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Ron Radosh

Should Conservatives Give Haley Barbour a Blank Check?

December 22nd, 2010 - 4:55 pm

In other words, it relied on economic and political pressure, rather than cross-burnings and lynching like the Klan. What Cobb writes is even more damning. In Yazoo City, he reveals, in August of 1955, “the local NAACP chapter submitted a petition bearing fifty-three signatures to the school board asking for immediate desegregation of all schools.  Stunned that the supposedly well-treated, contented black citizenry of Yazoo City would make such a move, the local Citizens’ Council moved swiftly.” It took a large ad in the local paper, listing the names of all those citizens who signed the NAACP petition — black professionals, businessmen and tradesman who had achieved a certain higher status among the black population, and who were willing to put their names down to achieve racial justice.  They thought they would be protected from white coercion and pressure. That, Cobb says, was not the case. The results were disastrous:

One by one, those who signed the petition lost their jobs or whatever ‘business’ or ‘trade’ they had with whites.  Some blacks moved quickly to remove their names from the list. Others held out but eventually followed suit.  Many of those who removed their names found it impossible to get their old jobs back, nor could they find new employment.  Many left town altogether.

Now in 1955, Haley Barbour was only eight years old, and of course, he had no personal knowledge of this. But as one who later learned about Mississippi’s tortured racial legacy, and as a national political leader, he has a responsibility to learn about the true historical past of his own hometown, and not to prettify it with personal reminiscences that are anything but accurate.  And as Cobb adds, the time about which Barbour reflects was one in which new jobs were being given to whites only, and when formerly employed black land workers were essentially all driven out of their homes for lack of work.

So I award kudos to our colleagues at Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, Jonathan Tobin and Linda Chavez. Tobin writes that because liberal organs of opinion are joining together to blast Barbour, conservatives cannot reflexively come to his defense. He argues persuasively that “while Barbour may be innocent of any racism personally, denial of the truth about the essential ugliness of much of what some like to term the ‘heritage’ of the South is unacceptable. As the nation celebrates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War over the next four years, the willingness of some to indulge in fantasies about the Confederacy is something that is bound to cause problems for Southern white Republicans, especially one who is thinking about running against the first African-American president of the United States.”

And Linda Chavez adds that “many conservatives are either unaware of the pervasiveness of racial discrimination prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, or they choose, like Barbour, to engage in selective memory.” It is not enough, as I have heard some conservatives try to prove, that the Republican Party was always the party of civil rights from Lincoln’s day onward, and that the white racists in the South were the Southern Democrats. If you think that is a sufficient excuse, go to the library and look up civil rights-era issues of National Review. William F. Buckley’s journal of opinion was anything but a frontline supporter of civil rights for black Americans.

Chavez notes:

To put the era in perspective, Abby Thernstrom, in her seminal study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Whose Votes Count?, notes that fewer than 7 percent of voting-age blacks were registered in Mississippi prior to federal registrars being sent in after the Act was passed; by 1967, the number of registered blacks had jumped to 60 percent. And it is hard to imagine that Barbour wasn’t at least aware of the murder of three civil-rights activists in 1964 in Meridian, Mississippi, just 140 miles from his hometown of Yazoo City, not to mention the segregation that permeated every facet of public life. Haley and I graduated high school the same year, and even though I was living in Denver at the time, I was very much aware of what was going on in Mississippi. To ignore this history requires an act of will.

That is an act of will which Barbour’s most recent statement does not address in any sufficient fashion. Moreover, as conservatives today support color-blind policies and oppose the kind of liberal programs that continue to favor racial preferences for minorities, as Chavez bravely argues, we can do so by noting that we do so as people who have the moral authority to always have opposed racism and, for many of us who were around at the time, participated actively in the civil rights movement.

Barbour, growing up in the white South, was not part of that movement. We cannot pick where we were born, and the milieu in which we were raised. But as adults, we can look back and honestly say that our ancestors were wrong, as were many of those conservatives who, for various reasons, were fierce opponents of civil rights. Chavez concludes:

Unfortunately, the opposition to racial preferences that harm whites (and Asians) coming from many conservatives today is far more fervent than was their opposition to racial discrimination that harmed blacks in the past. It would help conservatives’ cause to acknowledge that failure rather than pretend it was not one.

To this, I give a hearty amen!

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