Mike Espy Standing on Shoulders Here, There

Joyce Searcy, left, of Nashville’s Edgehill neighborhood is one of Mike Espy’s sisters. She’s helping his campaign to be a U.S. senator from Mississippi. Courtesy photo

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Mike Espy’s election campaign to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate got a boost last week from Democrats here and their friends elsewhere. Their fundraising campaign exceeded expectations.

 

Mike Espy, front and center, is seated with his wife, Portia, at home in  Jackson, Miss. where he’s a proud grandfather, and father of Jamilla, Michael, and Ian. Courtesy photo

For some it was like a family reunion. Espy is a three-term congressman who became an Agriculture Department secretary for Bill Clinton. Perhaps more importantly, Espy is one of seven children from Yazoo City. Mississippi is where his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Huddleston Sr., — a son of slaves — was known as “Cousin Tom.” That’s not a derogatory epithet.

It’s according to Espy’s sister, Joyce Searcy, wife of local civil rights leader Walter Searcy who’s on Metro’s transit board. They live in Edgehill where she provided an oral history of her family and how things were in Mississippi.

Walter Searcy talked politics before he handed the house phone to his wife. Joe Biden endorsed Espy before the fundraising video call that ended at $76,000. Walter Searcy was hopeful. “If we have a ‘Blue Surge’ or a ‘Blue Tide’ that actually sweeps through this land,” he said, “and if 45 keeps shooting himself in the foot — that is the foot that’s not already in his mouth — then we have a shot at it.” It being a Democrat-controlled Senate.

If elected Nov. 3, Espy could be the first African American to represent Mississippi in both chambers of America’s bicameral legislature.

Joyce Searcy’s family inspired Espy to serve people in Mississippi. The inspiration began in the early 20th Century when Huddleston was a construction contractor.

“My grandfather was tired of women having babies in the fields,” she said. Huddleston told people, “‘We are all the sons and daughters of Ham,’” second son of Noah. “‘That makes us all cousins,” she continued. “‘If you give Cousin Tom $1 for a brick, we’ll build our own hospital.’” The Afro-American Sons & Daughters Hospital was sustained by “policies, like insurance policies … $1 for an adult, 25-cents for a child. If you had a policy, you could go there.” Boarding houses for Black people and other businesses developed near the hospital.

“Then he loaned somebody some money in Clarksdale, MS. The guy couldn’t pay him back, but he put up a funeral home as collateral, so then he was in the funeral home business,” Joyce Searcy said. She grew up in the funeral home business. “We buried Fannie Lou Hamer.” The leader of the Freedom Democratic Party said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” and “I’m showing people that a Negro can run for office.”

Joyce Searcy said before Espy became the first Black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, “Nobody gave him a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning […but…] in all those little towns … when they asked, ‘Who’s Mike Espy?’ all we had to say was, ‘Well, that’s Cousin Tom’s grandson.’ So, they voted for Mike Espy.”

Mike Espy was the first African American to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was selected by President Bill Clinton. GettyImages

When Espy was in Congress, he met then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton while working on a project.

“Mike is standing on the shoulders of people who saw obstacles and dealt with them,” Joyce Searcy said.

He knows it.

“But this is Mississippi,” Espy said on MSNBC. “I’m used to this,” he said when commenting on national party support. “It’s like Catch 22. They ignore you until you can prove your own viability, but it’s hard to prove your own viability if they ignore you.”

That’s apparently changed. He’s “very grateful” now, and is looking for a coalition of people in the suburbs, coastal area, college towns and Blacks.

Espy was the last guest on “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” when national news broke. Making every second count, Espy said Mississippi “has more black voters, per capita, than any state in the nation,” but, 20% of them are below the poverty level. “It’s

In November 2018, Mike Espy came within a few percentage points of becoming a U.S. senator, nearly displacing the now-incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith who six months earlier was appointed to succeed Thad Cochran who resigned in ill health. She was elected in 2018 during a run-off after failing to get more than 50% in a special election.

hard to go vote when you face grinding poverty and you have no sense that the candidate can do anything to improve your life.”

He’s trying to motivate people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. They’ve not voted since.

He’s challenging Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. She was appointed until a 2018 special election for the balance of a term available because of a resignation.

Hyde-Smith opposes coverage for pre-existing conditions, and does nothing for rural hospitals, Espy told O’Donnell. “She loves Mississippi, but likes Mississippi of old. In 2014, she went into the Jefferson Davis museum … tried on a Confederate hat … waist coat, and held a rifle and … said, ‘This is the best of Mississippi’s history.’ We know it’s not.”

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About Clint Confehr 251 Articles
Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area began in the summer of 1980. Clint's covered news in several Southern states at newspapers, radio stations and one TV station. Married since 1982, he's a grandfather and is semi-retired from daily news work.