Barbour: Citizens Council 'Indefensible'

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Updated 1:30 p.m.

Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour responded Tuesday to the furor over his remarks in The Weekly Standard that life during the Civil Rights era in Mississippi wasn't "that bad" and his apparent suggestion that the pro-segregation Citizens Council was a force for good in his home town of Yazoo City. His statement:

When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called 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.

Whether or not the statement will be enough to quell the furor over his words or a forestall an exhaustive examination of his record of remarks on race and the civil rights struggles of African Americans in the South remains an open question.

(My gut instinct is that the answer is no -- not in this partisan environment, and not given the level of scrutiny to which all candidates are subjected during presidential campaigns, should Barbour chose to run. More likely is that the controversy will appear to die down, his Republican and Democratic opponents will begin deeper digs on his record and the history of Yazoo City, and then the controversy will re-erupt with new force and fresh details at some later moment when those diggers decide it can do more political damage to Barbour or the Republican Party as a whole.)

The National Review's Jim Geraghty for now has compiled one of the more thorough catalogs of Barbour's remarks on race and Mississippi history. His conclusion, based on a New York Times report from 1982 that found Barbour making a joke about African Americans and watermelon:

Presuming the anecdote of Barbour's watermelon joke is accurate, it will outweigh everything else he's done in the eyes of millions upon millions of voters. There's too much baggage to that remark to dismiss as a momentary stupid slip of the tongue. Even if a racially insensitive remark is said to rebuke another's racially insensitive remark, with enough examples, the benefit of the doubt is eviscerated.

Other Barbour comments that add to the picture, Geraghty wrote, were:

  • Barbour fondly remembering a black classmate at the University of Mississippi in 1965 and recalling his time there as "a very pleasant experience." The classmate, Verna Bailey, recalls the time quite differently: "I don't remember him at all, no, because during that time that certainly wasn't a pleasant experience for me," she said. "My interactions with white people were very, very limited. Very, very few reached out at all."

  • His comment that the controversy about commemorating Confederate History Month in Virginia "doesn't amount to diddly."

  • His statement that he attended "integrated" schools -- he attended during the 50s and early 60s - when Mississippi schools were not effectively integrated until 1970.

As for whether or not Barbour can survive a higher-profile controversy on the question of his racial views, it's worth recalling that a lot of people thought there was no way candidate Barack Obama could survive the controversy over his former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary YouTube oratory during the Democratic primaries. But then Obama gave his famous race speech and proved that an extraordinary orator and gifted politician can figure his way out of a political tight spot that would trap a less talented figure.

Barbour is uniquely positioned, given his history and the history of his state, to give a speech that also touches on themes of racial reconciliation, should he wish to, and that could even elevate his candidacy, should he run.

It would pretty much be the inverse of the Obama speech, from another corner of the American experience. But if racial controversies threaten to tank Barbour's campaign, he could do worse than taking a page from the Obama playbook and address them head on.

To be sure, such a speech would be an extraordinary test of his political skill, his understanding of contemporary national sentiments, and his oratory -- but so is running for president.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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