By Bill Minor
Haley Barbour must be serious about making a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, judging from the line he has been peddling to the national media that he and the Republican Party have long been supporters of civil rights and racial integration.
His pitch has been that his generation of enlightened Southern Republicans led the region’s switch from “old Democrats,” who fought integration, to the modern Republican Party. Either Barbour has a faulty memory or is telling outright lies to change the perception of the GOP.
Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer prize-winning columnist, writes that Barbour is selling “the biggest load of revisionist nonsense” he has ever seen.
Referring to an August interview Barbour gave to the right-wing magazine Human Events, Robinson challenges Barbour’s claim that “my generation who went to integrated schools – I went to an integrated college – and never thought twice about it” changed the South from the Democratic to Republican.
“Not a word of this is true,” Robinson, an African American who grew up under Southern segregation, writes. Certainly, the veteran columnist adds, Barbour did not attend integrated schools during his primary and high school years because Mississippi refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education which held segregated public schools unconstitutional. Integration of the state’s schools, Robinson points out, did not happen until it was ordered by the federal courts in 1970.
As far as Barbour’s attendance at Ole Miss is concerned, the university was hardly “integrated” when James Meredith was enrolled under court order Oct. 1, 1962 after a night of campus rioting that was only quelled when President Kennedy dispatched 25,000 troops to restore order.
A few days after Robinson’s Sept 7 column, Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers shot holes through Barbour’s statements at a news conference at the National Press Club touting the Republican Governors’ Association which Barbour heads.
Barbour zeroes in on a black woman classmate, Verna Bailey, with whom he claims to have become chummy in 1965. Bailey, he says, shared her English literature notes with him when he skipped class.
“I still love her,” Barbour says. Only trouble is Verna Bailey, the first female black student at the university, doesn’t even remember Barbour, and adds “my interaction with white people (at Ole Miss) was very limited. Very, very few reached out at all.”
Talev looked up Bailey and found she is now principal of an elementary school in Beaverton, OR. She left Mississippi years ago to follow her brother to the Pacific Northwest. She used to go back to Mississippi to visit her parents, but doesn’t since both of them passed away.
Bailey remembers as a student being inundated by intimidating phone calls from white students. “They were vulgar, all of sexual connotations” and often she was told to “go back to the cotton field.” She recalled once before graduating dancing with a young black man at a celebration at the Oxford town square when a crowd of whites began pelting them with coins and beer. “I thought my life was going to end,” she said, adding that a white minister led her to safety for which he was later ostracized.
Earlier this year, the governor of Virginia was criticized nationally for issuing a proclamation observing Confederate history that didn’t mention slavery. Asked for a comment, Barbour said the whole thing “didn’t amount to diddly.”
If the Mississippi governor has presidential ambitions and is hoping to shake his segregationist image, that’s no way to win friends and influence people.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.