Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s controversial remarks on the Jim Crow era in his home state did not come up during a Thursday meeting with NAACP officials, participants said.
Instead, the discussion focused on the case of two black women, Gladys and Jamie Scott, whose sentences on armed robbery charges Barbour agreed to suspend, and on fundraising for a civil rights museum in Mississippi, Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson told National Journal.
“This meeting stayed focused on the Scott sisters, the issue of their release,” Johnson said after the meeting and a press conference outside the state capitol in Jackson that Barbour did not attend. “We also talked about broadly civil rights issues as it relates to the state of Mississippi and national politics.”
Even so, the controversy over Barbour's recent comments about race in a Weekly Standard profile formed an inevitable backdrop for the day's developments. Barbour's decision to free the Scott sisters, at the behest of civil rights groups, came after the governor endured a week of withering criticism for telling the conservative magazine that he didn’t recall segregation in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., as “being that bad” and downplayed the role the local Citizens Council played in enforcing racial discrimination.
The governor, a potential 2012 GOP presidential contender, later clarified his comments, calling the Jim Crow era "painful" and the Citizens Council “indefensible.”
Despite his popularity and successful leadership of the Republican Governor's Association, few Republicans have rallied to Barbour's side since his comments. Some even appear to be enjoying the governor's discomfiture. "It's tough for politicians of that generation sometimes," former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a potential 2012 presidential candidate, said of Barbour's predicament in an interview with National Journal, a comment that managed to highlight the difference in their ages. Barbour is 63; Santorum is 52.
Johnson acknowledged that the controversy may have advanced the NAACP's long-running bid to free the Scott sisters. Civil rights groups have long contended their sentences were tainted by racism.
“We can say that there was already momentum concerning the release of the Scott sisters," Johnson said. "I think his remarks last week created a better atmosphere for him to make that decision.”
The sisters were convicted in a case involving an ambush that relieved the victim of $11. Despite their denials of any involvement, they were sentenced to double life terms. Barbour said he had agreed to suspending Gladys Scott’s sentence on the condition she donate a kidney to Jamie Scott, who is suffering from kidney failure that requires dialysis. In a statement on his website, Barbour portrayed the move as a cost-saving measure.
“The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society,” Barbour's statement said. “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott's medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi." The Mississippi Parole Board concurred with his decision, Barbour added.
Barbour met privately for less than an hour with NAACP officials—including Ben Jealous, the national president of the civil rights organization. During the meeting, Barbour proposed ideas for speeding up fundraising for a proposed Mississippi civil rights museum, according to Johnson and another meeting participant, NAACP general counsel Kim Keenan.