At first hearing, I found her words a little strange, even a bit crude, but I didn’t then think much on them.
Since then, I’ve had cause to do otherwise. A brief video in which Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith says she would attend a public hanging continues to receive national attention, and I continue to see myself standing in the background of the video and continue to know I was the first journalist to hear those words and among the last to report on them.
Hyde-Smith came to Tupelo on Nov. 2 in an election eve effort to excite her voters about trekking to the polls. She briefly spoke and talked about supporting President Donald Trump, building a border wall, opposing abortion and cutting regulations. She allowed a few questions from the crowd.
Then, in the final words of the event, Hyde-Smith summoned forward a friend and uttered a sentence that has already written itself into Mississippi political history.
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith said.
I went back to my office and wrote about immigration. Days before, the president threatened to end birthright citizenship by executive order, a move most legal scholars believe would be unconstitutional.
In Tupelo, Hyde-Smith hinted at her own concerns about birthright citizenship. In an interview, I pressed for specifics. I also questioned her about insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, a contentious campaign issue.
I was asking and writing about serious and timely issues. I have no regrets about the stories I wrote in the days after Hyde-Smith’s Tupelo stop.
But there is one story I didn’t write that day.
Why not? Why didn’t I report comments now heard across the country?
The answer, as honest and straightforward as I can say it, is that reporting these remarks didn’t occur to me. To the best of my recollection, I heard “public hanging” as a play upon the senator’s background as a cattle farmer, a forced and clumsy invocation of frontier bravado.
More bluntly put, however, I heard what I heard because I am white.
From some quarters, there will be howls of outrage at this sentiment. I’ll receive angry emails. But the point is not that I am white and therefore a covert racist. The point is that, like everyone, I’ve had a limited life experience. And for me, that experience has been influenced by the history of whiteness in the American South.
I have no family members who were lynched. I have no relatives who were threatened with lynching. The words “public hanging” bring no particular menace to mind, other than a personal aversion to the grotesque spectacle of public executions. I had the luxury to hear those comments only within the context of pop culture’s western mythology.
Not so for other Mississippians, for other Southerners, for other Americans. This is not ancient history I’m dredging up, not an old and forgotten wound I’m picking back open. There are people alive today who are old enough to have had family members lynched by a white mob, old enough to have feared that fate themselves.
I do not offer here a reflection on what Hyde-Smith meant or what she should do about it now. Neither do I place upon myself here any burden of guilt. I mean instead to articulate the necessity of responsibility to a history that I did not choose but remains even so still present.
If we white Southerners are proud of the progress our region has made, then we must honor the sacrifices that made this progress possible with a fresh willingness to risk anew a painful education.