The white woman's name and phone number showed up clearly on the caller ID when she called the Jackson Free Press several times, angry about a column a young black woman had published in our paper.
On one try, she decided to leave a message, her lilting, happy voice dripping with a mixture of honey and hemlock.
"I want to offer her a plane ticket back to Africa if she thinks America is so bad. Um, I would love to pay for her ticket," the local woman told our voicemail.
"Also, tell her she's got to leave her iPhone here, her computer, her closet full of clothes, her high-heel shoes and her lovely, lovely hair. She's got to leave all that here because it is American, but I'll be glad to buy her a plane ticket. I'll give you a call back to see if she'll take me up on it. Thank you."
I could picture her waving goodbye with her best homecoming queen wave.
My staff here, a mixture of ages and ethnicities, all looked shell-shocked after hearing the message. Who would call up and say something like that—especially with caller ID revealing her identity? Do people really think like that?
The younger ones seemed the most shocked and awed at the racist screed.
The incident transported me back to Neshoba County, growing up in the generation after men who killed three civil-rights workers there, in a time when racist comments were common but by then whispered and nearly always among people assumed to agree with them. Such beliefs had started then to go underground since our state and others had lost the fight to keep Jim Crow as the segregated law of the land.
Since those years, racist language has tended to go just so far, at least in mixed company—hidden in words like "welfare mother," "black-on-black crime," "super-predators" and "entitlements"—just far enough that the coded message is clear, but not so far that the commenter thinks he or she will reveal the true point. And for politicians, wink-wink appeals to racist voters has been a vital part of the recent Republican strategy to get the votes of the old Dixiecrats or the people who still agree with them.
When we started this paper, I expected more angry phone calls such as the one above, but the truth is that caller ID and public decorum pretty much ensured that most people wouldn't dare. Besides, they could easily post online under fake names and get away with just about anything.
Now, though, we're seeing something different and more in our faces. People are calling, yelling, posting on Facebook, and wearing T-shirts with as racist and sexist sentiments as you can imagine—even openly calling for violence against Hillary Clinton in her run-up to Election Day and journalists to be lynched. Women hear and see the p-word, the c-word and every other gender-based insult used against us, and we endure jokes about sexual assault and violence against "nasty women."
The examples of this growing ugliness are rampant around the country—like the dude who hung a black dummy in a tree next to his Trump sign—but we have an epidemic right here in Mississippi.
Recently, a Crystal Springs man lamented on Facebook that America would elect Trump if women couldn't vote. He wrote: "Sadly, when women stay home, conservatives win; when they get pissed off and go vote, they not only vote for democrats, they take their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and try to push them to vote for Democrats. This whole Trump tape dump was nothing more that a way to piss women off so they go vote against Trump."
Other men and women joined in, all presumably using their real names on a public post with similar sentiments, culminating in a man lamenting: "Why did we ever give the vote to women and blacks?"
Last week, a female friend reposted a story about the Greenville church burning on Facebook. One of her white friends, a middle-aged professional in Grenada, responded that it was just "crackhead n*ggas" who did it (asterick added). She told him that wasn't appropriate, and he responded that her family was ashamed of her.
Just today, I was reading an update about the group of white students in Wiggins, in south Mississippi, who put a noose around the neck of a black student.
And every day leading up to the election, I read another report about sneaky ways that Republicans were trying to keep people of color from the polls. A black friend told me about polling places being closed in Rankin County near Star (singer Faith Hill's hometown), and black people then redirected to vote in an area known for serious racism, which keeps many of them from going to the polls, he said.
These incidents seemed to keep increasing through Election Day, of course bolstered by Donald Trump's embrace of "going low," as the first lady calls it, against black and Hispanic people, immigrants, Muslims and women of all ages and sorts. Trump didn't create these bigotries, but he has made it acceptable to publicly express them throughout the campaign.
The most confounding part is how many children are hearing this nastiness, from a presidential candidate or maybe from their own families, and thinking it's acceptable behavior; maybe that was true with those Wiggins kids. They probably hear that it's just the "PC police" who call out the ugliness, somehow trying to violate their constitutional right to violate someone else's basic rights and dignity.
The answer isn't in squelching the speech; they have a right to say ugly, bigoted things—though no nooses—and at least we know who they are now. The answer is in making it clear that this kind of behavior is no more acceptable in today's society than it should have been back in Neshoba County when I heard many whites whisper that "he/she ought to be shot" when someone dared take a position against racist actions and speech.
I'm writing this Tuesday, not knowing who will win the election. But on this point, it doesn't much matter. The Trump Effect—birthed from the southern strategy that the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, Haley Barbour and Sarah Palin before him have pushed hard—is now a challenge of our times.
It will take all hands, and hearts, on deck to reverse this ugly wave, and we must if we want to be a different state and a different nation than we were 50 years ago.