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

Published December 22, 2010 1:01PM (EST)

FILE - 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)  (AP)
FILE - 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) (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.

By Rick Perlstein

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." He is also the national correspondent for the Washington Spectator.

MORE FROM Rick Perlstein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Haley Barbour Race War Room