Espy’s 1988 convention speech offers clues to 2020 optimism

Mississippi Democrat faces GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith for second time

Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy is back for a rematch with Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy is back for a rematch with Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 19, 2020 at 9:30am

When Mississippi Rep. Mike Espy took the stage at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, he was a rising star casting a vision for a New South. Thirty-two years later, Espy believes his state is finally ready to turn the page and elect him to the U.S. Senate.

Less than two years before his prime-time slot speaking slot, Espy had become the first African American elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. He had won a majority-white district in the Delta region and came to Washington in the same class as the late John Lewis of Georgia. 

Espy’s presence at the Atlanta convention and prominent role introducing the keynote speaker, Texas Treasurer Ann Richards, was part of the elevation of Black voices within the Democratic Party as a result of the strength of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. 

Espy’s convention speech paid homage to civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In famous remarks to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, shared her powerful story of being jailed and beaten for trying to register to vote as a Black woman.

Hamer also famously said she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

As a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer was pushing to unseat the state’s all-white delegation or be seated with them. Her request was denied that year, but four years later in Chicago, Hamer became the first African American to be an official delegate at a national party convention since Reconstruction.

And nearly 56 years to the day from Hamer’s initial speech, Black women were chosen to headline two of the four nights of the Democratic National Convention, and one of them, California Sen. Kamala Harris, was nominated Tuesday night to be the first Black woman on a presidential ticket.

The 2020 race

Espy was not on in prime time this year, but he participated in a side event Tuesday, joining a panel with another former Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, to emphasize the importance of rural voters in the Democratic coalition. In a recent interview, he connected his 1988 speech with today.

“I was trying to show parallels between the Old South and the New South. Old Mississippi and New Mississippi,” Espy said. “These parallels remain constant. I’m running against the Old Mississippi.” 

More specifically, Espy is challenging GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith for the second time in as many cycles. In 2018, Hyde-Smith was appointed to the seat when GOP Sen. Thad Cochran resigned, and she defeated Espy 54 percent to 46 percent in the special election runoff to fill the remainder of the term. But that didn’t deter Espy from continuing his fight to this year’s race for a full term.  

His campaign recently released a poll, conducted July 30 to Aug. 9 by Garin-Hart-Yang, that showed Hyde-Smith leading 47 percent to 42 percent.

Espy’s optimistic convention rhetoric three decades ago and the challenge of his race today is evidence of the slower political evolution in the South. His fundamental task, creating a precise coalition of Black and white voters that got him to Congress in the first place, remains the same.

This year, Espy and his supporters are particularly encouraged by the speed at which the GOP leadership in Mississippi jettisoned the state flag with the Confederate battle symbol. But that’s not exactly the same thing as the state being ready to elect a new Democrat to the Senate for the first time since the 1940s and electing a Black Democrat to the chamber for the first time ever. (He’d also be just the seventh Black person ever elected to the Senate and the second from the South; South Carolina Republican Tim Scott was the first.)

Espy needs to do two things to win: increase his share of white voters and benefit from a boost in turnout among Black voters. While that might look easy on paper since it’s just a few points, each percentage point increase is exceedingly difficult. Less than a year ago, state Attorney General Jim Hood was regarded as Democrats’ best possible gubernatorial candidate, but he lost that election to GOP Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves 52 percent to 47 percent. 

To win this year, Espy needs a combination of enough white voters being willing to jettison Hyde-Smith for being too tied to the past and casual Black voters inspired by the Biden-Harris ticket or by the national conversation about racism in America.

For Espy, it all comes back to Hamer.

“Change is here, Fannie Lou, because it is a new Mississippi, it is a new South,” he said in 1988.

He hopes those words ring true today.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.