Mississippi GOP senator sparks criticism with 'public hanging' comment

Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) faced pushback on Sunday after a local publisher posted a viral video in which she says at a public event that she'd be "on the front row" if she were invited to "a public hanging."

The context of the Nov. 2 remark was not immediately clear, but it hit a nerve on social media as Hyde-Smith runs a heated campaign against Democrat Mike Espy, who would be the the first black U.S. senator from Mississippi since 1881. 

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Espy and Hyde-Smith are facing off in a Nov. 27 runoff election after neither candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 special election, the Clarion Ledger reported. 

"Cindy Hyde-Smith's comments are reprehensible," Espy's campaign said in a statement to The Hill. "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 judgement to represent the people of our state.”

Mississippi historically had the highest number of lynchings of African-Americans of any state, local outlet the Jackson Free Press reported.

Hyde-Smith told the Jackson Free Press that the remarks were "an exaggerated expression of regard."

"In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement," Hyde-Smith told the newspaper. "In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous." 

Hyde-Smith has been endorsed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE.

Civil rights advocates in the state have noted Hyde-Smith's comments are particularly stark in Mississippi, where nearly one-eighth of the U.S. lynchings between 1882 and 1968 took place, according to NAACP statistics cited by The Washington Post.

“With the history of lynching of Mississippi, you just don’t say something like that,” chairwoman of the Lafayette County Democrats Cristen Hemmins told the Post. “I can’t even imagine the kind of mind that would come up with a throwaway phrase like that. I’m a Mississippian. Nobody I know talks like that. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

The Jackson Free Press noted that there have been multiple suspected lynchings in the state in the last 20 years, including an incident this year in which a man was found hanging from a tree outside of his mother's home.