sis­sippi. In Flor­ida, one can­di­date warned vot­ers not to “mon­key this up” by elect­ing a black man to be gover­nor. A white su­prem­a­cist group placed big­oted robo­calls in the gu­ber­na­to­rial races in both Flor­ida and Ge­or­gia.

Closer to home, we see racist post­ings at David­son Col­lege, swastikas painted on bridges at Duke Univer­sity and racial ten­sion around Silent Sam in Chapel Hill.

The big­gest news story when I lived in Mis­sis­sippi was By­ron De La Beck­with fi­nally be­ing put on trial again for the as­sas­si­na­tion of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. So things have pro­gressed, even in Mis­sis­sippi. But my, is that progress slow.

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