Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is interviewed in his Jackson office in December. Photo by: Rogelio Solis
January 29, 2011 8:46:00 PM
JACKSON -- Haley Barbour's folksy style, savvy leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and success as a GOP strategist have made the two-term Mississippi governor a serious contender early in the wide-open contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yet the 63-year-old has shown a penchant for airbrushing his state's segregationist past, a period he's inclined to describe as more like Mayberry than "Mississippi Burning."
Critics have dogged him for such comments, and Barbour has recently attempted to make amends, a sign he's aware that if he is to carry his party's banner next year against the country's first African-American president, he will have to be more forthright about Mississippi's troubled history.
Even after apologizing and backtracking on certain remarks, Barbour has trouble striking the right note: Just days ago, the governor told The Associated Press he remembers little about the racial violence pulsating through the state and the South during his youth. What does Barbour recall about the Freedom Summer of 1964, when he was 16, and the slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi shocked the nation?
"Not much," Barbour said casually, the kind of answer his critics find at once unbelievable and predictable.
"The governor has a pattern, in my opinion, of doing things that are outrageous and insensitive," said state Rep. Rufus Straughter, who is black and a decade older than Barbour and grew up a county away from him.
"He's been getting away with it because in Mississippi, he's been speaking to groups that agree with him," Straughter said. "What he fails to understand is that whatever he says gets out there into the wider world."
The Mississippi in which Barbour grew up was home to some of the deadliest conflicts of the civil rights era, as black citizens sought to gain voting rights and to integrate public facilities, including schools and universities. Those who knew Barbour then say he stayed out of the fray, neither a civil rights activist nor a vocal opponent of the movement.
Barbour told the AP his memories of those days are more personal than political. For example, to many older Americans, the Mississippi of 1961 means images of black and white Freedom Riders being rounded up and thrown in sweltering prison cells for challenging segregation on interstate buses. Barbour, on the other hand, fondly recalls a successful season as a 13-year-old on a Yazoo City baseball team.
"I didn't know much about much," Barbour said. "I was a pretty good baseball player. We won the state championship that year."
Barbour argues that his generation of political leaders attended integrated schools, but his 1965 high school class -- he was valedictorian -- was segregated. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi three years after a bloody battle in which federal troops and marshals were ordered on campus to enforce the court-ordered enrollment of James Meredith as Ole Miss' first black student.
"I went to integrated college, never thought twice about it," Barbour said this past fall in a webcast interview with Peter M. Robinson of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, with whom he served in the Reagan administration.
It's true that the university was integrated, but just barely: Though Ole Miss had an enrollment of at least 3,300, the yearbook shows fewer than a dozen black students when Barbour arrived as a freshman in 1965.
One of them, Cleveland Donald Jr., said he didn't know the future governor, who joined a fraternity, got involved in student government and helped organize campus concerts. With no chance of joining a fraternity himself, Donald tried to attend a meeting of a Christian student group.
"I went to one meeting and they moved off campus because several of them did not want me there," recalled Donald, now a University of Connecticut history professor.
Barbour said he remembers sitting next to a pleasant young black woman in a literature class, and that she let him borrow her notes.
"I had a great experience," he said of his time in Oxford, adding after a slight pause, "I didn't study too hard."
The aw-shucks approach is vintage Barbour: Using self-deprecating humor to deflect from serious questions.
"He may be kind of remembering it the way he wants to and putting a gloss on it the way he wants to," said Charles Eagles, a University of Mississippi professor and author of a book on Ole Miss' integration. "The motivation and the intention here, we don't know."
Barbour left college to take his first political job in 1968, working in Mississippi for Republican Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, which had a "southern strategy" of appealing to white voters unhappy with Democrats over the passage of civil rights legislation. (Barbour never completed his undergraduate degree because he was six credits shy in Latin, but he went back to Ole Miss and earned his law degree in 1972.)
He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982, chaired the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s and was a Washington lobbyist before being elected governor in 2003.
Asked by Robinson about Nixon's "southern strategy" and whether whites in the region flocked to the GOP because of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and advances by African-Americans, Barbour said "there's no question that in the '50s and probably in the '60s, there was some of that."
But it was "the old Democrats who had fought for segregation so hard," Barbour maintained, and "the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration."
"What a lot of people don't realize is in the '60s in the South, that the Republican Party was the party of change, and the Democratic Party was the party of the status quo," Barbour told the AP. "And young people in the '50s and '60s were attracted to the Republican Party."
That assessment flies in the face of conventional thinking on the period, and Barbour's description raises deeper questions for some of his critics.
"As far as I'm concerned, he has never done anything as a governor or a citizen to distinguish himself from the old Democrats who fought tooth and nail to preserve segregation," said Democratic state Rep. Willie Perkins, who is black and five years younger than Barbour.
Barbour faced more criticism in December, when the conservative Weekly Standard magazine published a profile in which he recalled how his hometown of Yazoo City avoided violence when the public schools integrated in 1970, when his brother Jeppie was mayor.
"The business community wouldn't stand for it," the governor 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."
Historian John Dittmer, whose 1994 book "Local People" chronicles Mississippi's civil rights struggles, told the AP that the Citizens Council was "really a vicious organization" that helped enforce segregation by publishing lists of black people who sought to integrate schools and by pressuring whites to maintain the status quo.
"Mississippi at that time was a police state, and the Citizens Council was the major cop," Dittmer said.
Barbour eventually issued a statement saying community leaders did prevent violence and keep out the Klan when Yazoo City's schools were integrated, but condemning the Citizens Council and segregation.
Last year, Barbour declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month, proclaiming it "important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation's past to gain insight from our mistakes and successes."
The move angered some African-American leaders, as did his 2009 proposal to merge the state's three historically black universities into one, to save money. Legislators squelched the idea, but Barbour says he still wants to pursue it.
kj commented at 1/30/2011 1:41:00 PM:
We don't need a 65 year old president. The world has changed, old racists aren't the leaders we need or want.
dz commented at 1/31/2011 1:16:00 PM:
I am not a Barbour supporter by any means. I do not think he is a good presidental candidate and I do not believe he is who the American people need as a leader. However, I also do not believe he is a racist. Barbour grew up in an upper middle-class white family and was probably pretty isolated from the turmoil around him. I think it can be pretty easy to shut out bad situations if you do not have to be directly involved. He has rose-colored glass covering his memories of his childhood and young adult-hood. This is not uncommon. I have found myself that there are parts of my childhood that I have glazed over and made better in my memory than they really wore. There were also many things that happened when I was a child that I did not understand or really grasp the meaning of until years later. I definitely think he is being more than a little ignorant by not recognizing that what he says about MS's history is ridiculous and offensive to many, but I am also pretty sure that his statements don't come from a place of hate.
hope commented at 2/2/2011 10:29:00 AM:
The worst thing that could happen to our country is to have a Republican President. The second worst thing would be to have an ex-lobbyist Republican running for President.
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