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There's a runoff next week in the Mississippi Senate race. Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith faces a tougher-than-expected challenge because of a joke she made about public hangings. In a state with a long, ugly history of lynching, many people see the remark as racially offensive. Hyde-Smith is white. She's running against an opponent who is black, former Congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Jackson, Miss.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The recording at the center of this controversy is hard to understand, but the dispute isn't about what Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith says. It's about what her words mean. In the video posted to Twitter, a tall cattle rancher named Colin Hutchinson puts his arm around Hyde-Smith at an event in Tupelo, Miss. Then she praises him like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CINDY HYDE-SMITH: If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row.
MCCAMMON: If he invited me to a public hanging, Hyde-Smith says, I'd be on the front row. The crowd laughs. Her remark has prompted an onslaught of criticism from civil rights activists like Corey Wiggins of the Mississippi NAACP.
COREY WIGGINS: The act of lynching is not a joking matter.
MCCAMMON: Hyde-Smith has dismissed the criticism. In a statement, she said her joke about her willingness to attend a public hanging with the rancher was meant as an exaggerated expression of regard, and, quote, "any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous." The NAACP says from the late 1800s to the late 1960s, Mississippi had more lynchings than any other state, many by hanging. In that context, Wiggins says such remarks are unacceptable.
WIGGINS: Those words were just inappropriate. They were wrong. They were distasteful.
MCCAMMON: Hyde-Smith has also had to explain a comment about making it harder for liberals to vote. Her campaign said she was making a joke and suggested it was taken out of context. Some Republicans, including President Trump and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, have stood by Hyde-Smith. Hal Marx, the Republican mayor of Petal, Miss., and a candidate for governor next year, calls her remarks stupid and silly, but he says he doesn't think they were racially motivated.
HAL MARX: She didn't say - she didn't used the word lynching, which has a particular connotation. She said public hanging, which there were a lot of people of all races that were hanged in those days publicly.
MCCAMMON: Marx supported another Republican in the special election earlier this month but says he will vote for Hyde-Smith in the runoff. For veterans of Mississippi's civil rights movement, the dark connotations of public hanging are harder to miss. Flonzie Brown Wright is 76 and a longtime voting rights activist. She's angry that Hyde-Smith has continued to stand by her statement rather than apologize.
FLONZIE BROWN WRIGHT: Well, now, what the hell is that? You don't have the compassion nor the capacity nor the intelligence to make a decent statement or to say it may have been in - I may have misspoken. It would have been all over.
MCCAMMON: Brown Wright says in the 1950s, her two teenage cousins were murdered by a group of white men dragged to death in a racially motivated crime.
BROWN WRIGHT: I've lived it, and I've lived through it. And people need to clearly understand, and so Ms. Hyde-Smith needs to understand why people are sensitive about the word hanging and lynching.
MCCAMMON: Democrats are hoping the attention around the controversy will help turn out the party's base and turn off enough Republican voters, like Jack Pitts, a 28-year-old from Jackson who supported Hyde-Smith in the first round of the special election.
JACK PITTS: I don't know if I can in good conscience vote for either of these candidates now.
MCCAMMON: Both parties are sending national figures to Mississippi. Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have stumped for Espy and President Trump will campaign for Hyde-Smith next Monday, the day before the runoff. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.