Mike Espy is ready to be the first African-American U.S. Senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction.

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — An Edgehill neighborhood couple and their friends are raising campaign contributions for a U.S. Senate candidate who’s poised ready to make history in America’s old South.

The candidate, Mike Espy of Jackson, Miss. — a three-term congressman who became an Agriculture Department secretary for Bill Clinton — is a brother of Joyce Searcy, wife of local civil rights leader Walter Searcy, a member of Nashville’s transit board.

Joe Biden’s endorsement of Espy was announced a day before Espy’s scheduled fundraising video conference call that ended about 8 p.m. Oct. 1.  About four hours later, the White House announced that the president and the first lady had contracted COVID-19.

The timing was good for Espy. Health care is one of his campaign platforms, and he’s a beloved son of an entrepreneurial Yazoo City family that founded the first Mississippi hospital for African Americans. His grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Huddleston Sr., also started The Century Voice. Its circulation exceeded 100,000.

Joyce Searcy can tell childhood tales about teaching Espy and his fraternal twin sister things like how to tie their shoes. Her family history is gripping; “My family embalmed Emmett Till and shipped the body to Chicago.”

Walter Searcy talked politics after the live video conference call Thursday. That night, campaign contributions from that campaign were at “$76,000 and counting.” That’s 50% more than the goal and three times what was raised two years ago when Espy got 47% of the votes in a special November election to succeed U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. She was appointed until an election could be held since Thad Cochran resigned. He died in 2019.

“Mike needs about 21-22% of the white vote and the same 99% of the African-American vote” from his 2018 bid to become the first Black U.S. Senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction, Walter Searcy said with estimates from the call.

Espy’s chances improved since an early March poll found him at 28% to the 54% of respondents for the two-year incumbent. Nearly six months later, Espy was at 40%, or neck-and-neck with the 41% for the freshman senator, as fivethirtyeight.com reports Tyson Group numbers.

Hillary Clinton lost Mississippi with 40% versus 58%. Now, nearly 18 months after a six-month campaign to the 2018 mid-term elections, Espy’s in a statistical tie.

“Close followers of Senate campaigns know whenever an incumbent falls below 50% in the polls, the incumbent is in grave danger because the remaining undecided voters tend to vote for the challenger,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said Oct. 1. “If that’s the way the polling looks going into election day [Nov. 3], you should make a very large bet on Mike Espy making history once again.”

Before he became the first African-American agriculture secretary, Espy was Mississippi’s assistant secretary of state, helped reform the state school funding law, and became state consumer protection director as an assistant attorney general. In 1986, he became the first African American congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction by campaigning across racial lines to help family farmers and keep rural hospitals open.

Another rural hospital advocate is U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville. “Mike was the best congressman from Mississippi ever, and then he became an outstanding secretary of agriculture … I worked closely with him in the House since his sister, Joyce Searcy, lives in Tennessee. We really, really need Mike in the U.S. Senate. He will work his heart out for all Mississippians, and help everyone in America. He will be a great Senator!”

Cooper was on Espy’s Oct. 1 call with Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-CA), Nashville luminaries Rosetta Miller-Perry, Valerie and Lee Molette II, Brenda Peterson, Brooks and Bert Mathews, Jerry Maynard, and Deval Patrick, a civil rights lawyer, author, and businessman who was Massachusetts’ governor from 2007-2015.

The $76,000 was “the most anybody’s raised out of state” for that contest, Walter Searcy said. New York Times columnist Charles Blow reports Espy says donations averaged $156,000 a day since Justice Ruth Ginsberg died.

Like Tennessee, a large majority of Mississippi voters were Democrats since Reconstruction until the early 1960s, when Civil Rights and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy prompted change. It would appear there is a change coming again as Walter Searcy said that Thursday night, “We have our own Southern Strategy. We’ve got our own candidate for U.S. Senate in this state and a candidate in Mississippi. We could retire the speaker of the Senate.”

See The Tennessee Tribune’s print edition of Oct. 8-14 for more on Mike Espy’s candidacy and family history.

Clint Confehr

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...