Hyde-Smith campaign knocks 'gotcha' report that she attended a 'segregation academy'

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s (R-Miss.) campaign on Saturday ripped an article from the Jackson Free Press reporting that she attended and graduated from a Mississippi segregation academy in the 1970s, calling it part of the “gotcha liberal media.”

Hyde-Smith spokeswoman Melissa Scallan called the report "a new low" in a statement to The Hill while claiming the report was intended to help Hyde-Smith's Democratic opponent Mike Espy, who she is facing in Tuesday's runoff election.

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“In their latest attempt to help Mike Espy, the gotcha liberal media has taken leave of their senses. They have stooped to a new low, attacking her entire family and trying to destroy her personally instead of focusing on the clear differences on the issues between Cindy Hyde-Smith and her far-left opponent,” Scallan said in the statement.

The Jackson Free Press report, published Friday night, shows a yearbook picture in which Hyde-Smith poses with other girls and a mascot seemingly dressed as a Confederate general and holding a Confederate flag. The school was one of several private institutions set up to bypass integration after Mississippi Gov. John Bell Williams in 1969 ordered that public schools integrate. 

There’s “no doubt that’s why those schools were set up,” former Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows (Miss.), who taught at the school and was Hyde-Smith’s basketball coach, told the Jackson Free Press.

“When the public schools in Mississippi were ordered desegregated, many thousands of white families cobbled together what they could laughingly call a school to send their children to for no other reason except they didn’t want them to be around n-words or to be treated or behave as equal to black people,” former Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole echoed to the news outlet.

The Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith also sent her daughter to such a school.

Shows told the outlet on Friday that Hyde-Smith "was always a great person back in those days" and said he "called Cindy and talked to her about this campaign, and I told her I loved her, and I’d do anything for her.”

Still, the former Democratic lawmaker said he would not support her reelection bid on Tuesday after video surfaced earlier this month of her remark about a "public hanging."

Espy's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill on Saturday about the report.

Hyde-Smith has faced backlash in recent weeks after a reporter published a video earlier this month showing the GOP senator saying that she’d be “on the front row” should a supporter she was campaigning with invite her to a “public hanging.”

Hyde-Smith has said she made the comment in jest and repeatedly declined to comment on the matter beyond a statement describing the remark as an "exaggerated expression of regard" for a supporter.

Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings from 1882-1968, according to the NAACP. Espy, who is running to be Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction, ripped the comment as "reprehensible" and "hurtful."

The Republican candidate also caught attention this week after a 2014 photo resurfaced showing Hyde-Smith posing with Confederate artifacts, including wearing a Confederate soldier's hat, while visiting the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. The photos were accompanied by the caption “Mississippi history at its best!”

The Washington Post also reported Thursday that as a Mississippi state senator in 2001, Hyde-Smith filed a bill to rename a stretch of highway the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The Confederate president did have strong ties to the state, but no known connections to Hyde-Smith’s district.

The whirlwind of news has caused concerns among Republicans who fear that Espy could pull off an upset in the ruby-red state reminiscent of that in Alabama last year when Democrat Doug Jones defeated scandal-plagued GOP candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreFormer AG Sessions enters Alabama Senate race Campaign ad casts Sessions as a 'traitor' ahead of expected Senate run Doug Jones on potential challenge from Sessions: Alabama GOP primary will be 'really divisive' MORE.

With the runoff already expected to be a low-turnout contest, the comments have energized Espy’s supporters. Republicans hope two rallies with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE on Monday, the day before the runoff, can do the same for their side. Trump won Mississippi by nearly 20 points in 2016 and remains popular there.