What Haley Barbour’s amnesia tells us

Like any good Southern conservative of his generation, he ignores the entire bad faith stew in which he was raised

Topics: Haley Barbour, War Room, Race,

What Haley Barbour's amnesia tells usFILE - In this Nov. 3, 2010 file photo, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Credit: AP)

“January 7, 1970, dawned clear and bitterly cold, a cold that rarely comes to Mississippi. It was 16 degrees on South Main Street, the trees along the older avenues were seared and deathly, and the water in the potholes of the roads in the Negro section was frozen solid. All over Yazoo there was a cold eerie calm.”

So recorded the great Southern writer Willie Morris in his classic book “Yazoo: Integration In a Deep Southern Town,” with suitable melodrama, of the first day little black boys and girls and little white boys and girls sat together in classrooms in his Mississippi Delta hometown. The moment came fifteen years after the dawn of “Massive Resistance”: an organized conspiracy, uniting all strata of white Southern society, high and low, to defy the order of the Supreme Court to integrate its schools “with all deliberate speed.”

What happened between Brown v. Board of Education and that January day in 1970 comprises some of the most monstrous inhumanity in the cruel annals of American history. Recently, in a cover feature in the conservative Weekly Standard on his presidential ambitions, Mississippi governor and fellow Yazoo native Haley Barbour had occasion to reflect on that place, in those years. The best that can be said about his recollection is that it is not 100 percent a lie — just deeply confused, mostly wrong, and indicative above all of a cynical man who has made a lucrative career of exploiting racial trauma when it suited him, or throwing it down a memory hole when it did not; which is to say, an archetypal Dixie conservative.

Start with his account of the White Citizens Councils. They were founded in the Mississippi Delta — “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” as a 1994 history by James C. Cobb enshrined it — and represented, as one of their leaders proudly put it, “damned near a declaration of war against the United States.” In Yazoo, as Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo has documented, the method was economic terror: In 1955, when 53 mostly middle class local blacks signed a petition requesting, you know, that federal law be followed, their livelihoods were crushed.



Barbour’s invocation of the Council when asked how the Yazoo schools managed to integrate without violence some fifteen years later was gratuitous and strange. In words now infamous, he replied:

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it. 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.”

That’s richly revealing of Barbour’s willful and self-exculpating mental fog. While the Citizens Councils were born in 1954 of Brown v. Board of Education, the modern revival of the dreaded “Night Riders” of the Reconstruction Era came about in 1963 in response to President John F. Kennedy’s announcement that he was introducing legislation to integrate not just schools but all places of public accommodation. They were the new kids in town — that it to say, the competition, and low-class competition at that. Local gentry acted swiftly to preserve their monopoly on terror. In Yazoo, records historian John Dittmer in his authoritative “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” the local Citizens’ Council did indeed pass a resolution excoriating the Klan — because “your Citizen’s Council was formed to preserve separation of the races, and believes that it can best serve the county where it is the only organization operating in this field.”

In places like Yazoo, the local gentry was exceedingly close-knit and nearly totalitarian in their power over the everyday life of the town — a fact Barbour’s testimony in the Weekly Standard merely confirms: Competing vigilante constabularies were intolerable threats to their droit de seigneur, as deserving of the swift fist of economic terror as any uppity nigger. (“If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there.”)

Barbours, who are descended from Mississippi’s third governor, were the heart and soul of Yazoo’s gentry, as Andrew Ferguson’s Weekly Standard profile responsibly establishes. For Haley and his kind, as a childhood friend recollected, it was “an ideal childhood…dances, parties, football, Little League, boys doing all the things boys do in a small town.” Barbour concurred: “I grew up in a town that was like a family.” One of the abiding tasks of that family’s patriarchs was defending it from outsiders contesting their right to run it in the way they saw fit — advocates and officers, that is to say, of the laws of the United States of America.

It is here that Barbour offers his most bald and sickening claims. Asked what it was like growing up at Ground Zero of the civil rights revolution, he recollected, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” and volunteered his recollection when “Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke at the old fairground….I was there with some of my friends,” he said. “We wanted to hear him speak.”

King did apparently make a stop in Yazoo during a three-day tour of the Delta region in February 1962, but it was his 1966 visit to the town that is much more famous. Early that June, James Meredith — the black man whose entry to the University of Mississippi in ’62, when Barbour was 15, spurred riots that brought federal troops and the cream of the nation’s media to Barbour’s future alma mater — announced he would march “against fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi. When he crossed the border into the Magnolia State, a farmer emptied a double-barreled shotgun into his hide. In solidarity, all of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders, and hundreds of their followers, vowed to complete his march. It produced one of the Movement’s grandest melodramas. On June 16, at a rally in the courthouse square in Greenwood, militant Stokely Carmichael delivered his infamous “Black Power” address and cleaved the freedom movement forever more into armed versus nonviolent factions. On June 21, King detoured off the line of the march fifty miles to the east, to Neshoba County, symbolically confronting the perpetrators of a notorious murder two years before: “In this county, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner were brutally murdered. I believe in my heart that the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment.”

That utterance is significant to the case of Haley Barbour. He says the King speech he saw in ’62 was “full of people, black and white” — part of his longstanding pattern of radically distorting the degree of comity between the races in Mississippi during his youth. In fact, during Mississippi’s race revolution, when blacks and whites occupied the same space (except when the former were virtual servants and the former masters), the scene in greater or lesser degrees resembled the chaos that day in Philadelphia. This was as true in 1966 as it was in 1962. As The New York Times described the scene in Philadelphia, white “onlookers” toppled a network camera, “[s]ome 25 white men surged over the television men, swinging, and then flared in to the line of march, their eyes wide with anger,” and police didn’t intervene against the ensuing stones, bottles, clubs, and firecrackers until “[h]alf a dozen Negroes began to fight back.”

Then it was on to Yazoo.

Martin Luther King followed a speaker for the pro-violence Deacons of Defense who said, “They ain’t a redneck or a cracker in Mississippi that I’m afraid of…They ain’t gonna be enough of people to keep black people from hurting white people.” King delivered one of the greatest speeches of his soon-to-be-snuffed-out life. You can watch it at the broadcast museums in New York and Los Angeles:

“I am disturbed about a straaaaange theory that is circulating, saying to me that I ought to imitate the worst in the white man and the worse in our oppressors. Who have a specter of killing and lynching people and throwing them in rivers! It’s our oppressors! And now people are telling me to stoop down to that level, oh no! The reason that I will not do it is that I am not going to allow anybody to pull me so low as to use the very methods that perpetrate evil throughout our civilization.

“I’m sick and tired of violence.

“I’m tired of the war in Vietnam.

“I”m tired of war and conflict in the world.

“I’m tired of shooting. I’m tired of hate. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of evil! I’m not going to use violence, no matter who says it.”

I am almost certain it is this scene of menace, foreboding, and transcendence that Haley Barbour is “describing” when he says, “I don’t really remember.” He elaborates, “We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”

Which is where things get honestly creepy. I hope Haley Barbour is just making that last detail up. The menacing white mobs that gathered at the periphery of civil rights rallies in places like Yazoo City were almost exclusively male. If he truly remembers the moment through a cloud of testosterone, the imagery invokes to me the most Gothic nastiness imaginable. In “Black Like Me,” the 1961 classic in which journalist John Howard Griffith blackened his face to see how race relations worked in the South, Griffith learned through one white interlocutor “how all of the white men in the region craved colored girls. He said he hired a lot of them both for housework and in his business. ‘And I guarantee you, I’ve had it in every one of them since before they ever got on the payroll…We figure we’re doing your people a favor to get some white blood in your kids.’”

No way, not in a million years, am I accusing Haley Barbour of being like this guy. I’m making a different point. At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists. When he does so, this is what he is forgetting: the entire bad-faith stew of race, sex, and corrupt plutocracy — and its public repression in images of towns like “families” and happy Negroes until outsiders stirred things up — that defined his formative years. He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically “forget.”

What was the role of the Republican Party in all of this? In 1964, the Mississippi Republican Party changed its platform to reassure potential recruits it bought the whole package: “We feel segregation of the races is absolutely essential to harmonious racial relations and the continued progress of both races in the State of Mississippi.” (It worked: Barry Goldwater got 87 percent of the vote.) In 1965, Haley’s older brother Jeppie Barbour became one of the first among the Delta’s gentry to join the Republican Party. In 1968, with Haley as campaign manager, he became the town’s mayor. These were years when the challenge of Massive Resistance became merely bureaucratic, as Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare established legal guidelines to finally force Southern school districts to honor Brown v. Board of Education. The forcing didn’t work, in part because Southern Republicans, in concert with President Nixon, kept on devising new ways to stall. Finally, federal courts starting issuing draconian rulings that put the full force of federal police power behind desegregation.

Many school districts still kept fighting. Yazoo City’s newly Republican leadership, on the other hand, chose orderly retreat. This is what Haley Barbour is talking about when he claims “the business community wouldn’t stand for” anything but legal compliance. The actual field general in the struggle, however, his brother Jeppie Barbour, gave another, less sentimental explanation. The population exodus further skirmishes would have brought would have destroyed the town — and brought down the plutocrats’ fortunes right with it: “We don’t have any other choice.”

Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy. In 1991 he founded of a lobbying firm that would go on to become the second most powerful in the country in part for its work for the tobacco industry (as governor, he later proposed to dismantle the state’s program to discourage youth from using tobacco. In 1993, now RNC chair, he set up a “National Policy Forum,” which allegedly shoveled hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign money into the 1994 and 1996 Republican campaigns. Then he provided $50,000 in seed money for the firm of Allen Raymond, which specialized in jamming opponents’ phone banks on Election Day. The next year, he became the the South’s largest electrical company’s liaison to Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force.

It goes on. In 2007, now Mississippi governor, Barbour’s friends and family were the dominant beneficiaries of $15 billion in federal aid that Governor Barbour brought to the state to take advantage of Hurricane Katrina. One of his nephews, Bloomberg reported, saw his lobbying fees more than double in the year after his uncle appointed him to a Katrina reconstruction panel. Barbour received a $25,000 a month payment as a “blind trust” from the firm. That same firm set up a corporation, New Bridge Strategies, to make what it called “big money” on Iraq reconstruction. Meanwhile, in his capacity as governor, Barbour was caught handing out one of the biggest federal contracts in the state for recovery efforts to a Republican activist married to his nephew.

And now they say he’s a presidential contender. This great big old bear of a man, you see, according to D.C. gossip Lloyd Grove, “enjoys the friendliest relations with the Washington media elite of any prospective candidate vying for the Republican monition.” Margaret Carlson calls him “genuine” and “approachable.” After all, as Grove recalls, he kept “a generous supply of Maker’s Mark in his handy RNC liquor cabinet.” It’s one old-fashioned Dixie tradition he’s managed to remember just fine.

Rick Perlstein is the author of "The Invisible Bridge," "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus"

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

Comments

0 Comments

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>