Was Haley Barbour's apology sincere?

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour Photo Credit: Getty Images

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Mary Sanchez is a syndicated columnist.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Today's lesson in revisionist American history is brought to you by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour, with visions of the 2012 GOP presidential nomination swirling in his head and no doubt keen to establish his right-wing bona fides, had this to say about the doings of a Southern movement intent on keeping the races separate as the nation was charged to integrate:

"You heard of the Citizens' Councils?" he said in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard. "Up North they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders." He went on to describe the Citizens' Council in his hometown, Yazoo City, as a sort of Rotary Club that kept the racial peace, threatening to run those nasty cross-burning Ku Kluxers out of town.

In reality, the Citizens' Councils of the 1950s and '60s - originally known as White Citizens' Councils - were more like a lite expression of white supremacy. Composed of a city's educated business class, the councils formed throughout the South following the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling to desegregate schools, intent on giving a veneer of civility to their racist views.

The councils decried violence but favored more genteel methods of racial intimidation. They saw to it that black people who sided with the NAACP were fired from their jobs, along with any white people who aligned with integrationists. (The councils did this often by publishing lists of NAACP sympathizers.) The councils could also be counted on to disrupt black voters. By 1955, more than 250 such councils existed, with 60,000 members, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The councils are morally indefensible, a fact somebody close to Barbour no doubt convinced him of, albeit a little late. Last week, Barbour retracted his comments about the councils.

"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," Barbour said. "Their vehicle called the Citizens Council is totally indefensible, as is segregation."

So do we credit Barbour for his newfound fervor for fact checking?

Sorry, class can't be dismissed yet. Barbour, in the same Weekly Standard piece, said of the civil rights era of his youth, "I just don't remember it as being that bad." I suspect that is because he only recalls it from a white person's perspective. Fifty years later, he's had plenty of time to get up to speed.

The old Citizens' Councils aren't just a footnote to history, not for the nation or for Barbour. In 1985, the dregs of the group reconfigured into an organization called the Council of Conservative Citizens, basing itself in St. Louis. Barbour appeared at a council-sponsored event in 2003, during his run for governor. He was questioned after that appearance and later denounced the group's views. Yet here he is, fresh from singing the praises of its antecedents. It would seem that Barbour's still got some learning to do.

What does the group profess today?

"The CofCC is the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights!" spews the organization's website. It opposes "all efforts to mix the races of mankind" as well as "massive immigration of non-European and non-Western people's into the United States." The group also has a lot to say about state's rights and preserving Southern heritage. And about gays in the military, immigration, black crime rates and its bedrock tenet that politicians and government "must reflect Christian beliefs and values."

The reason a politician like Haley Barbour speaks before groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens is that they share many of his views, and he wants to count on their votes and their activism, however much he might reject their coarse views on race. That's the story of the Republican Party's "Southern strategy." It was Southern white resentment of the Civil Rights Act and other milestones of racial equality that turned the Solid South from a Democratic heartland to a Republican one. Republicans found it easy to turn white voters in the South and elsewhere against the Democrats by portraying their liberal social programs as a sop to blacks, and to this day a large number of Republican candidates honor this tradition in their campaigns with veiled appeals to racial resentment. (For further reference, see "Atwater, Lee.")

As a Southern governor who lived in the civil rights era, and as a possible presidential contender, Barbour has no excuse for not understanding racial history or these tactics better. Barbour is an intelligent man and a keen politician; he can't play dumb. He could be -- and should be -- playing a key role in healing the wounds of past racial discrimination in the South.

It would be a brave conservative, and a brave Southern one at that, who truly rejected this sordid legacy. Perhaps we'll see if Barbour is that man.

You also may be interested in: