In 2015, Kiese Laymon, the black writer from Mississippi, wrote an essay about white violence and black forgiveness. Published at the Guardian, the piece focused on Laymon’s grandmother, who for years supplemented her income from a local chicken plant by washing clothes for her white neighbors — a job she had performed, in various iterations, since she was a child. “Sometimes, Kie, at five in the morning, we had to go to white folks’ house and wash they clothes outside, no matter how hot or cold it was,” she told him:
Sometimes they might pay in you in some change. Most of the time, they pay you in a little cornmeal. Anyway, we sometimes would be behind they great big houses washing they clothes in the tub out there, and hanging them up before school. And the little white children who was no older than us would be in the house pointing and laughing.
Laymon pressed his grandmother, trying to understand the roots of the white children’s ridicule and whether it instilled in her a desire to wield their power, to have what they had. She said it did not. “We knew that was the kind of work niggers had to do. Our thing was that … the white folks didn’t need to be laughing at us for trying.”
The act of trying has defined black life in the United States. “[Trying] to make it to tomorrow with food in our belly, and clothes on our back,” Laymon’s grandmother said. “Shit, trying to not hit them upside they head.” This struggle, and its attendant failures, are so etched in black Americans’ social, political, and cultural consciousness that uphill battles, in most endeavors, are accepted as facts of life. But a layer of cruelty is added when we are forced to try with white laughter echoing around us — as was the case in Mississippi this week.
Cindy Hyde-Smith laughed her way into the United States Senate on Tuesday. The runoff election between her and Mike Espy, a black Democratic former U.S. congressman and one-time U.S. secretary of agriculture, ended decisively, with Mississippi’s white and conservative majority handing the Republican incumbent a 9-point margin of victory, according to exit polls. The final weeks of Hyde-Smith’s campaign were controversial. First came footage of her remarking, in response to praise from a Tupelo cattle rancher, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.” Then came footage of a campaign stop in Columbus, where she quipped, “[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.” Most recently came revelations she had been photographed at Jefferson Davis’s Biloxi home in 2014 wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat, describing it, and similar artifacts, as “Mississippi history at its best!”
All three exchanges were marked by smiles and laughter — Hyde-Smith’s, when she said something she found particularly funny, or that of her audience, sharing her mirth. But her levity belied the gruesome subjects at which she was winking — some of the goriest strands of Mississippi’s history. “Public hanging” comments sour in a state that once led the country in lynching black people. Jokes about voter suppression assume more weight where white citizens made a pastime out of murdering black would-be voters. Valorizing Mississippi’s Confederate past speaks for itself. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” reads the state’s pre-Civil War declaration of secession. Hyde-Smith’s debt to this history was affirmed when news broke she had attended a “segregation academy” as a teenager, then sent her daughter there some years later.
Black Mississippi deserves better. Hyde-Smith may have prolonged her state’s legacy of empowering white bigots, but the glee that marked her rise adds insult to what was already a nigh-unwinnable fight for black Mississippians. At 38 percent, Mississippi has the largest black population share of any U.S. state, but that has not translated to state-level power. No black official has been elected to statewide office in the 140 years since Reconstruction. Even when black Mississippians were the majority — as they were into the 1930s — their political power has been repressed, often brutally, by the state’s white ruling class and its foot soldiers.
Cruelty, even without laughter, was a defining feature of these endeavors. Many of them centered on black suffrage, and came to a head when civil rights workers launched targeted efforts to register black voters in the 1950s and 1960s. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of bodily harm had rendered the ballot box an almost unreachable prize. Early efforts to change this resulted in bloodshed. In 1955, Reverend George Lee, a local pastor and grocery store proprietor in Belzoni, began printing leaflets encouraging black people to register and encouraging them to pay the tax. White locals responded by forming a White Citizens Council to fight him, and circulated a list of the people who had already registered. Local white businessmen punished those on the list, firing them from their jobs, denying them credit, or raising their rent. On May 7, as Lee was driving towards home, occupants from a passing vehicle opened fire, blowing off half his face. He lived long enough to stagger from his car and ask for help from a nearby cab stand. Two black drivers took him to the local hospital, where he died. The leading suspects in the shooting — White Citizens Council members Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Sr. — died in the 1970s without the case being brought to trial.
The violence continued as registration efforts intensified. In September 1961, Herbert Lee — a black man in Liberty, Mississippi, who became the local driver for Robert Moses, a voting rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — was killed before dozens of eyewitnesses in broad daylight by E.H. Hurst, an elected member of the Mississippi house of representatives. His body was left in the sun for hours. The local sheriff coerced the black witnesses into corroborating Hurt’s claim that he shot Lee in self-defense, and Hurst was acquitted that afternoon by an all-white jury. Soon after, Louis Allen, one of the black witnesses, recanted and said he would testify against Hurst for a federal investigation. He faced years of harassment and reprisal before being killed outside his home in April 1964. The case went nowhere.
As I have written before, such incidents were de rigueur. Books like My Soul Is Rested, an oral history of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, are filled with accounts of the brutality of white efforts to stop black people from voting in Mississippi. According to activist Lawrence Guyot, “some 63 people [were] killed around the question of the vote before ’64.” Registering, he said, was akin to a suicide. “Why don’t I just shoot myself? It’d be quicker.” Describing efforts to register black voters in Indianola in 1962, activist and journalist Charles Cobb said, “Right after the first attempt to register people to vote, nightriders came through the black community and shot up three houses, wounding the daughter of a neighbor of the person we were staying with.” And in Greenwood, according to a ProPublica report from Nikole Hannah-Jones, a local man named Silas McGhee was shot in the face for trying to register black voters: “The bullet barreled through his mouth, taking his front teeth with it.”
That black Mississippians survived these atrocities only to have their white counterparts elect a senator, in 2018, who winks at their degradation and dismisses her glibness as innocent, is an unfathomable gesture of contempt. There are few avenues for recourse. “Mississippi is one of the least elastic states in the country,” writes Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight — “a perennial 60-40 red state,” where a rigidly Republican white majority and near-total absence of swing voters makes it close to impossible to send anyone to statewide office if they are backed by the state’s Democratic black minority. As such, the state’s white power structure is functionally etched in stone, and long will be, barring a dramatic demographic or ideological shift. It would have shocked the nation had Tuesday turned out any other way. But Hyde-Smith’s laughter — and the laughter of white Mississippians who backed her campaign — is what made it such a cruel defeat.