Spotlight: What Barbour's Hometown Was Really Like for Black People

Rick Perlstein says Barbour's warm and fuzzy memories about the Civil Rights era say a lot about Southern conservatives

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Many are declaring Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's presidential candidacy over before it ever really began, thanks to his musing, in a Weekly Standard interview, about how integration in his hometown of Yazoo City was pretty much no biggie. Liberals and conservatives alike are criticizing Barbour for his apparent cluelessness about the Civil Rights Era. But this is more than a political mini-scandal of the week, Rick Perlstein argues at Salon. Barbour's "amnesia" says a lot about his generation of Southern conservatives, and to understand why you have to look at the real history of Yazoo City in the 1960s. Here are the highlights of his attempt to fact-check and respond to Barbour's recollections.

On Barbour's Notion That the White Citizens Council Kept Out the KKK

The best that can be said about his recollection is that it is not 100 percent a lie--just deeply confused, mostly wrong, and indicative above all of a cynical man who has made a lucrative career of exploiting racial trauma when it suited him, or throwing it down a memory hole when it did not; which is to say, an archetypal Dixie conservative. ... While the Citizens Councils were born in 1954 of Brown v. Board of Education... [the Klan] were the new kids in town--that it to say, the competition, and low-class competition at that. ... In Yazoo... the local Citizens' Council did indeed pass a resolution excoriating the Klan--because 'your Citizen's Council was formed to preserve separation of the races, and believes that it can best serve the county where it is the only organization operating in this field.'

What Race Relations Were Really Like

[Barbour] says the King speech he saw in '62 was 'full of people, black and white' -- part of his longstanding pattern of radically distorting the degree of comity between the races in Mississippi during his youth. In fact, during Mississippi's race revolution, when blacks and whites occupied the same space (except when the former were virtual servants and the former masters), the scene in greater or lesser degrees resembled the chaos that day in Philadelphia. This was as true in 1966 as it was in 1962. As The New York Times described the scene in Philadelphia ... '[s]ome 25 white men surged over the television men, swinging, and then flared in to the line of march, their eyes wide with anger," and police didn't intervene against the ensuing stones, bottles, clubs, and firecrackers until '[h]alf a dozen Negroes began to fight back.' Then it was on to Yazoo.

On Barbour's Statement That He Recalls Not MLK, But the Girls at the Rally

I hope Haley Barbour is just making that last detail up. The menacing white mobs that gathered at the periphery of civil rights rallies in places like Yazoo City were almost exclusively male. If he truly remembers the moment through a cloud of testosterone, the imagery invokes to me the most Gothic nastiness imaginable. In Black Like Me, the 1961 classic in which journalist John Howard Griffith blackened his face to see how race relations worked in the South, Griffith learned through one white interlocutor 'how all of the white men in the region craved colored girls. He said he hired a lot of them both for housework and in his business. "And I guarantee you, I've had it in every one of them since before they ever got on the payroll …We figure we're doing your people a favor to get some white blood in your kids."'

No way, not in a million years, am I accusing Haley Barbour of being like this guy. I'm making a different point. At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town--it really was no big deal, he insists. When he does so, this is what he is forgetting: the entire bad-faith stew of race, sex, and corrupt plutocracy--and its public repression in images of towns like 'families' and happy Negroes until outsiders stirred things up--that defined his formative years. He's a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically 'forget.'
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