Updated at 1:55 p.m. on December 21.
One full day after setting off a firestorm with a comment that appeared to downplay the segregation in the town where he grew up, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Tuesday issued a statement acknowledging the period as "difficult and painful."
Barbour's statement, posted on his website, came after nearly 24 hours of blistering criticism, including a rebuke from the head of the Mississippi NAACP, who said the governor had failed to understand the enduring consequences of Jim Crow policies.
"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," Barbour said in the statement. "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."
Barbour had been victory-lapping since November after a GOP near-sweep of competitive gubernatorial races assisted by his Republican Governors Association. But his remarks veering from the traditional view that the Jim Crow era was a nasty time to be in Dixie, published in the conservative Weekly Standard, provided a glimpse of what could emerge as a severe handicap if he decides to run for president.
The article published Monday quoted Barbour as cavalierly discussing the civil rights era and segregation, saying of the upheaval in his Yazoo City hometown, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” The article paints the governor’s teenage memories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit as casually vague: “I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”
Barbour also defended the local Citizens' Council as an exception to the widespread notion that the chapters were inextricably tied to the Ku Klux Klan, a comment that the Mississippi NAACP head slammed as revisionist.
"I think it’s unfortunate that the governor has not, after all these many years, fully appreciated the pain and suffering that African Americans in this state and African Americans in Yazoo City had to endure as a result of the physical, mental, and economic harm that came as a result of groups like the White Citizens Councils’ fight to prevent full integration of public education and as a society as a whole," Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson told National Journal today.
Johnson said Barbour's remarks showed the governor ignoring the lingering material consequences of segregation.
"I think it’s reflective of his views. We find those views among individuals who hold very prominent positions such as Governor Barbour, and it plays out in the type of policies that have created a situation where Mississippi remains at the bottom of social indicators. We still rank at the bottom of education, we still rank at the bottom of many health-related issues. We rank at the bottom of many socioeconomic indicators because policymakers like Governor Barbour fail to recognize the harm that segregation has caused," Johnson said.
Notable among nationally prominent politicians for his oft-folksy and frank remarks -- he has memorably described himself as a "fat redneck" -- the former Reagan aide and Republican National Committee chairman took a pounding from the left for the remarks on race. DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan tweeted, “He’s not ready for prime time or not ready for the 21st century -- either way it’s disqualifying.”
Barbour has said that he will likely decide on a 2012 run next spring, and acknowledged that his Deep South, poor-state ties and background as a successful lobbyist are widely seen setting him off as an unlikely presidential candidate. In the Weekly Standard article, though, he took issue with the notion that those traits were handicaps. His down-home style, accented by a honeyed drawl, belies his technocrat’s success in negotiating federal bureaucracies: first in President Reagan’s White House, then as a lobbyist, and finally as the architect of massive post-Katrina federal aid packages.
But racial remarks seen as out-of-step with the times are likely to draw heavy attention during the 2012 cycle -- just as they did in 2008. Then-Sen. Joe Biden hamstrung his candidacy early on when he said of his future running mate, “You got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." And even former President Clinton -- dubbed by some as the nation's "first black president" -- complicated his own legacy on race matters during the long and bruising 2008 Democratic primary with a string of statements deemed racially insensitive.
The liberal website Talking Points Memo quoted Barbour's spokesman Dan Turner saying, “You’re trying to paint the governor as a racist. And nothing could be further from the truth.”