Haley Barbour is embroiled in controversy over comments he made to Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard about growing up in segregated Mississippi. Barbour said he didn’t remember things being “that bad.” And he praised the local White Citizens Council for keeping the Ku Klux Klan out of his home town.
In reality, things were very bad in Mississippi (as elsewhere) back then for African-Americans and, in moral terms, for the rest of us. And the White Citizens Councils were doing their best to keep them that way.
Barbour has subsequently acknowledged as much. He stated that the Citizens Councils were “totally indefensible, as is segregation,” adding that “it was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country and, especially, African-Americans who were persecuted in that time.”
How much should one make of Barbour’s initial comments? I think they are an honest and understandable reflection of how he perceived his home town when he was growing up there, not a statement of how he views the past now. Like most happy children, Barbour, I take it, was too busy enjoying his life to worry about the lives of others he did not know.
A more socially aware white teenager in Mississippi would have been disturbed by the injustices around him. But the fact that Barbour’s social awareness was not developed beyond the norm in that context doesn’t tell us anything important about his fitness for high office decades later.
Of more concern to me is Barbour’s willingness to speak openly and honestly about the topic. I would expect a potential presidential candidate, particularly one as shrewd as Barbour, to give a more correct (but less accurate) account of how he saw things when he was growing up in the segregated South.
Still, it would be unfair if (as is quite possible) these comments set back Barbour’s presidential aspirations, if any. Barbour’s relationship to the segregated South is far more innocent than that of Jimmy Carter. The former president supported segregation in his home town of Plains, Georgia as an adult. In fact, as Hans van Spakovsky has shown:
When Carter returned to Plains, Georgia, to become a peanut farmer after serving in the Navy, he became a member of the Sumter County School Board, which did not implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down by the Supreme Court. Instead, the board continued to segregate school children on the streets of Carter’s hometown.
Carter’s board tried to stop the construction of a new “Elementary Negro School” in 1956. Local white citizens had complained that the school would be “too close” to a white school. As a result, “the children, both colored and white, would have to travel the same streets and roads in order to reach their respective schools.” The prospect of black and white children commingling on the streets on their way to school was apparently so horrible to Carter that he requested that the state school board stop construction of the black school until a new site could be found. The state board turned down Carter’s request because of “the staggering cost.” Carter and the rest of the Sumter County School Board then reassured parents at a meeting on October 5, 1956, that the board “would do everything in its power to minimize simultaneous traffic between white and colored students in route to and from school.”
I haven’t seen any evidence that Barbour ever supported segregation or other forms of racism. So if Barbour pays a political price for his remarks to Ferguson, it won’t be because he is (or once was) a racist, or racially insensitive; it will be because he’s a Republican.
UPDATE: In 1974, I spent a few days in Belzoni, Mississippi. Belzoni (pronounced Belzonah) is about 25 miles of kudzu from Yazoo City, Haley Barbour’s hometown.
I enjoyed my stay (I was there for a wedding) and liked the people I met. But I noticed some things I didn’t like. The thing I remember best is the run-down condition of the local public school. The baskets on the outside basketball court lacked rims, for example. I was told that this school was for blacks, the white students having switched to an academy when the school system was finally desegregated.
But the fact that things like this jumped out at me does not mean they should have jumped out at a teenager who lived in the town all his life. I was seeing the town as an adult outsider, and as an aspiring (and soon to become) civil rights lawyer, raised by a civil rights activist father.
I don’t assume that, in Barbour’s shoes, I would have thought things in Belzoni or Yazoo City were “that bad” growing up or would have remembered them as bad years later.