Becca Balint: The past continues to be ever present in today's political world

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Mississippi's U.S. Senate race garnered little national attention until Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith — appointed to complete the term of Thad Cochran — made several eyebrow-raising statements in the waning days of the special election. Hyde-Smith quipped about her willingness to attend a public hanging (in an odd show of affection for a campaign supporter) and said she'd support making it more difficult for "liberals" to vote. She dismissed these comments as "jokes" and won the election by 8 percentage points. "Wink and nod" politics and policies that support white supremacy have held sway in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

In the final days of the election, we learned that Hyde-Smith attended a segregation academy and also sent her daughter to one. Segregation academies opened throughout the South after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. White southerners circumvented the desegregation of public schools by founding thousands of private schools — often funded in part with public dollars. Hyde-Smith attended the now closed Lawrence County Academy in Brookhaven, Mississippi; she sent her daughter to Brookhaven Academy, which is filled almost entirely with white students, although Brookhaven's population is 55 percent African American.

Brookhaven is no anomaly. According to a 2012 Southern Education Foundation study, only 50.6 percent of school-age students in Mississippi are white, but white students make up 87 percent of private school enrollment.

Indeed, little has changed since 1972, when a young lawyer from Yale named Hillary Rodham was sent to Alabama by Marian Wright Edelman — famed civil rights activist who founded the Children's Defense Fund. She went undercover as a young mom looking for reassurance that the school she was considering for her son would not be integrated. Later, in her book "Living History" Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote: "I was assured that no black students would be enrolled."

In Brown vs. Board of Education the Supreme Court ordered states to end segregation with "all deliberate speed." But 15 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court had to order 30 school districts in Mississippi to integrate immediately. Mike Espy, Cindy Hyde-Smith's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, was one of the first African American students to integrate the Yazoo City High School after that 1969 ruling.

Today the Yazoo City Municipal School District is 98 percent black. Like many public schools in Mississippi, it is underfunded and ranks low on nearly every performance measure in the state. Espy finished his high school years just before the massive "white flight" to the segregation academies.

When he was sent to Congress to represent Mississippi's 2nd District, Mike Espy became the first African American elected to Congress since the Reconstruction Era. There hadn't been an African American in Congress from Mississippi since Hiram Revels served from 1870-1871. Revels was one of over 1,500 African American officerholders during Reconstruction, but their political power was fleeting.

Almost immediately, during a period named disgustingly "Redemption," Southerners dismantled Reconstruction, terrorizing African Americans in the Deep South and stripping them of newly gained civil rights. If you're over 40, you probably received a very slanted view of this important time in our nation's history. The version of Reconstruction that held sway for years across this nation was explicitly told from the point of view of the Southern planter class.

Accurately understanding the Reconstruction period helps us more fully grasp the politics still in play today. Read one of Eric Foner's great books on Reconstruction or WEB DuBois' masterpiece "Black Reconstruction in America." At the very least, watch the short video series put out by Facing History/Facing Ourselves. You can find it at www.facinghistory.org.

The past is ever present. And until we accept that, we can't chart a more just path forward in this nation.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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