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Hiram Revels anniversary highlights lack of black senators

Hiram Revels Courtesy of Library of Congress

On Feb.11, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History celebrated the 150th anniversary of Hiram Revels becoming the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate in Jackson at the Old Capitol Building, the very place he was elected to represent Mississippi. 

Before the event, director of public relations for MDAH Michael Morris said he didn’t get to learn much about Revel’s story until he went to graduate school at Jackson State University. 

“I got a better grasp of what an amazing feat that was, the bravery that it took to run for office during that time period and what it really means to be first,” Morris said. “My hope is that there’s going to be a lot of kids at the program Tuesday night that are going to get a chance to learn more about the amazing feats that Hiram Revels and so many other black officials faced during that era.”

Mississippi has not elected an African American senator since Reconstruction when Blanche Bruce served from 1875 to 1881. Democrat Mike Espy failed at breaking the tradition in 2018, but he’s trying again. 

Espy will compete against Tobey Bartee and Jensen Bohren, in the Democratic primary election March 10. 

Race has been a talking point of Espy’s campaign since his first run against Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2018 when he criticized her comments about public hangings. His latest campaign video acknowledges the contributions of his grandfather who founded the first hospital for African Americans in Mississippi.

Espy failed to unseat Hyde-Smith in 2018 by 65,950 votes, making him the closest Democrat to winning a Senate seat since 1982.

Senior communications major Brandon Rue said Espy is one of his mentors. Rue worked on Espy’s 2018 campaign as a student engagement director, and Espy endorsed Rue’s campaign to become representative of House District 102. He said Espy’s second run for Senate seems more promising.

“We saw that toward the end of the [2018] campaign a lot more people started paying attention, but it was kind of a little too late because they started getting more money in. To their point, it was too late to spend all of the money that was received,” Rue said. “This time around, I think people are going to be paying more attention from the beginning, which is going to help him tremendously because he’s got a whole year to campaign.”

Espy told Mississippi Today reporter Bobby Harrison in November he wants to connect more with millennials this time.

Rue said Espy connects with older voters because they are familiar with his political history and that most campaigns fail to reach millennials because of low voter turnout. 

In the 2018 midterm election, 26.7% of Mississippi voters ages 18-24 voted, and 36.5% of people ages 25-34 voted, according to data by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Rue said Espy could appeal to younger voters by using millennials in campaigning efforts and reminding them that he was the first African American from Mississippi to serve in Congress since Reconstruction and the first African American to be appointed as the United States secretary of agriculture. 

“A lot of people when they hear his history are impressed by it,” Rue said. “History type things resonate with millennials, and honestly black millennials. I think we really galvanize around things that make history, and I think he has to push that that’s what he has to push.”

To date, only 10 African Americans have served in the U.S. Senate. Currently, the only African American senators are Republican Sen. Tim Scott from South Carolina and Democrats Sen. Kamala Harris from California and Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey, who endorsed Espy in 2018 at Southern Miss. 

Espy isn’t the only black candidate running for Senate. Like Espy, Bartee is campaigning a second time after failing to win in 2018. In the 2018 special general election, Bartee received 1.5% of the votes. 

Bartee has worked for the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and U.S. Navy. 2018 was the first time he ran for public office. 

Rue said Bartee has good ideas but lacks the name recognition and resources to take on Espy.

Rue said Bartee should have run for the 4th Congressional District seat instead because there are currently no Democratic candidates running, and Espy “will win the Democratic nomination [of the Senate election] fairly easy.”

Challenging both Democratic candidates is Bohren, who is also running for a second time. Bohren ran for Senate in June 2018 in hopes of getting a chance to unseat Sen. Roger Wicker. That time, he received 3.2% of the votes in the Democratic primary.

Bohren is a Delta State University graduate with a degree in biology who has worked mostly in  retail with one semester of teaching experience in a public school. He describes himself as a true progressive and supports politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“The old strategy of convincing Republicans to cross over, especially in Mississippi, is flawed,” Bohren said. “It takes a bad candidate to make people think about splitting from their party. Cindy Hyde-Smith is one of those candidates, granted. However, the Democratic Party of Mississippi ignores—and in person, many of them will belittle younger voters— a massive potential voting block: those under 40. Running on issues like Medicare for All, cannabis legalization, and Campaign Finance Reform appeals to younger voters who understand how important each of those issues is to our current society.”

When Espy announced his second run for Senate, Bohren said he asked his two politically active, millennial African American friends about people who believe it’s time for an African American from Mississippi to be elected into the Senate once again. 

“One said ‘Don’t worry about it. If you feel you should run, then run.’ The other said, ‘Don’t you dare drop out,’” he said.  “Their faith in me to stay true to the issues I believe in was very encouraging. I feel running is a moral imperative. We must change the system that has put us where we are today, with a duopoly of power and the voices of the regular folk holding little to no impact upon what laws are passed or rejected by our representatives.” 

Bohren said his honesty makes him an admirable candidate.

“I tell the voters what my beliefs are in plain, non-coded language,” Bohren said.  “I had to ask Espy in person in 2018 if he supported full cannabis legalization. Nope, and Medicare for All. Nope. He speaks politician very well, and if you didn’t notice the codewords access to healthcare’ you’d have thought he was close to the same wavelength as Bernie. Politics has become about the cult of personality, not about issues. If I had a million to spend on advertisements, I’d win in a landslide.”

For more information about where to vote March 10, visit

Correction: This article was updated Feb. 18 to add Sen. Tim Scott to the list of black senators currently in office.

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Hiram Revels anniversary highlights lack of black senators