Mississippi governor and potential presidential candidate Haley Barbour is now trying to backtrack his previous support for the racist White Citizens Councils that existed in the state when he was young.
In a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, he made his feelings quite clear:
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.
Since not everyone in America is wholly ignorant of recent history, Barbour is being forced to backpedal, according to Talking Points Memo. Among other things, he now says:
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.
Perhaps we are meant to think that the formation of the White Citizens Councils in the 1950s represented a principled rejection of the Klan. However, neither the timing nor the motivation rings true. As People For the American Way said in a 2003 report:
[I]t is worth noting that by 1967, "even the white establishment of Mississippi had begun to decide that Klan violence was bad for business." Clarence Page, "Fight Over Judges Replays Our Bitter History," Chicago Tribune (Feb. 13, 2002) (citing William Taylor, who at the time was Staff Director for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission).
Barbour’s desperate and unconvincing backtracking should not be the end of the story, because it is simply not credible that he was unaware of what the White Citizens Councils really were … as if their name wasn’t already a giveaway.
While Barbour today likens them to just another "organization of town leaders," the Mississippi White Citizens Councils show up in contemporaneous federal court cases as anything but a Rotary Club.
For instance, in 1964, a federal district court noted the then-recent formation of the Mississippi White Citizens Councils, including its first priority, in United States v. Mississippi:
In 1954, after the Supreme Court had declared state operation of racially segregated schools unconstitutional, white citizens councils — not parties to this action — were formed in Mississippi. The purpose of these organizations was the maintenance of racial segregation and white supremacy in Mississippi. The first statewide project undertaken by these organizations was the attempt to induce the white voters of Mississippi to adopt the proposed amendment to Section 244 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.
They succeeded, thereby introducing the literacy and civics tests that government officials subsequently used to keep African Americans disenfranchised.
Four years later, in 1968, their racist mission and funding were said to be common knowledge by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co:
It appears to be common knowledge that, in addition to its own activities promoting segregation, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency created in 1956 and financed by state tax revenues, used a part of its funds to finance some of the activities of various groups, including the White Citizens Council, which promote adherence to the ancient custom of proscribing the mixing of the races in places of public assembly; and that these groups, especially the White Citizens Council, use economic and social power to pressure those who might attempt to disregard custom into adhering to custom. See, generally, J. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society, 8, 32, 39-40, 42, 43, 65, 79, 94, 97, 110, 133, 151, 217 (1964).
People For the American Way discussed this key funder of the White Citizens Councils in a 2002 report:
The Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded agency, was created not long after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in order to resist desegregation, and was empowered to act as necessary to protect the "sovereignty" of the state of Mississippi from the federal government. The Commission infiltrated and spied on civil rights and labor organizations and reported on their activities. It compiled dossiers on civil rights activists and used the information to obstruct their activities. The Commission existed until 1977, when the state legislature voted to abolish it and to seal its records for 50 years.
The White Citizens Councils were a dark stain on the history of our nation. No responsible officeholder – or office seeker – can think otherwise. Had Governor Barbour stated that he did not recognize that at the time because he was a product of the environment he grew up in, it might be believable. But his defense of the White Citizens Council coupled with his unconvincing backpedaling suggests that he still doesn’t understand how repugnant the South’s Jim Crow system really was.