The last Democrat to be elected to the Senate in Mississippi was John Stennis, a staunch segregationist who viciously opposed the Civil Rights Act and had a reputation as a prosecutor for torturing confessions out of black men. In Tuesday’s runoff against Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Democrat Mike Espy, a black man and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, came the closest to winning a Senate seat for his party since Stennis’ last win.
The response to this from blue state liberal types was predictable: Fuck Mississippi.
The disappointment over Espy’s loss to a woman who’s clearly comfortable with using the tools of white supremacy both in her political and personal life is understandable. What isn’t is the willingness to entirely write off Deep South states like Mississippi—the state with the highest proportion of black people relative to the state’s population in the country; the birthplace of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; a state where some of the fiercest battles for civil rights took place and continue to take place to this day.
To start, Espy’s loss, while still a substantial eight points, was the closest a Democrat has come to winning a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi in decades, an even more impressive feat when you consider the obstacles to voting Mississippi has put up in recent years as well as the money the national GOP poured into the race to save Hyde-Smith. Espy did this in part because he made big inroads in the suburbs relative to how Democrats have performed in recent elections.
Another reason was the organizing Espy did to get out the vote, which mirrored similar efforts this year in longtime Republican strongholds like Texas, Georgia, and Florida. “Did you know that we built the largest grassroots organization that our state has ever seen in a generation?” he said on Tuesday. “Make no mistake. Tonight is the beginning. Tonight is not the end.”
As Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic:
Across the state Tuesday, those conflicting emotions showed up in black communities. A waitress in a Jackson Waffle House encouraged every patron, with every meal, to go out and vote, even as she told me she thought Mike Espy would probably lose. Small farm co-ops skipped the day’s meetings in favor of knocking on doors. Young black activists canvassed the Delta, driving miles down county roads to scrounge black votes. The night before the election, luminaries such as newly elected Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts descended on Meridian. Mississippi doesn’t usually get this much attention during big national and statewide elections, and black voters here are often underserved by national parties, if not outright ignored.
The effect of all of this organizing wasn’t just felt in Espy’s relatively close loss. Hinds County, home to the state capitol of Jackson and a county Espy won by over 50 points, had several judicial runoffs on Tuesday as well, and elected two black women as circuit judges and a reformer to serve on the juvenile court. Even if these wins don’t carry the same kind of national punch as Doug Jones’ win over Roy Moore in Alabama last year, these changes are still vitally important in these communities, which in recent years have embraced some of the most radical politics in America.
And even if Espy had lost by 30 points, the smug reactions of blue state liberals would still be unwarranted. The longtime progressive states of Wisconsin and Michigan are just two years removed from voting for Donald Trump as president. The Democratic parties in both Massachusetts and Maryland, states that have one Republican congressman between them, essentially abandoned their gubernatorial candidates and lost both races to Republicans by double digits. Massachusetts’ neighbor, Maine, elected and then re-elected one of the most racist politicians in America.
It’s true that Hyde-Smith followed in the footsteps of George Wallace and Lester Maddox and Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump by shamelessly utilizing racial politics in her election and winning. But Mississippi is not just a relic of the worst things this country has ever done to its citizens, or a reminder that racism remains a dominant force in America to this day. Tuesday proved that even if the media or the national Democratic Party or blue state centrists—and liberals, and progressives—aren’t paying attention, there are people doing the hard and necessary work to change Mississippi and their region and this country for the better.
Every single person who purports to be against what the good old boys and girls who elected Hyde-Smith stand for has a vested interest in seeing that happen—no matter where they live.