For more than 40 years there’s been a consensus in American political life: The segregated South was a deeply unfair place. The fight for civil rights was contentious and necessary. The laws that guaranteed civil rights are among our country’s proudest achievements.
Those who had opposed the Civil Rights Act at the time—figures ranging from Democrats like the late Sen. Robert Byrd to Republicans such as former President George H.W. Bush—later recanted their previous positions and embraced the landmark statute.
Ironically, at a time when the country has its first African-American president, that consensus is showing some signs of cracking.
The surprising remarks from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour this week defending the racial conditions of his hometown in Mississippi in the mid 1960s took many by surprise. Barbour portrayed the Yazoo City of his teen years as a place of considerable racial harmony. He praised the Citizens Councils that grew up in his town and throughout the South as organizations designed to put down the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence.
Barbour’s remarks appeared in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. He told the author about racial conditions in his town: “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” He recalled seeing Martin Luther King speak in 1962 along with an interracial crowd. When asked what King said, Barbour said: “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’s most controversial words to the Weekly Standard concerned the Citizens Council in Yazoo City. The town, which sits between the state’s northern hill country and flat delta, was noted for having a less contentious racial history than other towns in the state. Its schools desegregated peacefully in 1970, a day widely reported by many news outlets and most famously recounted by one of the South’s most famous liberals, the writer and editor Willie Morris.
When asked why Yazoo City had eschewed the violence that plagued other Southern cities, Barbour said: “Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it. 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.”
While it’s true that Citizens Councils tended to oppose the Klan and its attendant mob violence, as Barbour said, their raison d’être was to promote segregation, not to encourage peaceful desegregation as Barbour seemed to imply. Just as Weight Watchers became a wildly successful franchise in the 1960s designed to help people lose weight or Alcoholics Anonymous spread in the first half of the 20th century to end alcoholism, Citizens Councils central purpose was to sustain segregation. Their efforts to intimidate blacks who sought integregation have been well-documented and their many publications abound with racial epithets.
Barbour seemed to acknowledge as much on Tuesday when he issued a statement. The governor said:
“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.”
Barbour’s denunciation of the Citizens Councils may or may not put the issue of his racial tolerance to rest. Often seen as a strong Republican contender for the presidency in 2012, Barbour, a much-liked and well-known former Washington lobbyist, would have a hard time casting himself as a New South governor in the history of Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, or even Mike Huckabee after comments that seem so oblivious to the region’s turbulent history. Southerners with national ambitions have been at pains to acknowledge their region’s difficult past in a way that Barbour, at least in his most recent comments, has not.
But whatever political damage Barbour has or hasn’t suffered, his comments are part of a larger reexamination of the period by Republicans who deviate from the traditional civil-rights consensus.
Barbour’s comments come a few months after Sen.-elect Rand Paul—then running for office in Kentucky—chided the Civil Rights Act as an invasion of individual liberty and seemed to imply that he still opposed it. He later clarified his remarks to say that he had no intention of meddling with the landmark law were he elected to the Senate.
In a related development, any number of conservatives have raised questions about the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified after the Civil War to protect newly freed slaves. It guarantees full citizenship to anyone born in the United States and some have suggested amending the amendment so that the children of illegal immigrants born here won’t automatically become citizens. Amending the Constitution is an arduous process and it’s almost impossible to imagine one of the most important, if not revered, amendments being tampered with.
Still, the fact that the 14th Amendment is up for discussion—along with the Civil Rights Act and the history of desegregation—shows that some issues in American life that were once considered settled really aren’t.
Recent Supreme Court opinions have questioned the legality of sections of the Voting Rights Act that require certain jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to receive Justice Department authorization before changing electoral proceedings such as districting lines or polling locations. The court seemed to invite challenges to this preclearance provision under Section 5 of the act.
Leaving aside the legal merits of the argument over whether the South can be required to abide such special provisions some 45 years after the act's passage, the case shows that what were once considered very settled matters remain contentious.