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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Mississippi hopelessly moored in the past

December 03, 2018 - 12:00 PM



I must confess…I never cared much for Mississippi. That’s not to say there aren’t good, decent people there…there are. But Mississippi is in a time warp of sorts.

Yes, they have smart phones, and the internet and Starbucks. But the attitudes of far too many Mississippians often seem hopelessly moored in the past….so much so that neighbouring Alabama looks…well, almost progressive.

Last week, the good people of Mississippi…well, not all the good people…elected a Republican woman with Jim Crow-era attitudes and behaviour to the U.S. Senate. I say not all the good people…because 98 percent of the good people who happened to be African-American…didn’t vote for this woman. In the two weeks before this special election - a run-off because none of the three candidates received 50 percent of the vote in the general election - she joked about public hangings (read lynchings) and suppressing the vote of certain people.

The woman - Cyndi Hyde-Smith - is a bonafide good ole boy kinda girl. She takes photos with other good ole boys and girls who wear Confederate hats and uniforms and wave the Rebel flag. She convinced supporters - almost all white - that conservative values were at stake. Sadly, she used a not-so-silent dog whistle to alert Mississippians that life as they have always known it would be disastrous with anyone but her - a white Senator - in Washington.

It’s a shame people like her run for office…and win. She is the first woman to ever represent Mississippi in Congress. But as much of a feminist as I am, it’s impossible to celebrate this milestone. Obviously, she reflects enough of the people in Mississippi to win an election. So, how did it happen?

A sense of Mississippi’s history and culture…and some reality…might help explain. There are more black voters in Mississippi than any other state…nearly 40 percent of registered voters. But the statewide elections have almost always paralleled racial lines…a black candidate hasn’t won an election since Reconstruction…nearly 150 years.

Mike Espy - a black Democrat - predictably fell short of winning…garnering just over 46 percent of the vote to Hyde-Smith’s 53 percent. Trump carried the state by 18 percentage points in 2016…so the Democrats are cutting into this Republican stronghold.

Some other facts. Mississippi ranks 50th - dead last - in health care in a country that has poor healthcare for tens of millions of its citizens. There are more smokers in Mississippi than anywhere in the states. It’s among the leaders in obesity.

In a nation whose education ranks nearer the middle of the pack worldwide…Mississippi ranks 46th among the 50 states. The economy and opportunity for young people…46th and 49th respectively. Infrastructure…49th.

There have been 581 lynchings of black people in Mississippi between 1882 and 1968…more than any other state. No records exist prior to then, but suffice it to say lynching didn’t start 17 years after the Civil War.

A great number of Mississippians love Donald Trump…and nothing he ever did or will ever do…will change that. They are Trump audience targets…those who hear loud and clear the dog whistles about race…and white supremacy. Readers who believe I might be too hard on Mississippi should note that the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery was not ratified by Mississippi until Feb. 7, 2013!

It’s too bad America no longer has a Republican Party…oh, there’s a political party with that name…but it’s nothing like the Grand Old Party of previous decades and centuries. Fiscal conservatism used to be a hallmark of the party…not now. There were Senators and Representatives who had character and integrity in the old Republican Party…not so much now.

Today, Republicans in the House and Senate accept anyone….they just hold their noses and look the other way. They are delighted to see Hyde-Smith join their ranks in Washington, DC.

They wink and nod…all want to Make America Great Again. They shrug and shake their heads - as they do with climate change - over increases in hate crimes since Trump became president. Those who say they are “very religious,” which six out of ten white people in Mississippi claim, somehow find verses in The Bible that support their hateful views. By the way, Mississippi is the most religious state in the U.S., according to a recent Gallup Poll.

Trump no doubt wishes he had a lot more Mississippis. It would make his agenda…and the Republican Party’s…so much easier. But, one day things are going to change in America. It will - sooner than later - finally be able to live up to those grand ideals that exist for only some of its citizens. Mississippi - maybe in my lifetime - will be the last bastion of white supremacy.

But today, far too many people in Mississippi look back with fondness on days when blacks had their own schools…their own sides of town…when they knew their places. Supporters of Hyde-Smith still listen to stories passed down to grandma and grandpa about how their once slaves - and often later their servants - loved their lives as much as white folks.

When I travelled in Mississippi as a younger man I met a fellow who explained that he and his ancestors “always treated our nigras well.” “Nigra” is a slightly more palatable, cleaned-up version of the n-word in the minds of some Southerners. It is still used today in the South by some. I’m a Southerner myself, and the most shocking, hateful acts of discrimination and oppression I’ve ever witnessed…happened in Mississippi.

I believe America will one day live up to the high ideals written in its Bill of Rights and Constitution. Things are better than in the past, for sure, but those high and mighty words remain more fairy tale than fact for too many people.

In January, Cyndi Hyde-Smith - a racist - will go to Washington, D.C. as a Senator - one of 100 - to represent those who voted for her. If history is any indication at all, she’ll serve those people well.

Old ways don’t change easily. They usually have to die…literally. At some point in the future the lines of funerals and elections will intersect. Maybe the sons and daughters of Republicans in Mississippi - or their sons and daughters - will do the right thing…and not favour some Americans over others…based solely on the shades of their skin.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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