Haley Barbour's Praise For Racist Group Gets Noticed

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. i i

hide captionMississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Cliff Owen/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Cliff Owen/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Updated at 1:11  pm: Gov. Haley Barbour has issued a statement clarifying his position on the activities in the 1950s and 1960s of the Citizens' Council in his hometown of Yazoo City.

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Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is getting much more national attention than he usually does this week following a Weekly Standard profile in which the Republican with presidential aspirations lauds a group that was part of the racist reaction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.

In the piece headlined, "The Boy from Yazoo City" by writer Andrew Barbour, the governor, a former Republican National Committee chair, has a fond memory of the Citizens' Council in his hometown that dresses up the real history of such groups.

It's this excerpt from the piece that has caused collective eye-brow raising:

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“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.”

Needless to say, this is a version of history that is unrecognizable to many who lived through the Civil Rights period in the South or have studied it.

The following is from Bruce Watson's "Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy."

As in resisting Reconstruction, Mississippi led resistance to the civil rights movement. Two months after the Brown decision, planters, lawyers and other prominent Delta men met in Indianola to form the White Citizens' Council.  The council often clothed its policies in the garb of "states rights," but one pamphlet succinctly defined its purpose: "The Citizens' Council is the South's answer to the mongrelizers. We will not be integrated! We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage..."

Sometimes called the "Uptown Klan" Mississippi's Citizens' Councils used a variety of tactics. They held high school essay contests on "Why Separate Schools Should Be Maintained For the White and Negro Races."

Specifically to the point of the Citizens Council in Yazoo City, Michelle Goldberg, in The Daily Beast, writes specifically about that franchise of the organization.

It's true that in Yazoo, the local Citizens Council stood against the Klan—because it was worried about the competition. Citizens Councils were white supremacist organizations that were formed in the 1950s to defend segregation. They tended to be more upscale and respectable than the Klan, but they didn’t disagree with Klan racism. In his book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, John Dittmer wrote, "The Yazoo City chapter of the Citizens Council went on record opposing the Klan, adding that 'your Citizens Council was formed to preserve the separation of the races, and believes that it can best serve the county where it is the only organization operating in this field.'"

So Barbour has something of a problem. His version of history is at best incomplete and at worst it's a misrepresentation.

Meanwhile, if you're Barbour, you can't ignore how your fellow Mississippian Trent Lott lost his U.S. Senate majority leader's post after publicly praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist past.

That showed how much many in the Republican Party recognized the need for their party to broaden its appeal to people of color, a growing part of the population.

Barbour's embrace of the Yazoo City Citizens Council will seem a lot like Lott's praise for Thurmond's segregationist years. It didn't work for Lott and it's going to be hard for Barbour to make it work for him.

After all, a headline like this one in The Daily Beast can't be good in 2010: "Is Haley Barbour a racist?" Goldberg's answer, for the record, is yes.

The interesting thing about the Weekly Standard piece, then, isn't the revelation of Barbour's racism. It's that Barbour, a man with a deep knowledge of Republican politics, believes that his party's base sees race the same way he does.

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative who blogs at the Washington Post, makes the point that many conservatives reject racism so the notion that a Southern Strategy would get him very far in Republican presidential politics is mistaken.

The notion that this is all part of a "Southern strategy" (which Greg Sargent tells us is being discussed in the left-leaning blogosphere) is tinfoil-hat sort of stuff that reminds me how little the left understands today's conservatives.

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