AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is in Mississippi today ahead of that state's special Senate election, which is tomorrow. He's campaigning for Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She's been an excellent senator. She's done a great job. She's somebody that's respected in the Senate.
CORNISH: She's also been at the center of a controversy since earlier this month, when she was recorded saying that if a supporter invited her to a public hanging, she'd, quote, "be on the front row." Hyde-Smith is white. Her challenger, Mike Espy, is black. And Mississippi has a long history of unlawful and racially motivated lynching of black citizens.
On Friday, the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith attended an all-white private school, one of many that were set up after the Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate immediately. Ashton Pittman wrote that story for the Jackson Free Press. He joined me earlier today to discuss Hyde-Smith's alma mater.
ASHTON PITTMAN: Lawrence County Academy was founded in 1970. Before it was founded, in late 1969, in fact, the Supreme Court ordered that Southern school districts had to integrate. So in 1970, we had multiple academies - private academies that were all-white open across the South, and particularly in Mississippi. And one of those was Lawrence County Academy, and another was Brookhaven Academy.
Cindy Hyde-Smith went to Lawrence County Academy and later on sent her daughter to Brookhaven Academy, which opened the same year as Lawrence County Academy.
CORNISH: You write that at a certain point in Mississippi, the state even created a kind of school voucher program to help white parents send their kids to the schools of their choice. Given all that, is it all that surprising where Hyde-Smith went to school? Isn't it actually pretty common for the region?
PITTMAN: Oh, yeah. It's very common. And these all-white private schools - they still exist. And a lot of them are still all-white or nearly all-white. And some of them still even will have - at football games, you'll see mascots carrying Confederate flags. So it's common.
And it's something that I knew about growing up. I knew the academy in my town in Columbia. And I knew the white parents in the town who sent their kids there - a lot of them, I heard them say, you know, I send my kids there because I don't want them to go to school with black kids.
So this is a known thing here, but it just kind of goes a long way towards explaining this culture of white supremacy in which people like Cindy Hyde-Smith grew up, where it's so ubiquitous that a phrase like her public hanging statement could enter into her lexicon.
CORNISH: What has been the response to your piece? I mean, do you get the sense that this is controversial among the traditionally Republican voters that Mike Espy would have to win over to win the race?
PITTMAN: A lot of people have expressed a lot of shock over this, but most of them are either younger, or they are people who are not from Mississippi and so are not as familiar with this.
There have been some people who've said, well, you know, what does it matter because, you know, this was her parents' decision, not her decision, which is true. But there is the point that she did send her daughter, later on, to Brookhaven Academy, which is a school that has nearly 400 students and, as of 2015-2016, only had one black student, despite the fact that Brookhaven is 55 percent black. So that legacy continues.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, even as this race drags on, do you get the sense that her bid is actually in jeopardy?
PITTMAN: I can't say for sure, but the fact that President Trump will have come down here for the third time since October, and the fact that they're sending him to do two rallies here today, the fact that so much money has flooded in at the last minute to this race - it is definitely unusual in Mississippi to have that question even lingering over a Republican U.S. Senate candidate.
CORNISH: That's Ashton Pittman. He's a reporter for the Jackson Free Press. Thank you for speaking with us.
PITTMAN: Thank you.
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