Editor’s Note: W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of “Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past,” and is a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He supported Mike Espy for Senate. He is currently at work on a book on Mississippi’s literary landscape. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Mississippi is not a place with a monolithic culture, but one with a myriad of subcultures stitched together in a patchwork of beautiful imperfection. The black-white binary is only one lens through which to view the state; the essence of Mississippi is far more complicated.
You can’t visit this state and not encounter ethnic and cultural diversity, whether it is Middle Easterners, Asians, and Latinos in the Delta, a thriving gay and lesbian bookstore in the Hill Country hamlet of Water Valley, or the mingling of bohemian and traditional communities in its college towns. While it is difficult, both literally and figuratively, to escape symbols memorializing the state’s mythologized Civil War past – whether cast in stone or as part of the state flag – there is a sizable number of Mississippians who acknowledge our complicated history yet are looking toward a new future.
In a state where you cannot talk about history or politics without talking about race, our politicians persist in deftly moving around the issue, sometimes clumsily and other times with balletic precision. The recent Senate campaign, which ended Tuesday night in Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory over Mike Espy, was no exception, and the movements to that delicate dance around race were at center stage.
This election pitted substantive public policy issues against the politics of fear and the culture wars, and even a broad and inclusive – and politically moderate – platform could not push Espy’s campaign to a victory. Tuesday night, Mississippi had the opportunity to show the country that it had become a state that has shaken off its image as a closed society. In the end, it was Mississippi’s past that won the election rather than its future.
Whether Mississippi can move forward depends not only on its politicians, but also on its voters and what they do now. Mississippians, regardless of party or race, must also come to terms with the state’s history rather than fearing it. More important, they must also realize Mississippi’s dark past is one in which we all hold ownership, not just those who were affected by that past.
The Senate runoff, with its racially tinged and distasteful comments from Cindy Hyde-Smith about public hangings and voter suppression, and President Trump asking a crowd in Tupelo “How does he (Espy) fit in in Mississippi?” are echoes from another era, one that 40 years ago pushed many of my generation to leave. Today, Mississippi remains a state that is losing its educated young people, and this election might be the signal for many to pack their bags. As Mississippi Today reported this past May, in the six years from 2010 to 2016, the state lost 35,013 people, and it is the only state in the nation losing so many people so fast.
What the last two weeks of the Espy and Hyde-Smith campaign demonstrated is that Mississippi cannot let go of a mythic vision of itself; it ignores the hard truths about its past, particularly when it comes to race. Part of the state’s current mythology is that all of our racial transgressions were resolved during the Civil Rights movement, and that to bring up the ways the legacy of that past manifests itself in the present is impolite and unseemly. Those who dare to talk about race are immediately accused of playing the race card, rather than simply acknowledging that Mississippi has only been functioning as a multiracial society for the past 50 years and still has much work to do.
Rather than confronting the public hanging comment head-on at a press conference, Gov. Phil Bryant chose to push the issue aside by implying that black women are participating in “the genocide of 20 million African-American children” through legal abortions, stoking the politics of fear among one-issue voters rather than confronting the issue at hand. Later, when Espy responded to Hyde-Smith’s long-needed apology by saying, “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth,” many wished he had probed deeper – perhaps reminding Hyde Smith that if racism is America’s original sin, lynching represents its unresolved legacy and is nothing to joke about. To her comments about voter repression, Espy could have reminded Hyde-Smith that the standard devices for accomplishing the disenfranchisement of voters on a racial basis were invented in Mississippi and even memorialized in the state’s 1890 Constitution. Yet the issue of voter suppression never even became part of the public debate.
Perhaps the two candidates could have even had a discussion about the network of segregated white academies that educate many of this state’s white students and educated many of our legislators. As reporting from the Jackson Free Press revealed during the campaign, Hyde-Smith attended one of those schools. The two candidates could have talked about how, for more than a decade after integration was enshrined in federal law, Mississippi used a network of other laws thicker than a field of kudzu to ensure that white and black children would be kept separate. And when those laws failed their court challenges, private academies like the one Hyde-Smith attended popped up from the Piney Woods in the south and all through the Delta faster than suburban tract houses after World War II.
And of course, no one talked about the photograph from Hyde-Smith’s 1975 yearbook of a cheerleading squad posed with a Confederate flag. As Susan Sontag writes in “On Photography,” photographs provide evidence. Moreover, photographs authenticate the existence of a place or time and show what has been, since all photographs expose a past reality. The past reality that the photograph of the cheerleading squad reveals is how all-white academies embraced the symbols segregationists used to promote white supremacy. Cindy Hyde-Smith may not be a white supremacist, but the photograph provides evidence that the symbols of white supremacy were undeniably part of her cultural formation and perhaps even shaped her politics.
Yet the lessons to be learned from this Mississippi Senate race do not lie in the gaffes and missteps of one candidate. This campaign was a missed opportunity for the entire state for racial dialogue. What the Hyde-Smith-Espy run-off reveals is that Mississippi’s politicians need to confront our state’s past rather than denying or ignoring its existence. The great irony of all of this is that frank discussion about race and history seems impossible to have in a state with a civil rights museum that includes exhibitions supported by strong historical evidence, much of it from the archives of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state-run agency founded in 1956 to preserve segregation.
Instead, the prevailing point of view is that the way to overcome our racial divide is to simply look beyond it and even to bury it. As this campaign reveals, that approach is not working and is continuing to divide the citizens of this state.
Mississippi is no longer just black and white, and the lessons of its history belong to anyone who chooses to live here. We may not share the same politics or background, but we do have a shared history. And only when we come to understand and embrace that history can Mississippi begin to bridge its political and racial divides.