Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is facing a national controversy for praising the role of the White Citizens’ Councils, which opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, Barbour recalled the civil rights struggle in his hometown, Yazoo City, Mississippi, saying, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” We speak with John Dittmer, Professor Emeritus of History at DePauw University in Indiana. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is facing growing national controversy for praising the role of the White Citizens’ Councils, which opposed racial integration in the '50s and ’60s. In addition, Barbour recalled the civil rights struggle in his hometown, Yazoo City, Mississippi, saying, quote, “I just don't remember it as being that bad.” Speaking to the Weekly Standard, Barbour described the White Citizens’ Councils as an “organization of town leaders,” but historians in Mississippi say the White Citizens’ Councils played an active role in trying to keep public schools segregated.
Following the 1955 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a group of 53 black parents in Yazoo City signed a petition to desegregate public schools. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the White Citizens’ Councils responded by taking out an advertisement in the local newspaper listing the parents’ name. The names also appeared on placards around town and in cotton fields. Most of those who had signed the petition were forced to leave the city because they lost their jobs and couldn’t find other work.
Governor Barbour has been widely viewed as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012, but this controversy could derail his prospects. On Tuesday, he tried to contain the controversy, releasing a statement backing off his praise of the Councils. Barbour said, quote, “When asked why my hometown 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. 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,” Haley Barbour said.
Well, for more on the controversy over Barbour’s praise of the White Citizens’ Councils, we go to Indiana. We’re joined by John Dittmer, Professor Emeritus of History at DePauw University, author of the book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. John Dittmer is joining us from Indianapolis.
Can you comment on what Governor Barbour said?
JOHN DITTMER: Well, I think that just the idea of stating that the Citizens’ Council had a positive effect on the desegregation of schools in Yazoo City is absolutely absurd. The Governor is standing Mississippi history on its head, because the Citizens’ Council was formed specifically to prevent the integration of schools.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about his other comment, saying he didn’t think it was that bad there when he was growing up in Yazoo City.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, I think that’s a very important point, and I think that we should look at what the racial situation really was at that time when Haley Barbour was growing up. If you look at several indices, for example, most blacks in Mississippi were doing the same kinds of jobs in the '50s that they were doing during slavery — that is, working on plantations or being maids in a white women's houses. You had six percent of the black electorate were — eligible black electorate, were registered. And in terms of education as a way up, over 70 percent of black adults had gone no further than the seventh grade. Black schools were inferior in every way. Whites were spending four times as much money — the government was spending four times as much money on white schools as on blacks, which of course led to this — to the Brown decision.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this issue of what I just raised, the White Citizens’ Councils responding to an advertisement that was signed off on by a number of African American families. Explain what happened.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, what happened was that the ad came out, and everybody who was working for whites, who had signed the petition, were fired immediately. Those who had some independence, like farmers or businessmen, found that the local banker, who was also a Citizens’ Council member, wouldn’t give them loans. So in the end, there were only two people left on the petition, and both of those had left the state. The Council was successful in preventing any Mississippi public schools from being desegregated until 1964.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk more about what happened to these families.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, these families were destitute, many of them. Once they took their names off the petitions, they were not able to get their jobs back. And this didn’t happen only in Yazoo City. The NAACP had similar petition drives in Jackson, in Vicksburg and in Clarksdale, and the results were the same in each city. And the Citizens’ Council was responsible for what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a New York Times article from — I think it was 1982. It reads, quote, “the racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be [quote] '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.”
These are just some of Haley Barbour’s comments. Another, Governor Barbour fondly remembered a black classmate at the University of Mississippi in 1965, recalling his time there as “a very pleasant experience.” Well, the classmate, Verna Bailey, recalls the time quite differently. She told McClatchy, quote, “I don’t remember him at all, no, because during that time that certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for me. My interactions with white people were very, very limited. Very, very few reached out at all.”
Talk about this.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, in terms of the watermelon comment, Haley was just being a good old boy. But I think the larger implications of that and other statements are that Barbour and those like him — and I think it’s important to know that he’s not the only one who shares these feelings — the people who are in power in the South today are the sons and daughters of the people who were in power in the '50s and who were members of the Citizens' Council. So Barbour’s generation then went through the civil rights movement, but they didn’t seem to learn very much from it. I wouldn’t put them in the classification of Holocaust deniers. They admitted that slavery and Jim Crow existed, but they said it wasn’t such a big deal. As Barbour said, when there was a controversy over the governor of Virginia not mentioning slavery when talking about the Civil War, Barbour said it didn’t amount to diddly.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, let me go to that quote, because Candy Crowley, CNN, played this quote, did the interview with Governor Barbour. I think it was last April.
CANDY CROWLEY: Virginia governor — new Virginia governor Bob McDonnell designated April as “Confederate Month,” something that his two Democratic predecessors had refrained from doing. This caused quite a stir, particularly because the governor did not even mention slavery in this proclamation. Was that a mistake?
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR: Well, I don’t think so. My state legislature has made a legislatively enacted holiday, Confederate Memorial Day, have done it for years under Republican governors or Democratic governors. And for seven years as governor, I have issued a proclamation, because of what the legislature has done. My Democratic predecessors did so, as well. I don’t know what you would say about slavery, but anybody that thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing, I think goes without saying.
CANDY CROWLEY: But the sensitivity of it, because we heard from a number of African American politicians and just people on the street that were interviewed in Virginia going, “This is offensive to celebrate something that really was about slavery and have absolutely no mention of it.” What do you do in your state?
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR: Well, maybe — maybe they should talk to my Democratic legislature, which has done exactly the same thing in Mississippi for years. And far as I know, the Democratic legislature — we have a majority of both houses are Democrats. I’m unaware of them being criticized for it or them having their supporters feel uncomfortable with it.
CANDY CROWLEY: You know what I’m trying to get at here, is that there’s a sort of feeling that it’s insensitive. But you clearly don’t agree.
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR: To me, it’s a sort of feeling that it’s a myth, that it is not significant, that it’s not a — it’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly.
AMY GOODMAN: “Doesn’t amount to diddly,” says Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who is the Republican Governors Association head. John Dittmer, talk more about this.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, I think what we’re getting into here — and this goes beyond Mississippi — is that we’re getting into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and there are going to be — it’s going to be observed all throughout the South. And what we’re finding as historians now is that we have to go back and talk again that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. What we’re getting from many people in positions of authority in the South is, this was the war between the states. There are going to be celebrations, commemorations. And yet, the real reason for the war and the reasons why slavery existed in the first place are not going to be discussed. So this is part of a larger problem that we’re going have to deal with, I think, on a regular basis.
AMY GOODMAN: And this week, the NAACP organized a march in Charleston, South Carolina, to protest plans by Sons of Confederate Veterans to hold a ball to mark the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the start of the Civil War, the ball featuring a reenactment of the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Lonnie Randolph, the state president in the NAACP, saying this is nothing more than a celebration of slavery. This is all coming at this time, John Dittmer.
JOHN DITTMER: Yes, it is. And I think that what is being done in some places is that we are going to look at those ordinances of secession. And they all state that, in effect, slavery was the cause of the war. So we’ve got to put that out front when we are talking about these events. And I think the NAA in Charleston is doing absolutely the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things Newsweek is reporting is that Governor Barbour has a Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis. Talk about the significance of this, and then go on to his prospects as a presidential candidate, with all of this coming out and these comments in the Weekly Standard.
JOHN DITTMER: Well, the Confederate flag issue, of course, has been one that has been contentious for quite awhile, with whites who are displaying the flag, and proud of it, saying it doesn’t really have anything to do with slavery, this is the lost cause, and people should get over it.
In terms of Governor Barbour’s presidential aspirations — and I think he does have them — I’m not really qualified to say what the effect will be. But I do anticipate that in the future, well, he will be doing other things to make us forget about this. For example, this spring in Mississippi, they are having — civil rights veterans are having a large celebration of the Freedom Rides. And I’m sure that Governor Barbour will invite himself to this event and try to take away the stigma that these remarks and others have caused. Whether he will be successful or not, I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Governor Barbour’s spokesperson has insisted that Governor Barbour is not a racist. What do you think?
JOHN DITTMER: Well, I think when you get to labeling people racist, it’s like calling people Nazis. It’s that the conversation veers away and becomes a matter of semantics. As I said, I think that Barbour is an unreconstructed Southerner and, as such, is not sensitive to the struggles of African Americans. And there’s no indication, as governor or as president, that he would be sensitive. And I think this is the major issue. Whatever his motivations are, his conduct has been reprehensible.
AMY GOODMAN: John Dittmer, I want to thank you for being with us, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.