Espy's Mississippi victory. State's 1st black congressman in century breaks barriers
Yazoo City, Miss.
They were a comfortable, even privileged, family. They drove Packards, went to out-of-state colleges, led civic organizations, lived in a ``cream-of-the-crop'' neighborhood, and sent their children to private schools. Yet the bookish youngest son of the Espy family, Mike, became comfortable and well liked in poor neighborhoods, too.Skip to next paragraph
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And these days, even in the other half of Yazoo County - the white half - people are saying of the earnest, methodical, lawyer-turned-politician: ``I believe Espy's going to be all right.''
Next month, Mike Espy will become the first black congressman elected from Mississippi in more than 100 years, and one of only two black congressmen from the Deep South.
Many people see in Mr. Espy's election a slight softening of the racial line in this part of Mississippi that few voters yet cross. With few exceptions, whites still vote for whites, and blacks, whenever possible, vote for blacks.
``The doors are beginning to crack and people are beginning to wedge through,'' says Herbert Scott, a Yazoo County school official and county coordinator for the Espy campaign.
Yazoo City sits on the last edge of hill country looking out across the oceanlike horizon of the fertile Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues and one of the poorest regions in the country.
Mississippi's Second Congressional District, the Delta district, has been redrawn by the United States Justice Department to boost its population of voting-age blacks to 53 percent. But because black voter turnout is lower than white, an experienced and well-regarded black candidate was twice defeated here by white Republican Webb Franklin.
This year, political novice Espy turned out black voters in this district as they had never been turned out before, with a meticulous, precinct-by-precinct campaign organization.
More surprising, he also won a slice of the white farmer vote. He campaigned hard on farm issues, played down issues regarded as ``black,'' and carried a letter from House Speaker-elect Jim Wright (D) of Texas guaranteeing Espy a seat on the Agriculture Committee if elected.
His message, says Bennie Thompson, a supervisor in Hinds County and a prominent black politico, ``was so true that, while many of those white folks couldn't bring themselves to vote for him, at least they stayed home and decided to let him have his shot.''
Says B.A. Jordan, a Delta cotton and soybean planter: ``I'm looking forward to some good stuff out of him. ... He'll be green, but I think he'll do all right.''
Another Delta planter, John Hines, takes an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em attitude. He says a Southern black congressman pushing for the farmer may win more Yankee allies than a white champion. ``I'm a little antiblack personally,'' he says. ``But it just seems to me like blacks in Congress can get anything done they want.''
A hill-country farmer nearby takes a less bitter view: Espy, he says, ``has got the sense to realize that he's got to get both sides, black and white. And I think he'll do it.''
Espy's grandfather came to Yazoo City in the 1920s from Louise, Miss., some 15 miles away. He made a name and a fortune as an enterprising businessman by founding a chain of funeral homes and the state's first black hospital.