JACKSON, Miss. — A white Republican U.S. senator in Mississippi, a state with a notorious history for lynchings, says she will not answer questions about a video that shows her at a campaign event praising a cattle rancher by saying she would attend a “public hanging” if he invited her to one.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith appeared with Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday at a news conference at the Mississippi Republican Party headquarters, where she accepted an endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee.
Reporters asked Hyde-Smith repeatedly about the hanging comment, which grabbed attention Sunday when the publisher of a liberal-leaning news site published it on social media.
“I put out a statement yesterday, and that’s all I’m going to say about it,” Hyde-Smith said.
In the brief video, shot Nov. 2 in Tupelo, Hyde-Smith says after a man introduces her to a small crowd: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Hyde-Smith faces a black Democratic challenger, former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Espy, in a Nov. 27 runoff. She said Sunday that the remark was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for a friend who invited her to speak, and “any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Mississippi has a bitter history of racially motivated lynchings of black people. The NAACP website says that between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States, and nearly 73 percent of the victims were black. It says Mississippi had 581 during that time, the most of any state.
“Cindy Hyde-Smith’s comments are reprehensible,” Espy campaign spokesman Danny Blanton said in a statement Sunday. “They have no place in our political discourse, in Mississippi, or our country. We need leaders, not dividers, and her words show that she lacks the understanding and judgment to represent the people of our state.”
Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to temporarily succeed Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired amid health concerns in April. She will serve until the special election is resolved.
Bryant stood with Hyde-Smith at the news conference Monday.
“All of us in public life have said things on occasion that could have been phrased better,” Bryant said. “When you make as many speeches as we do in public life, that does occur. But I know this woman and I know her heart. I knew it when I appointed her. I know it now. She meant no offense by that statement. There was nothing in her heart of ill will.”
Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 percent of the vote in a four-person race Tuesday to advance to the runoff. The winner gets the final two years of Cochran’s term.
Espy in 1986 became the first African-American since Reconstruction to win a U.S. House seat in Mississippi, and if he defeats Hyde-Smith, he would be the first African-American since Reconstruction to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.
Hyde-Smith, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump, is the first woman to represent Mississippi in either chamber of Congress, and after being appointed is trying to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state.
Lamar White Jr., publisher of a Louisiana news site called The Bayou Brief, posted the video Sunday on social media. White told The Associated Press he received the video late Saturday from “a very reliable, trusted source,” but he would not reveal the person’s name. He said that source received it from the person who shot the video. White said he believes he received the video because he has been writing about racism in the South for about a dozen years.
The national NAACP president Derrick Johnson, who is from Mississippi, said Hyde-Smith’s comment shows a lack of judgment.
“Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s shameful remarks prove once again how Trump has created a social and political climate that normalizes hateful and racist rhetoric,” Johnson said Sunday. “Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ in a state known for its violent and terroristic history toward African Americans, is sick.”
Another Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott, lost his position as Senate majority leader in 2002 after saying at the 100th birthday party of South Carolina U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond that Mississippi had proudly voted for Thurmond when he ran a segregationist campaign for president in 1948.
A Republican state lawmaker in Mississippi, Rep. Karl Oliver, came under sharp criticism in May 2017 after he posted on Facebook that people should be lynched for removing Confederate monuments.