Gov. backs away from remarks on Citizens Council

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Potential presidential candidate Gov. Haley Barbour was put in a position of backtracking Tuesday after critics around the nation assailed him for asserting that the White Citizens Council played an important role in the peaceful integration of public schools in his hometown of Yazoo City.
The Republican Barbour, who is in his second term as governor of Mississippi, issued a statement saying 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.”
Citizens Councils organized around Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s with the goal of preserving racial segregation.
Barbour had drawn criticism this week after widespread national media reports of his comments in an interview in the current edition of The Weekly Standard.
‘They think it was like the KKK’
In a profile by Andrew Ferguson in the conservative magazine, Barbour was asked how his hometown of Yazoo City was able to integrate its schools without racial violence.
He responded: “Because the business community wouldn’t stand for 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.”
The Citizens Council, formed in Indianola after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954, generally did not condone Klan violence but relied on economic pressure to enforce segregation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Halberstam, who worked briefly for the West Point Daily Times Leader, wrote of an incident in 1955 in which 51 of 53 black signers of a school integration petition in Yazoo City withdrew their names after the Citizens Council tried to ensure that anyone who signed the petition would lose their jobs or suffer other economic consequences.
The lack of violence in 1970 during the integration of the Yazoo City schools was not unusual. While Mississippi’s history, primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s, is rife with violence against blacks, most Mississippi school districts integrated with little or no vioelnce in 1969-70 after another Supreme Court order forced the state to get on with the process.
In a Time magazine article from the period titled “Surrender in Mississippi,” a federal official is quoted as saying the “the word has apparently gone out to the power structure in Mississippi that it’s going to be peaceful and orderly.”
In most places it was. According to an FBI file, in 1967 violence did erupt in Grenada during a desegregation effort and black students “had to be accompanied by civil rights activists.”
Some white Missisippians dealt with integration by removing their children from the public schools. According to Charles Bolton, a professor of history at North Carolina Greensboro who previously taught at the University of Southern Mississippi, from 1966 to 1970 the number of private schools in the state skyrocketed from 121 to 236. The number of children attending private schools tripled.
One of those schools started during the time was Manchester Academy in Yazoo City, which is where Barbour sent his children in later years.
It is unclear if the Citizens Council comments will hurt Barbour if he does run for president in 2012. He has said he will announce his intentions after the next legislative session ends in April or May.
In a piece titled “Conservative bloggers agree: Haley Barbour is toast,” Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote, “Barbour has never disentangled himself from the legacy of his region, and worse, he doesn’t even seem to think this matters. He doesn’t even bother trying to be subtle in advertising his disdain for racial sensitivities.”
But Toby Harnden, the London Daily Telegraph’s U.S. editor, wrote that the fact that the comments were made more than a year from the first round of primary voting probably helps Barbour, though he referred to him as a long shot. Harnden writes, “And perhaps it will be a warning to Barbour that presidential candidates need to be much more careful about what they say than Southern governors, especially on race.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.