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‘Public Hanging’ Remark Provokes Outrage, Draws New Attention to Mississippi Senate Runoff

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comment evokes lynchings, critics say

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., has provoked widespread outrage for joking about "public hanging" at a campaign event in a newly surfaced video. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., has provoked widespread outrage for joking about "public hanging" at a campaign event in a newly surfaced video. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

At a campaign event earlier this month, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and her supporters laughed as she quipped about being in the front row of a “public hanging,” according to a newly surfaced video.

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” the Republican said in an embrace with one of her supporters, according to a video posted by an independent journalist to Twitter and Facebook on Sunday.

Outraged observers say the Hyde-Smith’s comment evokes the bloody history of lynchings in Mississippi, which has the deadliest record of racist mob violence by hanging of any state in the United States, according to the NAACP. The video has also drawn new attention to her runoff race against Democratic challenger and former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who is black.

Hyde-Smith and Espy were the top performers on Election Day, but neither candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote, triggering a runoff. Mississippi voters will go to the polls again on Nov. 27. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat when he retired due to his health in March.

Hyde-Smith referred to the remark as “an exaggerated expression of regard” in a statement. 

“In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement,” said. “In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”

In its own statement, the Espy campaign called her comments “reprehensible.”

“They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country,” said Campaign Communications Director Danny Blanton. “We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgement to represent the people of our state.”

The midterm election has stirred a debate about the role of race in U.S. politics as Democrats and other observers have accused Republicans across the country of appealing to racial animus.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson drew a parallel from Hyde-Smith’s remarks to President Donald Trump. They “prove once again how Trump has created a social and political climate that normalizes hateful and racist rhetoric,” he said in a statement.

“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ in a state known for its violent and terroristic history toward African Americans is sick,” he said. “To envision this brutal and degenerate type of frame during a time when Black people, Jewish People and immigrants are still being targeted for violence by White nationalists and racists is hateful and hurtful. Any politician seeking to serve as the national voice of the people of Mississippi should know better. Her choice of words serves as an indictment of not only her lack of judgement, but her lack of empathy, and most of all lack of character.”

Hyde-Smith’s voting record closely aligns with the White House’s policy agenda; the senator has campaigned on building a wall at the southern border with Mexico and supported the president’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries. 

Hyde-Smith and Espy will participate in a debate on Nov. 20.

Watch: Now That That’s Over (Mostly) Roll Call Looks Ahead to 2020

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