Last week, while on stage with Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, at the Atlantic-sponsored Washington Ideas Forum, I kept thinking this one thought: Black people are very forgiving people. Over and over again, this notion came to mind as I listened to Barbour spin himself away from a simple question I was asking, a question prompted by the recent work of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson: Does the Republican Party actually believe that African-Americans would support it in numbers so long as party officials -- like Barbour -- venerate the Confederacy?
Obviously, black people aren't so forgiving as to actually vote for Republicans in any significant way, but they are pretty forgiving nonetheless, when you consider the way southern Republicans talk about the antebellum South. Barbour has been neck-deep in this issue for some time. Earlier this year, a controversy erupted over the commemoration of "Confederate History Month" by Barbour's fellow Republican, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, in his proclamation, did not even mention that small detail of life in the old South known as slavery, and Barbour was asked on CNN if McDonnell was right to leave slavery unmentioned. Barbour said there was no need to mention slavery because everybody knows slavery was a bad thing, and he accused McDonnell's critics of making "a big deal out of something that doesn't amount to diddly."
I asked Barbour if he thought the Republicans could have it both ways -- black support and worship of the Confederacy -- at the same time. This is what he said, in full:
What I was asked, in a TV interview, was, "Did I think it would hurt McDonnell?" That's the way I took the question. What would the effect be on McDonnell? I said I didn't think there'd be any. And I don't. And I think today there hasn't been, and I don't think there will be. I don't think there's any political effect. In my state, having a Confederate Memorial Day is statutory. It was there long before Haley Barbour was governor. It was statutory. But what I am doing with the only black congressman from the state is, we're having the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders in May. And we're inviting all the living Freedom Riders that we can find - and we've found 170 of 'em, or something like that - and John Lewis is being an honorary chairman of it. And we're going to bring them to Jackson, Mississippi and let 'em see how Mississippi's changed in the 50 years since they came down there. And very interestingly, the place - they asked this on the questionnaire - and the place they asked to go the most was the state penitentiary. That didn't enter my mind, and then I realized, 'cause they all got sent there. You know, these were kids, and they came in, didn't do anything wrong, but they took 'em to the penitentiary. And what I think they're going to kind of get a kick out of, virtually none of the buildings are there anymore, where they were. They've all been torn down and rebuilt as we've had to, like everybody else, had to improve our corrections system. But we're also going to have 'em at the governor's mansion, for while they're there.
We think that is a very important holiday to celebrate. We think it's a very important time. I have proposed we build a Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi, which the legislature's working on right now, because, you know, those are very important times for people to understand, as we go forward. And I think Santayana was right: if you don't read and understand history, you're doomed to repeat it. And we're putting our past behind us, and we're very focused on future.
Endless noise, signifying nothing. So I tried again: "Let me come back to this question - this political question about African Americans. That's fine - celebrating the Freedom Riders is fine - but do you think it's possible to make huge inroads, or significant inroads in the African American population, so long as many southern states and their Republican-led governments are celebrating something called Confederate History Month? And venerating the flag?
Here's Barbour's second answer:
I would note to you that I have a Democratic legislature. And the Confederate Memorial Day is a holiday in Mississippi. It's done by the legislature. We never have had a Republican legislature. So I want you to have that fact. The fact of the matter is, I got about 20-22% of the black vote in my reelection, which is double or more what I got the first time. And it didn't have anything to do with Confederate Memorial Day, or the Civil Rights Museum, or any of that stuff. It's purely about performance. That people felt like I had helped them have a better life in Mississippi. And governors - it's easier for governors to do well among nontraditional Republican communities because governor's races tend to be so much about the record, about the economy, about the education system, than it is for senators and congressmen, whose records are much more partisan, just because Congress is much more partisan."
I gave up; I was banging my head against a stone wall (so to speak). The true, spin-free, answer, obviously, is that the Republican Party would rather not risk offending mythopoetic white Southerners by calling the Confederacy what it actually was -- a vast gulag of slavery, murder and rape. As an electoral strategy, it's a fine one -- an immoral one, but a practical one, something that has worked for the Republicans for more than 40 years (though the gains it has made in the South have been tempered by losses in the Northeast and elsewhere). But what I don't understand is why African-Americans, in the south as well as the north, don't simply rise up as a collective and say: No more. That's it. Stop the veneration of evil men.
Just imagine if this discussion was about the Holocaust. Do we really think the world would allow Germany to venerate the Nazis? Well, slavery was the Holocaust of the African-American experience, and yet, here we are, listening to respectable governors of large southern states rationalize the celebration of evil.
I'm so interested in this issue I'm going to keep pursuing it -- the two sides of the issue, actually: The seeming black acquiescence to publicly-endorsed Confederacy-worship, and the reasons some white people -- and their leaders -- feel compelled to perpetuate such worship.
UPDATE: I should have mentioned that Ta-Nehisi has been talking about this subject forever. Despite the fact that one of the most powerful bloggers at the Atlantic has been riding the south on this question, not much has changed. He's optimistic, I think, that it will change, but I don't see how, unless there's a mass mobilization of some sort.