STARKVILLE – While it got precious little national or state notice, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour issued a formal and public apology on behalf of the state of Mississippi to the Freedom Riders during ceremonies welcoming them to the 50th anniversary of their contributions to the civil rights movement in this state. It was an apology that was long overdue from the state as whole.
The Freedom Riders faced mob violence, Molotov cocktails, false imprisonment and hostility for their efforts to end segregation of public accommodations and interstate travel in 1961. Barbour’s apology appeared heartfelt and was greeted by a standing ovation from the Freedom Riders gathered in Jackson. The next morning, Barbour and First Lady Marsha Barbour hosted a breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion for the riders and their families.
To have followed Barbour’s serious exploration of a 2012 Republican presidential bid, one would think – and some media outlets are now making it appear – that Barbour’s seemingly earnest apology to the Freedom Riders last Sunday was his first and only moment of historical clarity on Mississippi’s real past on matters of civil rights and racial harmony.
“We thank you for your courage, your commitment, your sufferings and your sacrifices of 50 years ago. We apologize to you for the mistreatment in 1961 and we appreciate this chance for atonement and reconciliation,” said Barbour during welcome ceremonies for the group at the Jackson Marriott Hotel.
Those remarks are in keeping with both the tone and content of a speech Barbour made in Philadelphia in 2004 on the 40th anniversary of the murders civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 2004 speech, Barbour said: “We know that when evil is done it is a complicit sin to ignore it, to pretend it didn’t happen even if it happened 40 years ago. You have to face up to your problems before you can solve them.
“Today it is appropriate to remember this horrid evil 40 years past and it is also appropriate to recognize and praise God for all the progress that has occurred since then especially here in Mississippi.
“The fact that our state has made as much or more progress in race relations than others is praise worthy but it doesn’t mean that we should or can forget the reprehensible murders that ultimately led to our being brought here together today.”
How harsh was that 2004 speech against the KKK and the philosophy the Klan represented in Mississippi? Barbour compared the Klan violence of the 1960s and specifically the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner to Islamic fundamentalism.
Like Barbour’s speech May 22 to the Freedom Riders, the 2004 Neshoba speech was roundly ignored. But when Barbour made noise about seeking the presidency, he was pilloried for his recollections of the Citizen’s Council in Yazoo City, slammed for not pardoning the Scott sisters from a sleazy modern era crime that had nothing whatsoever to do with civil rights and for a general lack of sensitivity on race.
Any comparison of the venal 1993 crimes of the Scott sisters and the heroism of the Freedom Riders is an insult to the riders and their families. Barbour granted clemency in 2010 to the Scott sisters to address a failure of a biracial jury to mete out an appropriate prison sentence for their conviction on armed robbery charges.
Now, the Scott sisters and their supporters want to hide behind the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders seeking a pardon for a crime that the U.S. Supreme Court obviously believed they committed an in which that court refused to intervene. A pardon for the Scott sisters would cheapen Barbour’s apology.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.