By Bill Minor
JACKSON – The headline on the New York Times’ editorial: “Gov. Barbour’s Dream World” was right on target.
When Haley Barbour reached back and cited the white Citizens’ Councils as the good guys back in the 1960s Civil Rights struggle, it revealed how far out of touch he was (and is) with the reality of the state’s bad old days and the fragility of its complex biracial society even today.
When Barbour came back to the state to run for governor in 2003 after making barrels of money as an influence-peddler in Washington, DC, he was politically shrewd enough to know that if he could slip the race card even subtly into his campaign to unseat Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, it would be frosting on the cake to victory.
So that is exactly what he did, capitalizing on ammunition provided by the Democrats. Musgrove had created a commission headed by former Gov. William Winter to study redesigning the state flag, essentially to eliminate the confederate Rebel Battle flag that has for many years been offensive to the state’s black citizens who represent 37 percent of the population.
Although Musgrove did little to support the commission’s proposed flag design when it was submitted to a state referendum (and soundly defeated) Barbour, in his campaign literature (I have copies) pounded Musgrove for being “against Mississippi traditions.” To add another touch, Barbour started wearing a lapel pin with the Mississippi rebel flag on it. (You don’t see him going around the country wearing the pin.)
Barbara Blackmon, a black state senator, had won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Although candidates for the No. 2 state post run independently in Mississippi, Barbour’s campaign literature pictured her and Musgrove together as though they were running as a ticket and warning that they would be “unbearable” for Mississippi.
I had figured back then Barbour’s race card would be worth about 50,000 votes for him. That was pretty close to his victory margin.
The rotund, drawling Barbour as president of the Republican Governors Association handed out some $100 million in campaign cash among successful GOP gubernatorial candidates on Nov. 2. That moved him closer to the winner’s circle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination when, surprisingly, from the right flank his presidential aspirations were dealt what could be a fatal blow.
A lengthy profile piece was written by an editor of the ultra-conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, who had been given unusual access to Barbour, including a visit with him in Barbour’s hometown of Yazoo City. Barbour is quoted praising the segregationist white Citizens Councils in his town as “an organization of town leaders” who kept the violent Ku Klux Klan out of city. His comment that “I just don’t remember it being that bad,” when black Mississippians were risking their lives to achieve their lawful civil rights, was immediately scorched by national TV commentators and other news media.
What Barbour didn’t know, or chose to forget was that when a group of Yazoo City black parents petitioned the school board to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision declaring racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, the Yazoo Citizens Council published the names of the petitioners. The result was that at least a half dozen signers were forced to leave the county, and others either lost their jobs or bank credit.
Within days of the firestorm caused by his Weekly Standard remarks, Barbour backtracked, calling the white Citizens Councils “indefensible” and saying the civil right movement was a “difficult and painful era for the state,” especially the black population.
All these belated mea culpas may ameliorate Barbour’s gaff if he runs for president, but he still has to stand on his two-term record as governor and his compassion (or lack thereof) for Mississippi’s black folks, proportionately the highest in the U.S. It will be difficult for him to erase, for example, his insistence on annual face-to-face re-qualification to receive benefits for Medicaid that has thrown thousands of blacks off the rolls. Mississippi is the only state to do so.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.