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On this day in 1986

Dec. 2, 1986

In 1986, Mike Espy became the first Black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction. Seven years later, he became the first Black secretary of agriculture. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Mike Espy became the first Black congressman elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction. Born in Yazoo City, his grandfather was Thomas J. Huddleston Sr., founder of the Afro-American Sons and Daughters, which operated the Afro-American Hospital, providing health care to Black Mississippians until the 1970s. He learned soon about the color line, becoming the only Black student in a newly integrated high school. 

He recalled carrying a stick to fend off racist attacks: “Relative to the civil rights experiences of snarling dogs and whips and things it was pretty tame. But I’d always have a fight. The teacher would leave the room, and then you’re among 35 in the classroom and they’d make racial jeers.” 

He became a lawyer, working as an attorney for Central Mississippi Legal Services from 1978 to 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, Espy worked as assistant secretary of the Public Lands Division for the State of Mississippi and then served as assistant state attorney general for Consumer Protection. 

In 1984, he served on the rules committee for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, drawing the attention of the party. In his historic campaign in 1986, he campaigned door to door for votes with his slogan, “Stand by Me, Pray for Me, Vote for Me.” 

While serving as congressman, he emphasized economic development in the Delta, winning reelection three times. In 1993, he became the first Black American to serve as secretary of agriculture, ushering in a wave of reform. Four years later, he was indicted on charges of receiving improper gifts, but a jury acquitted him of all charges. 


He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, where he lost to Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, who drew national attention after she remarked that she would “be in the front row” of a “public hanging” if invited by a political supporter. The remark created a firestorm because of Mississippi’s history of lynchings. She later responded, “For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize,” claiming her remark had been twisted and “turned into a weapon” against her. 

Espy lost again in a rematch in 2020.


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