In the multiracial America of the 21st century, is it conceivable that voters would elect, as their next president, a southern white guy who whitewashes the racist past of his own region?Remotely conceivable, at best. Haley Barbour’s prodigious powers of denial are a tad too extreme for the contemporary American mainstream.It was fitting that the governor of Mississippi – a former Republican national chairman, Washington lobbyist, and potential ’12 presidential candidate – got in trouble yesterday, on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from America. Barbour’s Dixie brethren put on quite a show. Attendees of the various “secessionist balls” insisted that South Carolina’s decision to secede was not about slavery at all – a fascinating claim indeed, given the fact that its lengthy secession document repeatedly defended slavery and declared that South Carolina would no longer associate with any states that “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”Such is the power of denial and the impulse to rewrite history. Which brings us to Barbour, who is currently profiled in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. Barbour grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, during the era of last-ditch institutional racism. In the profile article, he insisted that the town of his childhood was a font of tolerance, thanks to the efforts of a community group called the Citizens Council. Here’s how he put 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. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”Not surprisingly, The Weekly Standard failed to challenge Barbour’s benign depiction of the Citizens Council. A simple fact check would have exposed the whitewash. The truth is, the Citizens Council was the white establishment’s preferred vehicle for enforcing the racist status quo. Its members did the job without wearing hoods.Historians have long documented this truth – Mississippi’s Neil McMillen has rightly called the Citizens Council “an instrument of repression” – but I heard it first hand from one of Yazoo City’s most prominent citizens, the great southern writer Willie Morris.
I met up with Morris in a roadside Mississippi bar, back in March of 1988, when I was writing some political stories down in his neck of the woods. He drank Jack Daniels and red Bolla wine; I just took notes. And at one point, while recalling certain events that transpired in Yazoo City in the autumn of 1955, his Babe Ruth face took on a mournful expression.He said: “When I was 21, the white Citizens Council held a meeting in my home town to try and get blacks to take their names off a petition calling for integrated schools. They (white Council members) mapped out the whole thing – how the banks would cancel the blacks’ credit, and how the landlords would throw them out. This was my home town! All the leading citizens were there – including my father, God bless him. All the neighbors I grew up with. These are nuances that’d just break your heart.”Morris then told me what happened next, in the wake of the Citizens Council pressure: One by one, the 53 black signers removed their names from the NAACP petition. The process took several weeks. They had no choice but to surrender. The Council had printed up cardboard placards, listing the names of all the signers, and had hung them all around town. White employers were firing the signers. White grocers were refusing to sell food to the signers. Black grocers who had signed the petition were no longer able to buy food from the white wholesalers. In the end, some of the signers simply left town, never to return. (McMillen, the historian, has subsequently confirmed these events, in his 1994 book about the Citizens Council.)”We all love Mississippi,” Morris said to me, with a tired sigh. “But sometimes it doesn’t love of us back.”So Haley Barbour’s political problem is obvious. His powers of denial wouldn’t necessarily hurt his nomination chances, given the overwhelmingly white composition of the GOP primary electorate. But the November electorate will be far more racially pluralistic. If the GOP hopes to triumph in ’12, it might want to think twice about nominating a guy who grew up untouched by the civil rights movement that roiled his segregationist town; in his words, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”Memo to Barbour: You can’t presume to lead a multiracial nation into the future if you can’t get real about the past.
The Barbour camp has floated various responses. Let us count the modes.
The stonewall defense. Barbour’s flaks spent most of yesterday in lockdown, refusing to answer the press’ inquiries.
The taking-it-out-of-context defense. Barbour’s flaks told one website, “If you pick out a sentence or a paragraph out of a fairly long article and harp on it, you can manipulate it.”
And finally, because those defenses didn’t work, today we have the ritual mea culpa, from Barbour himself. Regarding his published comment, Barbour now says: “Nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadershop were saints, either. Their vehicle, the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation.”
Attaboy. We knew you could do it.