Espy's Mississippi victory. State's 1st black congressman in century breaks barriers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Mike, kept indoors as a child by breathing trouble he eventually outgrew, spent his time reading books. He went to a private Roman Catholic school, all-black, that cost $2.50 a week. For the black community, it was the high-quality alternative that many families could not afford. He transferred to the public high school as soon as it was integrated.

``They were upper-crust, but that didn't bother Mike. He was pretty regular,'' recalls Herman Leach, a Yazoo County supervisor who once taught Espy at the parochial school.

The civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s were something the Espy children watched on television, something that many whites and blacks thought would never come to Mississippi, and never, certainly, to Yazoo City.

``We didn't suffer any discrimination,'' says Mike's older brother, Tom. ``But we weren't trying to integrate anything. The movement just hadn't come along yet.''

Not until 1969 did the grueling boycott come to Yazoo City that eventually put blacks on the police force and in the fire department and put some white merchants permanently out of business.

``We thought [integration] would never come to Yazoo County, or even Mississippi,'' says A.J. Peyton, an Espy relative. ``Now my children go to integrated public schools and don't know what the big deal is.''

Mike Espy left town for college, first to Howard University in Washington, D.C., then to law school at the University of Santa Clara in California.

But he found a faster track in Mississippi. He returned to his hometown to become director of Central Mississippi Legal Services. Then he joined the state government, and until running for Congress he was assistant attorney general, heading the Consumer Protection Division.

``Everything Mike got in,'' says Mr. Leach, ``you were seeing some outstanding performances.''

Espy's campaign for Congress left nothing to chance. He beat some famous names in the primary: the late Sen. James Eastland's nephew, Hiram Eastland, and Pete Johnson, the grandson of a former governor.

He raised enough money to match Mr. Franklin, the Republican incumbent he opposed, most of it from out-of-state sources, according to his brother Tom. He built a sophisticated organization with strong ties down to the precinct level and never veered from his plan.

Up to the last two weeks of the campaign, political analysts said that Espy would come up short when the ranks closed along racial lines, just as they always had. But something else happened.

``You could feel a groundswell,'' says Mr. Scott, the county campaign coordinator. ``You could go to places where people don't usually talk politics, and they were talking Espy.''

Espy speeches became emotional rallies. ``People took off from work to help him,'' says Mr. Thompson, the county supervisor.

And in an area where whites have traditionally turned out at the polls in force to vote against black candidates, many whites stayed home.

``I think he'll work real hard,'' says the local hill-country farmer. Although he doesn't believe many whites voted across racial lines for Espy, he adds, ``I think he'll have something to do with voters crossing lines from now on.''

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