Why Haley Barbour whitewashes history

In his telling, integration was peaceful and nothing brought the whole town together like an MLK speech

Topics: Race, War Room, Republican Party, Haley Barbour,

Why Haley Barbour whitewashes historyHaley Barbour

Who’d have figured that the first major blow to Haley Barbour’s 2012 White House hopes would be delivered by … the Weekly Standard? Bill Kristol’s magazine is out today with a profile of the Mississippi governor, written by Andrew Ferguson, in which Barbour downplays the upheaval of the civil rights movement and characterizes the notorious White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s as a force for good.

Asked about coming of age in Yazoo City, Miss., during the civil rights “revolution,” Barbour, who was 16 when three civil rights workers were murdered in the state in the summer of 1964, tells Ferguson, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” He goes on to talk of standing “at the periphery” when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in his hometown (but not really paying attention to what was said because he was too busy looking at girls) and to salute the Citizens Council for (supposedly) ensuring the peaceful integration of Yazoo City’s schools — something that was achieved 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Barbour tells Ferguson:

“You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

But it wasn’t — and it isn’t — just Northerners who saw a connection between the Citizens Councils and the Klan. Here’s how the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explained the history of the Councils in 1996:

The Delta was home to the Citizens Councils, a name familiar to Southerners who lived through the turbulent 1950s and ’60s. The first Citizens Council was organized by ardent segregationists at Indianola during the summer of 1954. By the next year, there were 60,000 members in Mississippi. The councils claimed to oppose violence, but their goal was to prevent black inroads during those nascent days of the civil rights movement and to protect what members characterized as the “Southern way of life.” In Mississippi, the state’s most powerful farmers, bankers and businessmen were members.

“It was a coterie that could apply frightful pressure on dissenters, whether white or black, in the enclosed, isolated Mississippi society,” [Neil] Peirce wrote in 1974. “… By their very presence and rhetoric, the councils created a climate in which racial murder could be tolerated still longer in Mississippi.”

The councils enjoyed the support of Democratic Sen. James Eastland and, to a lesser extent, Democratic Sen. John Stennis. The councils also had friends in the governor’s mansion. Democrat Ross Barnett won the governor’s race in 1959 using a campaign song that said in part: “He’s for segregation 100 percent. He’s not a moderate like some other gent.”

The controversy that his remarks will surely stir — and that they are already stirring, to judge from Twitter — underscores how problematic Barbour’s political roots are for him. The simple fact that he was born in a segregated town (and that his family strongly supported staunch segregationists, like Jim Eastland) isn’t the issue. Bill Clinton was a product of segregation, don’t forget.  The problem is that Barbour, unlike Clinton, has never seemed to come to terms with what segregation meant to African-Americans throughout the South — and what the legacy of segregation continues to mean now.

After all, this is hardly the first time Barbour has tried to whitewash civil rights history. He’s previously asserted that the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 — accomplished only through federal intervention and which set off riots that killed two people — was “a very pleasant experience.”

He’s also told of building a friendship as a freshman at Ole Miss in 1965 with one of the school’s few black students, a woman he identified to a McClatchy reporter last fall as Verna Lee Bailey. “I still love her,” Barbour said in the interview. Of course, the woman’s real name is Verna Ann Bailey, and when the reporter contacted her, she didn’t even recall meeting Barbour. She also remembered the integration of Ole Miss a little differently: “I thought my life was going to end.”

And then there was his claim that the South’s wholesale transformation from Democratic to Republican stronghold had nothing to do with race and was accomplished by “my generation. My generation who went to integrated schools. I went to integrated college — never thought twice about it.” That would be news to anyone familiar with the share of the vote that Barry Goldwater received in Mississippi in the 1964 presidential election: 87 percent — or nearly 50 points better than he did in the national popular vote. The truth, of course, is that the passage of Civil Rights in 1964 kicked off a steady, decades-long shift among white Southerners from the Democratic Party (which they’d been loyal to since northern Republicans had tried to impose the “humiliation” of Reconstruction on them) to the GOP. And Barbour, a disciple of Clarke Reed, the father of the modern Mississippi Republican Party, played no small role in bringing that transformation about.

All of this leaves Barbour in a tough spot: The story of his rise in national politics is the story of the rise of the South in the GOP. Race, and the ugly reaction of many white Southerners to integration and civil rights, is at the heart of this story. Barbour can’t really run from this past. So instead, he’s left to devise an alternate history — one in which an MLK speech in Yazoo City was a unifying event for the whole community, one in which a white boy named Haley made easy friends with a black girl named “Verna Lee” thanks to the peaceful integration of their school, and one in which Haley Barbour and his generation of white Southerners built the modern Republican Party on a unifying, post-racial philosophy.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>