Should Conservatives Give Haley Barbour a Blank Check?
In one fell swoop -- his interview for Andrew Ferguson’s profile of him in The Weekly Standard -- Haley Barbour effectively eliminated himself from being a serious contender for the Republican nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2012. As most everyone knows by now, Barbour said to Ferguson that in his hometown of Yazoo City, the schools were integrated peacefully, and violence was avoided, unlike the case in other Mississippi localities. Barbour then continued:
"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.”
By portraying the notorious White Citizens Councils as a solid and decent alternative to the racist Klan, Barbour -- a skilled politician if there ever was one -- opened himself up for a tirade of attacks as a Southern-born man who had a good life in his segregated boyhood home, and who so many decades later still doesn’t get it and is apologizing for the old racism of his home state.
Within one day, Barbour issued a forthright apology:
When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the "Citizens Council," is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.
The question is a simple one: Is his mea culpa enough, or does it still not do the job? Jennifer Rubin, for one, is certain that Barbour fell far short. On her blog at the Washington Post, she writes: “Those who believe, with a fair amount of justification, that he simply doesn't get it on matters of race are hardly going to be mollified by a written statement after more than 24 hours of horrid press coverage.” Moreover, she notes that whenever Barbour speaks about anything else, this one statement will be continually brought up -- again and again -- and he will never be able to get beyond it. Barbour’s fans might be disappointed and angry, but Rubin’s point is well-taken. In today’s United States, a candidate who has made a “racially insensitive” comment simply will not be allowed to put it in his past.
Media critic Howard Kurtz is one of the few who is not so sure. At the Daily Beast, Kurtz argues that while Barbour should clearly have “known better” to make such a foolish statement, he believes that “the press [is] getting itself worked into a lather over what Barbour did and thought when he was a teenager.” After all, Barbour also said that he went to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in Yazoo, but as a 15 year old, was more interested in checking out the girls who attended the event.
The problem, however, is that every politician’s views of his youth have become fair game. Kurtz notes:
Southerners of a certain age are especially vulnerable on questions of race. When Virginia’s George Allen was unsuccessfully seeking reelection to the Senate in 2006, Salon reported that three of his former college football teammates recalled him using the N-word and demonstrating racist attitudes toward blacks. Allen called the allegations "ludicrously false."
Kurtz, however, thinks the time has come to let people like Barbour have a pass for their youthful views, even if they were tinged with the racism which prevailed in the Mississippi white community at the time. He writes:
Barbour should certainly be held accountable for the insensitive way he talked about the bad old days of officially sanctioned racial prejudice. His statement today is an acknowledgement of how badly he bobbled the question. But at some point you have to ask: Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on this stuff?
To that question, I answer no, and here’s why I think Kurtz is wrong. Barbour should have known that the views he once had -- and to which he still seems to subscribe -- are both inaccurate and historically incorrect. The White Citizens Council was not a decent alternative to the Klan that sought to help Yazoo move to accept integration without fierce resistance.
Writing at the site of the History News Network, historian James C. Cobb, who has written a new book about the South after World War II, shows that Barbour today is dead wrong when he writes that he remembers the situation for blacks in Yazoo City as “not being that bad.” Cobb points out that that Council was “arch segregationist,” as much as was the Klan. He explains its purpose in the following paragraph:
Pledged to maintain white supremacy, the councils foreswore violence but did their best to intimidate blacks who might think about challenging the status quo and to make painful examples of those who did. Perched atop the local economic pyramid, the councils’ white elites could seriously reduce, if not cut off entirely, the flow of commerce and credit, not to mention employment, to blacks who got out of line. Council leaders typically made it a point to see that the names of any black persons who had attempted to register to vote or signed petitions for school desegregation made their way to the local newspapers so that whites in the community would know which blacks to fire, turn off their tenant farms, or deny credit. An Alabama council member summed up his group’s aims quite candidly when he explained, “We intend to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a Negro who advocates desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit, or renew a mortgage.”
The Council was strongest in Mississippi, where, he writes, “the Council propagandized about the horrors of racial amalgamation and publicized the NAACP’s ‘well-known’ ties to communism. The group also worked closely with the publicly funded State Sovereignty Commission to spy on, harass, and undermine not only those thought to favor integration but those whose attitudes toward it were simply unclear.”
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.
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!