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Calvin Freiburger

Do Haley Barbour’s Racial Recollections Expose a Bad Memory, Or Something Worse?

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Posted on December 22 2010 6:00 pm
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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So common are accusations of racism from the Left that everyone with a right-of-center political disposition should expect to be accused of hating people with different skin colors at some point in his or her life. This week, it’s Haley Barbour’s turn. The Republican Governors’ Association chair is in hot water for comments that allegedly downplay racial strife in segregation-era Mississippi:

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.”

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.”

At the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg finds Barbour guilty of first-degree bigotry:

Writer Andrew Ferguson takes Barbour at his word, arguing that if Barbour’s segregationist roots become an issue in his presidential campaign, it will be because of “Washington political reporters who enjoy moralizing about race and public education while sending their own children to progressive schools like Sidwell Friends and St. Albans.”

The piece is an exquisite example of the conservative racial two-step: a blatant expression of racism, followed by aggrieved wailing at the mere thought of being called a racist. It proves that Barbour is either dishonest or so blindly ignorant that one can scarcely imagine how he’s managed a successful political career.

Of course, Goldberg has falsely smeared conservatives as racists before, undermining the idea that she’s accurately identified some common right-wing trope in the “conservative racial two-step.” But what of Barbour’s case? Goldberg says it’s “not surprising that Barbour didn’t find segregation ‘that bad,’ since he supported segregation.” She doesn’t provide a source for the claim, and I have been unable to find independent confirmation of Barbour’s stance on segregation. She does, however, go on to paint a rather less rosy picture of the Citizens Councils and race relations in Yazoo City:

At the beginning of the century, Yazoo was a violent enough place to earn prominent mentions in almost every history of lynching, with 19 men dying at the hands of white mobs before 1930. Anti-black violence continued through the 1950s, when Barbour was growing up. In 1957, for example, a white farmer murdered a black soldier for the crime of sitting at a table with the farmer’s sister […]

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.”

Rather than resorting to terrorism, the “town leaders” of the Citizens Councils used more genteel methods to punish African Americans who dared demand civil rights. When black parents in Yazoo filed petitions to desegregate county schools, the Citizens Council took out a full-page newspaper add with their names and addresses.

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