Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent comments on the role of the white Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City during the civil rights era have earned the Republican the wrath of liberal commentators, some of whom are now questioning the potential presidential contender's fitness for that office.
The episode highlights a divide of perception – and memory – between Northerners and Southerners that has long complicated the aspirations of Southern politicians on the national stage. (Think Trent Lott's ruined Senate career for making positive statements about Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat party.)
But it also shows how difficult it is for whites who lived through the civil rights era in the South to even talk about their own experiences. And it brings out the knee-jerk animosity that many Americans still feel toward white male Southerners with an R next to their name who tread onto the national political stage.
"This quickly becomes the politics of symbolism where a white Southern politician, especially a Republican, becomes immediately suspect because of what he lived through or participated in decades earlier," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "But that means [Barbour's] got to have an accurate understanding of what he's talking about for starters – and that he's got to be able to distance himself from these situations and positions that white Southern politicians took at that time."
Governor Barbour discussed the Citizens Council as well as the Ku Klux Klan in an interview for The Weekly Standard magazine. "You heard of the Citizens Councils?" Barbour said in the interview. "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."
Most critics concede that Barbour, a popular, easygoing politician, is not himself a racist. But many see in the two-term governor's version of how the white Citizens Councils kept the KKK out of Yazoo City and quelled violence in the town as evidence of what The New York Times called "the mutable clay of memory" of many Southerners. Especially chafing to critics was Barbour's comment in the interview, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” which referred to the civil rights era, when he was teenager growing up in Mississippi.
Barbour's take on history, critics say, whitewashed the intent of the Citizens Councils. The councils were made up of local business leaders and bankers who opposed integration by exerting economic "harassment" on desegregationists, including blacks in Yazoo City.
Barbour attempted to clarify the comments Tuesday. "[N]obody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either," he said in a statement released by his office. "Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation."
Still, critics see in the original remark a nonchalance about how many people feel about these issues. They reacted the same way to a comment Barbour made earlier this year about a brouhaha over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to reinstate Confederate History Month. The uproar, Barbour said, amounted to "trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
"... Barbour has displayed a stunning lack of insight, knowledge or even sensitivity to the role race played and continues to play in his own backyard," writes Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post.
On the other hand, Barbour's basic historical point – that Yazoo City integrated peacefully – jibes with published accounts from the early 1970s. Seen that way, the criticisms speak to the immense challenge for many Southern politicians, writes columnist Sid Salter in the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger.
"The worst allegation against a politician who happens to be a white Southerner is the charge that he or she is a racist. It's nothing short of nuclear in national politics," he writes.
Taken together with his thick Mississippi accent, which some say could alone trigger biases from Northern voters, the dust-up over Barbour's views of the civil rights era could pose problems as he ponders a 2012 presidential run.
"Haley Barbour has immense political skills. He's very likable and personable, and he's not an attack-dog politician, but this will test his skills," says Mr. Black at Emory University.