Just a week ago, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was in hot water over an impolitic statement he made about the Citizens Council – the all-white group prominent during the 1960s when burning crosses and murdered civil rights workers were the main news out of his home state.
Today, Governor Barbour – frequently mentioned as a Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012 – is being lauded as a “shining example" by the NAACP over another story that relates directly to the subject of race in the South.
On Thursday, Barbour suspended the life sentences of two black sisters who’d already served 16 years for an armed robbery that netted $11.
Dig a little deeper than the headlines, and both episodes are more nuanced than they appear.
In the first case, an interviewer for the conservative Weekly Standard asked about the white Citizens Council when Barbour was a teen-ager in Yazoo, Miss., during the height of the frequently violent battle over voting rights for blacks in the South.
“I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said, comparing it with the menacing, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan.
That brought a storm of criticism, and Barbour quickly back-tracked, calling the Citizens Council “totally indefensible, as is segregation.”
That has to be the default position for any politician from the deep South today – particularly one with national ambitions.
Besides, it’s understandable (if not excusable) that a white teenager barely out of high school in a segregated society 45 years ago may not have understood the situation from the point of view of black Mississippians living in fear at the time. There’s no reason to think that Barbour’s second-thought comments don’t represent his true feelings today about organizations like the white Citizens Council.
This week, Barbour’s suspending indefinitely the sentences of Gladys and Jamie Scott is winning him plaudits from African-American leaders.
"This is a shining example of how governors should use their commutation powers," said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.
For years, critics (including the NAACP) have pointed to the Scott sisters’ case as unjust and possibly racially-tinged. Neither of the sisters, who were 20 and 21 at the time, had a prior criminal record. Three teenage boys involved in the armed robbery were sentenced to just two years and have since been released.
Still, Barbour’s action is not the same thing as a full pardon or commutation of the Scotts’ sentences. (Slate and other news outlets have reported on the number of pardons Barbour has granted in the past to those convicted of much more serious crimes.) And it comes with strings attached.
Jamie Scott is in poor health and requires regular dialysis treatment. Gladys Scott has offered to donate a kidney to her sister.
Barbour’s order says “Gladys Scott's release is conditioned on her donating one of her kidneys to her sister.”
“Jamie Scott's medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi,” Barbour also noted. Releasing the sisters from prison would relieve the state of paying for Jamie Scott’s continued treatment.
While supporters of the Scott sisters applaud Barbour’s move, some medical ethicists are raising questions – including the appearance of coercion in which Gladys Scott finally wins release but only if she undergoes what can be risky surgery.
"While Governor Barbour probably meant nothing nefarious by this decision, what he did was unethical and possibly illegal,” Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, told the Reuters news agency. “He is unaware of the procedures of transplantation that include making sure donors are not coerced.”
"If either party could be turned down for medical concerns, the transplant team would feel pressured to continue with the transplant or send them back to prison,” Dr. Shapiro said. “It is a position they should not be put in.”
So whether Barbour was being altruistic or politically calculating in his decision to release the Scott sisters from state prison, it complicates the picture on race, crime, and medical ethics for Mississippi’s governor.