Barbour Mistakes Black for White

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Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour observed to The Weekly Standard that the Civil Rights struggle was not so terrible, at least not in his hometown of Yazoo City. "I just don't remember it as being that bad," he said. And he offered an explanation:

You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.

The Citizens' Council of Yazoo City famously did, in fact, take precisely those steps. But Barbour's account captures its activities with all the inverted precision of a photo-negative. What Barbour seems to have forgotten is that it acted not against the Yazoo City Klavern, but against supporters of the NAACP.

In 1954, the NAACP determined to bring five test cases to force integration in the Mississippi public schools. Yazoo County exhibited some of the worst disparities in the state, spending $245.55 on every white child, but only $2.92 per black pupil. So the NAACP gathered fifty-three signatures of leading black citizens of Yazoo City, the county seat, on a petition calling for integration.

Their courage was met with outrage. Sixteen of the town's most prominent men called for a public meeting, to form a White Citizens' Council and respond to the petition. Several hundred turned out on a hot June night, including journalist Willie Morris, who watched in mute disbelief as the best men of the town outlined their response:

Those petitioners who rented houses would immediately be evicted by their landlords. White grocers would refuse to sell food to any of them. Negro grocers who had signed would no longer get any groceries from the wholesale stores. "Let's just stomp 'em!" someone shouted from the back, but the chairman said, no, violence would be deplored; this was much the more effective method. Public opinion needed to be mobilized behind the plan right away.

An advertisement in the Yazoo Herald soon followed. It offered "an authentic list of the purported signers," along with their addresses and telephone numbers. "Published as a public service by the Citizens' Council of Yazoo City," it read across the bottom.

The craftsmen could not find work. Those with jobs were fired. So were their spouses. Merchants refused to sell them groceries or supplies. The three black merchants who had signed were cut off by their wholesalers. The grocer had his account closed by the bank. One by one, they took their names off the petition. It did no good. Soon enough, 51 names were deleted from the petition. The other two had fled town before withdrawing.

The Citizens' Council eventually swelled to some 1,500 members. Over the following year, it expanded its activities, pressuring the few registered black voters to withdraw their names from the rolls. The local chapter of the NAACP folded. The Council did not resort to violence. It did not need to.

Nor did it manage to keep the Klan out of town. In fairness to Barbour, though, it's worth noting that it registered its principled opposition. "Your Citizens' Council was formed to preserve the separation of the races," it explained, "and believes that it can best serve the county when it is the only organization operating in this field." Unlike the NAACP activists, the members of Klan Unit 727 were neither targeted nor driven from town.

When integration finally came in 1970, it really was notably non-violent. The Weekly Standard piece captures the era well. Most white families soon withdrew their children from the public schools. Violence was spurned because, as Barbour accurately recalled, "the business community wouldn't stand for it." But that followed a decade and a half of successful resistance, orchestrated by the very Citizens' Council that Barbour chooses to celebrate as a bastion of respectability.

If Barbour wants to praise the good people of Yazoo City for their extraordinary restraint in not employing violence as they hounded from their community those black parents brave enough to demand a decent education for their children; to laud their public disavowal of the local Klan even as they turned a blind eye to its activities; or to extol their grudging cession of the inevitability of court-ordered integration after fifteen years of stalling, for its absence of lynchings or riots, that's his prerogative. For the rest of us, though, Yazoo City should serve as a poignant reminder that the civil rights struggle really was "that bad."

This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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