Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One Mississippi


One Mississippi
By William Tucker on 12.22.10 @ 6:09AM

The race hounds at the New York Times, who don't miss a thing, have nabbed Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour trying cross the border into Presidential territory posing as an ordinary citizen.

Barbour is the subject of a cover story by Andy Ferguson in this week's Weekly Standard. The story was not on the newsstands one day before, according to Times reporter Michael D. Shear, "Media Matters, a liberal organization, sent e-mail messages to reporters Monday urging coverage of the comments." So naturally, the Times had to comply. "Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P. told Huffington Post, 'It's beyond disturbing -- it's offensive that he would take that approach to the history of the state,'" he reports.

Here's what Barbour did. Talking about his boyhood in Yazoo City during the Civil Rights Era, Barbour recalled that the White Citizens Council -- a feared source of violence in other parts of the state -- played an entirely different role in his hometown.

"In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan" would be "run out of town," Mr. Barbour said. "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."

"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Barbour remarks, obviously referring to his hometown experience, not the general condition of African-Americans across the state. He recalls that race relations were so relaxed that when Martin Luther King came to give a speech in 1962, both whites and blacks turned out to hear him. Here is Ferguson's report:

Did you go? I asked.

"Sure, I was there with some of my friends."

I asked him why he went out.

"We wanted to hear him speak."

I asked what King had said that day.

"I don't really remember. The truth is, we couldn't hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King."

Well, it's obvious what's going on here, right? Barbour is a racist! (He was 15 at the time.) After all, there are no innocent bystanders in politics, right? If you weren't standing on the front lines, arms crossed, singing "We Shall Overcome," then you are as guilty as anyone.

I was in Mississippi as a volunteer during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964. (A play I've written about that summer was produced this fall in Nyack, N.Y.) At the orientation, Bob Moses, the great civil right pioneer, told us there were three types of towns in the state: 1) places where there was very little violence, 2) places where the authorities could "turn the violence on and off," and 3) places where no one could control the violence. Yazoo City was obviously a place where the establishment could not only turn the violence on and off but run it out of town as well. As Ferguson reports, Yazoo City's school integration in 1970 was probably the smoothest in the state. "The national reporters presented the city to the world as a model of how integration at its best could work," says Ferguson. Willie Morris, the revered editor of Harper's and another son of Yazoo City, reported at the time, "By the middle of the day, it was quite apparent that Yazoo City had indeed integrated its schools calmly and deliberately."

All this is no reflection on Barbour, who was off at college when it all happened. But it does show that there were good people and bad people in Mississippi and for the most part the good people eventually prevailed. Only liberals intent on keeping the nation perpetually divided over race would conclude any different.

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