In a recent article in The Weekly Standard entitled “The Boy from Yazoo City,” Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, waxed nostalgic about Citizens’ Councils and Yazoo City’s ability to integrate public schools in the 1970s.
When asked how Yazoo City was able to integrate its schools without facing any violence, Barbour said:
Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it. … You heard of the Citizens [sic] 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.
Technically, Barbour is correct. Citizens’ Councils were an organization of town leaders; they may well have passed anti-Klan resolutions, and there may not have been a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City. These possibilities in no way support Barbour’s unstated premise that, somehow, the Citizens’ Council in Yazoo City was racially tolerant when it came to integration, voting rights or the civil rights movement. The racial sentiment in Yazoo City, Mississippi was similar to that in other Mississippi Delta region cities such as Money (where Emmett Till was murdered), Sumner (where Till’s accused murderers were acquitted), and Jackson (where Medgar Evers was assassinated). Barbour’s feeble attempt to salvage the lost cause of white supremacy by revising history is a preemptive strike against those who will rightfully question his background if he decides to run for president.
For the record, according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s “America in Black and White,” the first chapter of the Citizens’ Councils of America (initially the White Citizens’ Council) was established in 1954 in Indianola, Mississippi in response to the Brown decision. A pamphlet written by Mississippi Judge Tom Brady entitled “Black Monday” denounced the Brown decision and played to the “obsessive sexual fear” that integration triggered in the South. Integrated schools were perceived to be a threat to white children and white womanhood.
To combat this threat, Brady proposed the formation of a new organization to resist racial change, an organization that would be less violent and more respectable than the Ku Klux Klan; he thought this respectability would attract a broader following. From this proposal, the grassroots organization was founded. What is important to note, and what runs contrary to Barbour’s romanticized account, is that, according to the Thernstrom’s, “The Councils were as committed to white supremacy as the KKK, but less crude in their methods.” Others, such as The Montgomery Advertiser, called them “manicured Ku Klux Klans.” In his book “Away Down South,” historian James Cobb describes white Southern reaction to racial tensions after World War II, “as battalions of hostile whites rallied to the Citizens’ Council, the Ku Klux Klan, and other less organized but no less menacing efforts to repulse northern ‘outside agitators’ bent on destroying the ‘southern way of life.'”
In the Weekly Standard article, Barbour describes the political mindset of his parents and his upbringing: “We were Eastland Democrats.” This is another very important point. James O. Eastland, the long-serving US senator from Mississippi, was a committed segregationist. According to noted King biographer Taylor Branch, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “James Eastland of Mississippi had killed all but one of the 121 civil rights measures over the past decade [the 1950s].” Barbour, by his own admission, was raised by segregationists.
Lest we forget, it was Barbour contemporary Trent Lott, former senator from Mississippi, who attempted to rewrite the legacy of staunch segregationist and former senator Strom Thurmond by saying the United States would have avoided “all these problems” if then-segregationist Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Lott was also a frequent speaker at meetings of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), once telling its members they “stand for the right principles and the right philosophy.” The CCC is the successor organization of the White Citizens’ Council.
Whether it’s Lott’s “all these problems”; Tancredo’s, “We want our country back”; George Wallace’s, “And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again” or his more infamous, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”; Sarah Palin’s reported, “Excuse me, but I don’t mess with black men” or her reported reference to then-senator Obama defeating Senator Clinton: “So Sambo beat the bitch,” Haley Barbour’s failed attempt to rewrite history stems from the same bigoted white supremacist ideology as the others, and must be rejected as such.
As he attempts to position himself for a presidential run in 2012 or 2016, Americans must let Haley Barbour, the Tea Party, and other conservatives with similar ideology and sentiments know that there is no place in the American political discourse for such sentiment. It’s up to those of us who know the history to publicly speak to and renounce those who attempt to distort it. The history is “our-story,” not his.