He's said he's months away from deciding whether or not to run for president, but for Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the campaign for the Southern conservative vote seems to already have begun. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Barbour explains how racial harmony existed in his hometown of Yazoo City due to the enlightened influence of ... the local Citizens' Council.
Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.
“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “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.”
In interviews Barbour doesn’t have much to say about growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said.
Yes, "up north" we think Citizens' Councils were like the KKK because in many ways, they were. They didn't go around burning crosses and lynching people, sure, but they were white supremacists whose mission was fighting racial integration. The Yazoo City chapter in particular was no different, despite Barbour's recollections. Think Progress's Matt Yglesias digs up a book passage detailing how the Yazoo City Citizens' Council pressured businesses that employed signatories of an NAACP desegregation petition.
Predictably, the boycott as an instrument of repression found most effective employment in a cotton center such as Yazoo City, Mississippi, the self-styled "Gateway to the Delta." The local Citizens' Council there was one of the state's oldest and largest, and as the Yazoo City Herald boasted, "from the very first this community's outstanding citizens have been members." In a town of only 11,000 people the organization had grown from only 16 to nearly 1,500 by September, 1955. With such numbers, it was well prepared to meet the challenge of fifty-three signatures on a desegregation petition. In a full-page advertisement in the Herald, the Council published "an authentic list of the purported signers" of an NAACP petition. This list was also printed on large cardboard placards which were displayed in many of the community's stores, the bank, and even in cotton fields surrounding the city. As had happened elsewhere, economic sanctions followed and within a matter of weeks the petitioners' ranks were reduced to half a dozen. Again local Council leaders attributed the rash of reprisals to the "spontaneous reaction of public opinion." Whatever the reason, a disapproving northern newspaper could observe with little exaggeration that, "with the awful spectre of Yazoo City before them, few Mississippi Negroes would sign a desegregation petition day."
So, what to make of all this. One interpretation would be that Barbour just got confused, his memory is faulty. Of course he knows that the Citizens' Councils were racist, he just misspoke. That would be naïve, though. More likely than not, Barbour is trying to communicate to anyone who just doesn't think the South was "that bad" that he is their champion. If you're so tired of being vilified for the evils of former generations that you've already begun to rewrite history in your head, you know who to vote for.
The Boy from Yazoo City [Weekly Standard]
Yazoo City Citizens’ Council Was a White Supremacist Organization [Think Progress]