Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haley Barbour's Southern History

One of the rumored potential 2012 GOP candidates for President is Hailey Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. With an interview now published in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Governor Barbour has hit a major pothole along the path to Iowa and New Hampshire. Liberal bloggers are in full outrage and conservatives are sharply inhaling and groaning. Why? Governor Barbour mentioned the White Citizens Council from his youth growing up in Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Those of us who grew up in the Deep South as white kids in the 1960's and 1970's suffer from a bit of selective amnesia when it comes to race relations. My experience is different than, for example, Condi Rice. We are but a year apart in age. She was born in Alabama, me in Biloxi, Mississippi. She was raised there and then in Colorado. I was raised in Louisiana. She was best friends with a little girl killed in a church bombing. I have nothing to compare with that experience.

What is this White Citizens Council? I had not heard of it before today. Another part of the southern experience not my own, I am coming at growing up Southern as a first generation southerner. My parents moved to Mississippi in the early 1950's from Indiana. My father, fresh out of college classes at Indiana University in Bloomington, inherited a small business from an Uncle and began life as a newlywed in Ocean Springs with my mother. I was born in Biloxi because there was no hospital in Ocean Springs.

According to this, the White Citizens Council is described as:
Southern opponents of racial integration organized white citizens councils to obstruct the implementation of the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end school desegregation, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Originating in Mississippi, the councils advocated white supremacy and resorted to various forms of economic pressure against local advocates of desegregation. They attempted to win support for their views by describing the horrors that integrated education would supposedly bring. By the 1960s, as the pace of desegregation in southern schools accelerated, the councils grew steadily weaker. By the 1970s they were only of marginal importance.

Yeah, "opponents of racial integration" would not be a good thing. He was asked why he thought racial integration in the local school system went smoothly. Why wasn't there the racial turmoil presented in news accounts?

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “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.”In interviews Barbour doesn’t have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”

Did you go? I asked.

“Sure, I was there with some of my friends.”

In Barbour's memory, the business council enforced peaceful integration. He looked upon them as a group of business men looking out for the community.

Barbour was from a long line of Democrats, also standard for the time. The year 1965 was also a signal year in Barbour’s political development. His older brother Jeppie came home from the Army and shocked the family by declaring himself a Goldwater Republican. As a politically well-connected family in Mississippi, Barbours had been bred to be Democrats since the Pleistocene Era. But there were subtleties and gradations. “We were Eastland Democrats,” Haley told me, referring to James O. Eastland, the long-serving U.S. senator, steadfast conservative, committed segregationist, and the bane of the national party’s left wing. As it happened, Barbour said, “our grandfather was Eastland’s daddy’s lawyer.” The two families had long been close. (“Mississippi is more like a club than a state—everybody knows each other,” Chuck Jordan said.) Coming out as a Republican, Haley said, “took a lot of guts on my brother’s part.”

When my parents moved to Mississippi in the early 1950's, they were not allowed to register as Republicans. Not allowed. There was only the possibility of registering as a Democrat. Condi Rice has a story in her memoir that her parents registered to vote as Republicans in Alabama because as blacks, they were experiencing problems with that act. Her parents registered as Republican in the end, as there was a white woman there trying to grow the party and welcomed everyone.

So, in telling his story, Barbour speaks from his own perspective. In his own reality, there was no big disruption over civil rights. Black people have a different perspective. It was, indeed, a very difficult time in the south. No one thinks Barbour is a racist - he has a sterling reputation as a good man among even the harshest liberal ideologues. But, this will be seized upon and taken out of context by those wishing to bloody him in the political arena.

Running for the highest office in the land as a Southern man with a thick accent is difficult enough. There are those in our country who still hold on to old stereotypes - Southern people are dumb because they speak slowly, are racists, are not well-educated, and lazy because life is a bit slower. I will defend a fellow Southerner any day over false charges.

Anyone want to open the discussion to how cities like Boston handled school integration? Until people can have an honest conversation about race in our country, the stereotypes continue.

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