Our view: Barbour should confront state's past head-on

February 24, 2011 10:33:00 AM



Will there ever be a president from Mississippi?  


Maybe someday, but it would take a Herculean effort, which Gov. Haley Barbour is discovering. 


Unfortunately for Barbour, our reputation precedes us. We''re the place where Medgar Evers was shot and Emmitt Till was lynched, where three civil rights workers were buried in a Neshoba County levee, where students and townspeople rioted in Oxford to keep Ole Miss lily white.  


We''re a state that has made much progress since then. But we''re not given any slack. Sometimes we''re unfairly weighted down with the burdens of the past. Other times we vote by referendum to keep them, as we did in 2001, when we voted to keep the Confederate war emblem on our state flag by a 2-1 margin.  


Most recently, we''ve made headlines as the state considering the Nathan Bedford Forrest license plate. 


Barbour has confronted past and present racial strife, in Mississippi and elsewhere, by not confronting it -- or when pressed, taking the stance that there''s really nothing to see here.  


A flap over the insensitive Virginia Confederate History Month proclamation last year, which extolled Confederate soldiers'' sacrifices but ignored slavery''s role in the conflict, "amount to diddly," Barbour said. Meanwhile, Virginia''s own Republican governor was feverishly apologizing, working to revise the ordinance and admitting that yes, Virginia''s role in going to war to preserve slavery did, in fact, amount to diddly. 


Of course, Barbour has signed state bills designating April Confederate Heritage Month, the same month he plans to officially say whether he''s running for president. 


Meanwhile, "if you want a lesson on Nathan Bedford Forrest, buy a book," he told the Associated Press. He refused to denounce Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader, explaining he''s not in the business of denouncing people, no matter who they might be. ("Not even the press," he said cheekily, putting the media on a rung beneath the Klan.) He later said he''d veto the license plate bill if it made it to his desk. 


Barbour has a history of appearing tone-deaf on the state''s racial issues, clearly a calculated move to appease his base. In 2003, Barbour made a point to run for governor with a Mississippi flag pin and its Confederate symbol on his lapel. "That accessory has largely disappeared in recent months," The Associated Press pointed out. The AP also has noted that he has been an "unabashed supporter" of the flag, even putting Earl Faggert, an organizer of a group to keep the Confederate symbol on his flag, on his 2007 re-election payroll. Barbour explained that Faggert might help get out the black vote. 


In a gaffe in December, he praised the white Citizens Councils, which he said helped keep the Klan at bay, but actually were a powerful instrument to intimidate black voters and integration supporters, thus prolonging segregation. Barbour later backpedaled on the comments. In the same month in the Weekly Standard magazine, " Barbour said he didn''t recall Mississippi''s civil rights era as ''being that bad,''" AP reported. 


In another interview with the AP, Barbour said, "When I grew up, the South was segregated. And once I got grown and to the point of having some judgment, it was obvious to me segregation is indefensible. And doesn''t exist here and hasn''t really existed here in my adult life." 


It doesn''t exist here. If it ever did, it wasn''t that bad. These things are a non-issue. Nit-picking. Diddly. 


To be fair, Barbour isn''t completely ignoring the legacy of the civil rights workers struggle in the state, and the racial violence that accompanied it. He denounced such violence in a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He plans to host a reunion of the Freedom Riders, who helped integrate buses, in the governor''s mansion. He urged the Legislature to resume work to construct a civil rights museum in a state that doesn''t have one. 


Barbour''s a shrewd political tactitian -- maybe the best in the country. But can the drawling Mississippi conservative be president? 


To have a shot, the "anti-Obama" needs to refine his stance on race. He needs to come out clearly and forcefully against perpetuating divisive symbols of the past, whether they be emblazoned on flags, lapel pins or license plates. 


That doesn''t play well among white voters in Mississippi or the South, Barbour''s base. But our governor is elevating himself, and Mississippi, to a national stage. 


We see our state''s continued racial divisiveness as a moral issue, not a political one. Barbour owes it to all of us to confront our past head-on, honestly and forcefully -- not side-step it, downplay it or ignore it.