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Haley Barbour’s White Citizen’s Council Revisionism

It’s a slow news day, so I might as well join the chorus in talking about Haley Barbour’s revisionist history. He claims that Yazoo City, Mississippi, his hometown, was an island of indifference amid a sea of racial intolerance in the Deep South.

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. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”

I like the part where Barbour says he went to see MLK speak, but he stood in the back by his pickup truck and talked about girls with his friends instead of paying attention to the speech.

But the idea that Yazoo City rejected the Klan and used their Citizens Councils as progressive civil rights organizations is a pernicious lie. They were just as bigoted as every other Citizens Council in the state. Via Atrios:

Look,” said Nick Roberts of the Yazoo City Citizens Council, explaining why 51 of 53 Negroes who had signed an integration petition withdrew their names, “if a man works for you, and you believe in something, and that man is working against it and undermining it, why you don’t want him working for you—of course you don’t.”

In Yazoo City, in August 1955, the Council members fired signers of the integration petition, or prevailed upon other white employers to get them fired. But the WCC continues to deny that it uses economic force: all the Council did in Yazoo City was to provide information (a full-page ad in the local weekly listing the “offenders”); spontaneous public feeling did the rest.

At the WCC’s initial meeting at Indianola, Mississippi, in the summer of 1954, it was decided to isolate and silence white dissenters. The Council organizers knew that the Negroes would need white leadership and help—ministers, editors, school-board members—and it resolved to use social ostracism to deny these to them. In Holmes County, Mississippi, a mass meeting sponsored by the WCC asked Dr. David Minter and Eugene Cox and their families to leave the county.

I think Digby has this right – Barbour is doing the time-honored thing for Presidential candidates in Mississippi and invoking the Southern strategy. But it does show you just how far things have gone on the right. In 2002, the blogosphere led a movement that ended in Mississippi’s Trent Lott being demoted for comments about Strom Thurmond, which included revelations that he addressed the modern-day successor to the White Citizen’s Council. Not even a decade later, another Mississippi politician is using the White Citizen’s Council as part of a strategy to win a national election.

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David Dayen

David Dayen