Haley Barbour’s Historical Amnesia

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Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour at a news conference in Jackson, Miss. Joe Ellis / The Clarion Ledger-AP

As we mentioned in our guide to Republican presidential contenders, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is prone to making racially insensitive comments. This year alone, he dismissed complaints that Virginia’s Confederate History Month made no mention of slavery as “not amounting to diddly,” and he claimed, falsely, that he attended integrated schools and that he befriended Verna Bailey, the first black woman to attend the University of Mississippi.

This tendency suggests a strong preference on Barbour’s part to revise the odious racial history of his home state, which he lived through. It has triggered a debate over whether Barbour is racist and if so, whether he can win the presidency. But both questions ignore the fact that any GOP president likely will have the same substantive policies on race.

In this week’s Weekly Standard, in an entertaining cover profile of Barbour, the governor says of growing up during the civil-rights revolution, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” He explains how school integration was carried out in his town without violence: “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.”

What, you wonder, is Barbour talking about? The White Citizens' Councils rose up throughout the South after the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. As the great journalist David Halberstam wrote in 1956, “The single thread connecting all the Councils, strong and weak, is the determination not just to oppose integration in the public schools but to stop or at least postpone it. In most of the Deep South, where hostility to integration is nearly universal, it is this militancy and dedication that make the Council member stand out.”

In other words, the group Barbour praises was, as its name would suggest, a racist, segregationist organization. Just in case the implications of the original name were unclear, the national umbrella of the Citizens' Councils is now known as the Council of Conservative Citizens, or CCC for short. Barbour has a history with the CCC. As Matthew Yglesias notes, in his first gubernatorial run Barbour declined to ask the CCC to take pictures of him off their website, which also contained Confederate flags and Holocaust denialism. The grain of truth to Barbour’s claims, as Yglesias points out, is that among the white supremacist organizations active in the South in the 1950s, the Citizens' Councils were the more elite, business-friendly and nonviolent counterpart to the Ku Klux Klan.

On Monday Barbour’s spokesman flailed when asked about Barbour’s statement, complaining that Barbour was being unfairly tarred—without actually clarifying, justifying, or disavowing the statements. "You're trying to paint the governor as a racist," he said. "And nothing could be further from the truth ... [Barbour] did not comment on the Citizens Council movement's history,"  Turner responded. "He commented on the business community in [Barbour’s hometown of] Yazoo City, Mississippi." Unfortunately for Barbour, the definitive history of the Citizens' Councils, Neil R. McMillen’s The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, specifically discusses the pro-segregation efforts of the chapter in Yazoo City. 

On Tuesday, Barbour issued a clarification: “When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there,” he said. “My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country and, especially, African-Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

Is that enough to put the controversy to rest? And can Barbour’s possible presidential campaign recover? Beltway reporters are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest he can move on. Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post predicts that most voters will forget this brouhaha by the time ballots are cast, especially since Barbour had the good fortune for it to break the week of Christmas. “Barbour has done what he needed to do in the short term…. A broader speech by Barbour explaining how he viewed race during his formative years and how it impacted his life could be in order as well.” Jonathan Martin of Politico agrees, adding, “Any misstep [Barbour] makes—anything at all that can be portrayed as insensitive—will be pounced upon by an opposition that has much to gain by painting the portrait of an unreconstructed good ol' boy.”

But some pundits, even conservatives, such as National Review’s Jim Geraghty, who initially defended Barbour, have decided that his past statements are just too big a liability after Ben Smith of Politico brought up today an especially egregious joke Barbour made during his first run for Senate. Writing in The New York Times, in 1982, Howell Raines reported on Barbour admonishing an aide not to make racist jokes in front or reporters: “Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.” This caused Geraghty to conclude, “A pattern of remarks is a different matter than one off-the-cuff anecdote that suggests a man remembers the elders of his youth through rose-colored glasses.”

The irony of all these pundits debating whether Republicans can defeat the first black president with Barbour if Barbour gets tagged as a racist because of some insensitive remarks is that he is substantively no different on racial issues from his primary opponents. Recent Republican presidents, from Ronald Reagan—who started his campaign with a speech in Mississippi lauding states' rights—to George W. Bush, have all governed in the same manner regarding race. They disembowel the Department of Justice’s civil-rights-enforcement apparatus, focus the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on flimsy accusations of reverse racism, nominate anti-civil-rights judges (who may go on to become Republican senators), and oppose affirmative action. (For a comprehensive examination of Bush’s record on civil rights read this report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which concluded, “President Bush has neither exhibited leadership on pressing civil-rights issues, nor taken actions that matched his words.” 

Whether you think these policies are racist or they are merely the unbiased application of conservative small-government principles is almost immaterial: right or wrong, they simply are what Republicans do in the White House. And Haley Barbour is no marginal figure in the Republican Party—he is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. Liberals might be pleased to think that if they chase Barbour out of the presidential race they will have eliminated a candidate who is worse for civil rights than, say, Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney. But the truth is that Barbour is merely more prone than other GOP contenders to making the sort of racial gaffes in which he says to reporters what a significant number of his supporters privately think.

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