MARTY RUSSELL: Timing of civil rights museum raises questions

By Marty Russell

Is it just me or does our governor seem uncharacteristically enthusiastic about public funding for a museum project in these tough economic times?
I truly hope I’m wrong here but something about Gov. Haley Barbour’s support for a multi-million-dollar, state-funded civil rights museum just doesn’t ring true, especially in light of the timing, just as he’s leaving office and about to enter the 2012 presidential race. Even though Barbour hasn’t officially announced he’s running, I think most political observers would agree that he’s as likely to enter the race as Charlie Sheen and Reactor No. 3 are to have another meltdown.
The nagging question is whether Barbour’s support for the museum is a genuine desire to honor the memory of the civil rights struggle here in the state or a pre-emptive strike against what he knows will dog him in the presidential election – is he a racist?
While I don’t believe the governor is a racist, there’s a perception out there, particularly in the national media, that based on some of his statements that have been widely reported he fits the mold. And the fact that he’s a white Mississippian means he doesn’t have any choice. Those are broad stereotypes, to be sure, but Barbour hasn’t helped dispel them with some of his comments.
So it’s sure to raise the question in a lot of people’s minds of whether the governor’s support for a civil rights museum in his home state is a sincere nod to history or simply a political ploy to deflect criticism and speculation about whether he’s a racist once the presidential campaign begins.
The museum had been on the back burner for years until Barbour brought it up in his state of the state speech this year. He indicated to the Daily Journal’s editorial board this week that he wants the project to be state funded while legislators seem to prefer matching private funds to cover half the cost.
Meanwhile, with revenues coming up woefully short it appears education funding will remain stagnant for another year and the governor wants to cut $17 million in mental health funding and close some mental health facilities.
So, again, it raises the question of why the sudden rush to pump state money into a civil rights museum? If someone like myself, who generally has a favorable opinion of our two-term governor, is scratching their head over that question, the national media once the presidential campaign kicks off in earnest will probably be foaming at the mouth.
Barbour is one of the most politically savvy people in the country so you have to wonder why now and why wholly state-funded? I sincerely hope it’s because he’s actually a supporter and not because he simply wants Mississippi taxpayers to contribute millions to his presidential campaign.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by email at marusse1@olemiss.edu.