Mississippi Gov. Barbour backtracks on racial remarks

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 4:15 PM

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is trying to quell the political storm kicked up over controversial comments he made about the struggle for civil rights in his state.

In a Weekly Standard magazine profile published Monday, Barbour said he didn't remember it "being that bad" and referred benignly to white groups called Citizens Councils, which were known to enforce segregationist policies throughout the South.

His office released a statement Tuesday morning backtracking from those remarks.

"When asked why my home town in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there," Barbour said in a statement Tuesday.

"My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time."

The 63-year-old Barbour, who is mulling a run for president, was reared in Mississippi during the height of the civil rights movement and has at various times set off political debates over racial attitudes. For example, in his defense of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation that initially did not mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War, Barbour said the whole thing "doesn't amount to diddly."

The recent Weekly Standard article on Barbour delves into the racial history of his home town, Yazoo City, and Barbour's recollections of his experiences there. Some have held the town up as an example of integration without the brutal violence that marked other parts of the Deep South. Still, Mississippi was home to infamous episodes of racial violence, including the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Writer Andrew Ferguson asked Barbour about relative lack of violence when schools in Yazoo City were integrated. "Because the business community wouldn't stand for it," Barbour said. "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 controversy over the Weekly Standard comments prompted some news organizations to point to a 1982 New York Times article, written by that paper's former editor Howell Raines, when Barbour, then 34, was running against an older conservative Democrat. Raines wrote that "the racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be 'coons' at a campaign stop at the state fair. Embarrassed that a reporter heard this, Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks."

Barbour's office did not address the 1982 article in its statement.

The governor has been criticized by commentators on the right and the left.

"For Barbour, one of the best politicians in the game, it is very interesting and curious as to why he is still tripping over the issue," wrote Brett Kittredge, editor of the conservative political blog, MajorityInMs.com in Mississippi. "Race is going to come up with any Mississippi Republican who approaches a national level. But Barbour, someone who has spent many years in Washington, knows that things read differently in D.C. than they do in Jackson."

In the past, Barbour has spoken of the progress that Mississippi has made. In written remarks from a 2004 speech he gave at the 40th anniversary of the murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, which is posted on the website of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper, Barbour says: "The fact that our state has made as much or more progress in race relations than others is praise worthy but it doesn't mean that we should or can forget the reprehensible murders that ultimately led to our being brought here together today.

"Yes, our state of Mississippi is a wonderful place and our nation as great as ever but we are not perfect. We are sinners, one and all and evil can still raise it heinous head."

May 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, which will be commemorated in Mississippi.

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