Mississippi voters will head to the polls Tuesday in the state’s hotly contested runoff senate election, as incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith faces off against Democrat Mike Espy. In a state that Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points two years ago, Espy is attempting to become Mississippi’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction. His opponent, incumbent Sen. Hyde-Smith, attended and graduated from an all-white segregationist high school and recently posed for photos with a Confederate Army cap and other Confederate artifacts. Earlier this month, a viral video showed Hyde-Smith praising a campaign supporter, saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Mississippi was once considered the lynching capital of the United States. We speak with Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. He recently traveled to Mississippi to get out the vote.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
President Trump is heading to Mississippi today, one day before voters head to the polls for Mississippi’s hotly contested runoff Senate election. Incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is facing off against Democrat Mike Espy, who is attempting to become Mississippi’s first African American senator since Reconstruction. Espy is a former congressmember who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton. Cindy Hyde-Smith has served in the Senate since April following the resignation of Republican Senator Thad Cochran. Although Trump won Mississippi by 20 percentage points two years ago, the Senate race has become much closer than expected.
Cindy Hyde-Smith has come under fire for racist remarks and a stream of revelations about her background. On Friday, the Jackson Free Press reported Hyde-Smith attended and graduated from Lawrence County Academy, an all-white segregationist high school. Hyde-Smith is shown in photos from a 1975 yearbook as one of the cheerleaders at the school. The school’s mascot is dressed as a Confederate colonel holding a rebel flag. This comes after photographs surfaced showing Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate army cap and posing with a vintage rifle, sword and other Confederate artifacts. The photos were from a Facebook post Hyde-Smith published in 2014, which she captioned, “Mississippi history at its best!”
Earlier this month, a viral video recorded just days before the midterm election showed Hyde-Smith praising a campaign supporter with the words, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Mississippi was once considered the lynching capital of the United States. Questioned by reporters, Senator Hyde-Smith initially refused to answer questions about her remark.
SEN. CINDY HYDE–SMITH: We put out a statement yesterday, and we stand by that statement.
REPORTER: Could you expand on it, then? Why you said it, what you meant by it, and why people in the state should not see it as offensive?
SEN. CINDY HYDE–SMITH: We put out the statement yesterday and it’s available, and we stand by that statement.
REPORTER: Are you familiar with Mississippi’s history of lynchings?
SEN. CINDY HYDE–SMITH: I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Hyde-Smith has also been captured on video cheering voter suppression for liberal college students to a small group of supporters. She later called the comment a joke. In the wake of the comments, several large corporations that have contributed to Hyde-Smith’s campaign, including Major League Baseball, Walmart, AT&T and Pfizer have asked for their contributions to be returned.
For more, we are joined by Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. He is joining us from Raleigh, North Carolina, just recently returned from Mississippi. In October, Reverend Barber won a MacArthur Genius Grant. Reverend Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! Give us a lay of the land in Mississippi. Talk about the background of Cindy Hyde-Smith.
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: First of all, thank you so much, Amy, for having me on this morning. I just returned by invitation of Mississippians of every race, color and creed with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign to do a three-stop tour from Biloxi to Jackson. Now, what I saw there were people who were very clear that what they’re seeing in Cindy Hyde-Smith is beneath the office of a senator in terms of her comments and her connections to white supremacy and racism.
I was able to go there and be in churches with people who came, white and black and Latino, who were organizing, who recognize that Mississippi is not a red state, but Mississippi is their state, and that they have possibility in Mississippi because the demographics have shifted. And we have to begin to see that as well. They understand that only 45 percent — 45 percent of people didn’t vote in 2016. They understand that only 29 percent of the people voted in 2014 to elect Cochran. He only won by 125,000 votes, and some 600,000 African Americans that could have voted didn’t vote, and almost a million white people who could have voted didn’t vote. And that a lot of people are not for this kind of politics.
They also recognize that Mike Espy in some ways has already broken history to even be in a runoff. Five or 10 years ago, we wouldn’t see what we’re seeing in Georgia and Florida and Texas and now in Mississippi. So things indeed are changing. But they also say and have said to me, Amy, and say to the media, that while her comments and connections are atrocious and bad, we also have to be careful of the trickery. And sometimes the trickery is to mention things like this and get the media focused on it so that we miss the things that are more detrimental in terms of her policies. And what I mean by that is there are — 52 percent of Mississippians are poor. That’s 1.5 million residents. That’s 437,000 children — that’s 59 percent of the children — 818,000 women, 843,000 people of color and 668,000 white people.
Now Cindy Hyde, whether she is joking or not, intentionally joking or not, the fact of the matter is, she is not for policies that will help the poor. She is not for living wages. She wants to take healthcare. She wants to allow insurance companies to prevent people to get healthcare if they have pre-existing conditions. She is pro-Trump. She is pro-tax cuts for the wealthy that will not help poor Mississippians.
Poor Mississippians have the numbers if they combine together to change this, and that’s really the decision they’re going to have to make. Do they want a senator who makes these comments about racism, who jokes about public hanging, but also who promotes policies that will strangle the poor, that will hurt the poor? She is against labor. She is against labor rights. She is against immigrants. She wants to push policies that will hurt poor people, mostly poor white people — white women and children and working people.
And this is what we have to do as poor — get behind the comments, get behind the curtain of the comments, and see that she wants to take these racial antics, ride them into the Senate, and then pass policies that will actually hurt mostly white poor Mississippians. And that is why black and white and Latino poor and working poor Mississippians need to combine together and show their strength.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to last Tuesday’s senatorial debate between Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith. Senator Hyde-Smith was asked if she was willing to apologize for her public hanging comment that went viral on social media.
SEN. CINDY HYDE–SMITH: For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements. In nearly 20 years of service, of being your state senator, your commissioner of agriculture and your US senator, I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their skin color type, their age or their income. That’s my record. There has never been anything, not one thing in my background to ever indicate I had ill will toward anyone. I have never been hurtful to anyone. I have always tried to help everyone. I also recognize that this comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That’s the type of politics Mississippians are sick and tired of.
UKNOWN: Mr. Espy? Secretary Espy?
MIKE ESPY: Well, no one twisted your comments because the comments were live. It came out of your mouth. I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Hyde-Smith demanded there be no audience or outside press allowed inside the televised forum in Jackson, Mississippi. Your response to what she said, Reverend Barber?
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: I have several responses. Number one, if you notice how she said, “There was no ill will intended in my comments and I have always worked with people” — that is the classic response when someone who engages in this kind of divisive politics using racialized dog whistles. They always come back with, “It was a joke” or “That was just in jest” or “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” And the problem with that is that limits the examination of racism to comments and personal actions. We know she said it, and so that’s a given. Secondly, she didn’t want an audience there. That’s curious that you do not want an audience when you’re having a debate running for the Senate. But thirdly, she makes this claim that Mississippi doesn’t need this kind of politics of twisting language. Well, that’s exactly what she was doing. She was throwing out language that she knows will have a certain hearing among certain groups of people and will stir them up.
But the fourth piece of this, Amy, is I am still concerned that — and I want the media — the media should be pushing on this — because racism is not limited to comments. She says she has worked with all people, but she has also worked against people, and she has worked against people with policies that are racist, that do have a racial disparate impact. She is against restoration of the Voting Rights Act. That is a form of policy racism. She is against healthcare. That is a form of policy racism and classism, because when you deny healthcare in a state like Mississippi, you hurt large numbers of poor people and large numbers of African Americans. She is against living wage. Denial of living wages has a racial disparate impact on black people and a class disparate impact on white people.
So one of the things we have to do is get underneath comments. People can always deny comments, but they can’t deny policies. And on the policy basis, her policies are bad for poor and low-income white Mississippians, poor and low-income black Mississippians, poor and low-income Latino Mississippians. And I said the other night, if you are poor, whether you’re white, black or brown, and you can’t pay your light bill, we are all black in the dark, so we need to stand together in the light.
And what Cindy Hyde-Smith and others like her never want to do is they never really want to have a debate about policy. They simply want to say, “I’m going to give tax cuts to the wealthy and we’re going to stop illegal immigrants. And we’re going to cut entitlements.” The very entitlements that in fact help a lot of people, including whites in Mississippi.
It is an old tactic — stir the division, make it about personal comments, let the focus be there so the focus will not be a policy. Because if Mississippians really knew — particularly poor, white Mississippians — really knew where she stood on poverty, really knew where she stood in policy, really knew how her policies will keep them poor and hurt them more, they would not vote for it. And that is the great fear of extremists.
The South is changing. The Southern strategy is beginning to be broken. We are seeing the birth pains of this Third Reconstruction. And every time in history there has been this possibility of black, poor and low income, and white, poor and low income people coming together, seeing their common political values and their common political concerns and policy concerns being joined together, always you have had now through history this attempt to divide the races — Dr. King called it feeding them the stale bread of racism and the spoiled meat of Jim Crow — in order for them to not focus on how they are really aligned with black and brown people in terms of policy. But I believe that people are breaking through and beginning to see that in Mississippi, and one of the signs is that Espy is even in a runoff to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to a small crowd in Starkville, Mississippi is where she made that comment saying “They remind me there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.” Also on the idea of these segregationist schools, a report coming out this past week about her attendance and sending her daughter to a school. Can you talk about what these schools are?
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, what these schools are is what she just said when she put that caption underneath the picture of her with the Confederate rifle and the Confederate uniform. She said, “This is Mississippi at its best.” It is a kind of glorified nostalgia about the past when there was a world when it was clear who was in power and who was not in power, who was oppressed and who was not oppressed.
It is interesting that at our first gathering in Biloxi, Amy, we had a young white girl come who testified. She wanted to tell people they needed to vote. As I told you, the audience was mixed. And she stood up and said, “I may get in trouble for this, but I’m going to tell the truth.” And she said, “What you heard Cindy Hyde-Smith say is common language.” She said, “I grew up in this. I know what it looks like. I know what it sounds like.” She said, “Every time there was a movement that would bring African Americans into political power or people would be growing in certain areas and there would be the possibility of equality and more growth,” she said, “we would hear commonly this phrase ‘there needs to be a public hanging.’” So she said to us in this meeting, “This is not some comment that just came out of the blue somewhere or out of the dark somewhere.”
What we see here is Cindy Hyde-Smith has been raised and bred and steeped in this kind of white supremacy, in this kind of segregationist philosophy and nostalgia. But Mississippi needs to go forward. In fact, the whole South has to go forward. And one of the things I want to say to Democrats is Democrats have to stop treating the Southern states lightly. Democrats have to go in, have to work hard, not just in the election year, but every year, because the change is there. There’s one study that says if you register 30 percent of the unregistered black voters and connect them with progressive whites and Latinos in the South, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas are really ripe for fundamental transformation. We saw what happened in Alabama. People didn’t think it could happen. It can happen.
We’re going to have to update and believe that there are more people in Mississippi, white, black and brown, if we turn them out, if we register them, if we get them eligible, who want to go forward, than those that Cindy Hyde-Smith are speaking to who want to go backward. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t be having a runoff. We’re having a runoff. We saw it in Georgia and Texas and Florida because times are changing, and we’ve got to work hard to make it change even faster.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for 30 seconds. When we come back, we want to talk about what is happening in North Carolina and also migrants gassed on the border. Stay with us.