With her arm around a cattle rancher, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican of Mississippi, drew laughter and applause at a recent campaign event when she gushed about how highly she thought of him: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
But beyond the small crowd at the event, in Tupelo, Miss., the reaction has been markedly different. The N.A.A.C.P. called the comments “sick” after a video of the exchange was posted on Twitter over the weekend, while Mike Espy, Ms. Hyde-Smith’s Democratic opponent, said, “It’s awful.”
Mr. Espy, who is black, and Ms. Hyde-Smith, who is white, are locked in a runoff after no candidate in a four-person race received more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day. Ms. Hyde-Smith has made her ardent support of President Trump, who endorsed her, central to her campaign in a state that the president carried by nearly 18 points in 2016.
But Democratic groups, who watched the backlash mount over the weekend, sense an opening. On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent a fund-raising email with a two-word subject line: “public hanging.”
Mr. Espy, a former congressman who served as agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, would not say on Monday whether he thought Ms. Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist. But he did call them “tone deaf.”
“They are hurtful to millions of Mississippians who are people of good will,” Mr. Espy said on CNN. “They tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long and that have cost us jobs and harmed our economy.”
No other state has such a dark history of public hangings, particularly lynchings of black people. More than 600 were killed in lynchings in Mississippi from 1877 to 1950, more than in any other state. Many lynchings were not documented, most likely making the actual total much higher, according to scholars.
The authorities claimed at the time that some of the killings were legal. Suspects were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging — and the public came out in droves to watch. In other cases, African-Americans were accused of crimes, chased down and murdered in extrajudicial killings.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., tied Ms. Hyde-Smith’s remarks to the president, saying that he had “created a climate that normalizes hateful, racist rhetoric from political candidates.”
“Hyde-Smith’s decision to joke about ‘hanging,’ when the history of African-Americans is marred by countless incidents of this barbarous act, is sick,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement.
Ms. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed to the Senate after Senator Thad Cochran retired for health reasons earlier this year, said on Sunday that it was “ridiculous” to suggest there was anything negative about her remarks.
“In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement,” Ms. Hyde-Smith said. “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.”
Paul Reed, a University of Alabama professor who specializes in the sociolinguistic history of Southern and Appalachian English varieties, said that the phrase first appeared in written works in the United States in the mid-1800s and that its usage peaked during the civil rights era in the 20th century.
He said that the phrase had indeed once been used as an expression of regard. People would use the idiom to convey that they thought so highly of someone they would attend something as distasteful as a public hanging with him.
But given its clear negative connotation, Mr. Reed said, most people would not dare to use the phrase in 2018.
“It has fallen so far out of favor,” Mr. Reed said in an interview. “I cannot believe that someone would use that today.”
Michael Pfeifer, an associate history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has written several books about lynching in the United States, said the comment must be interpreted within the context of Mississippi’s history of lynching.
“Senator Hyde-Smith’s remark is curious and could certainly be read as referencing Mississippi’s white supremacist history,” Mr. Pfeifer said on Monday. “Even as an ‘expression of regard,’ this racialized historical context in Mississippi is important for understanding such a remark.”
Ms. Hyde-Smith made the comment while on a campaign stop in Lee County, where at least two people were killed in recorded lynchings. One of them, a black man named Harvey Mabry, was accused of trying to rape a white woman and was hanged in 1896.
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