Haley Barbour and the Citizens Councils
Haley Barbour and the Citizens Councils
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 20 2010 12:12 PM

Haley Barbour and the Citizens Councils

Haley Barbour isn't stupid. He knows that whenever he talks about race and the 1960s, he, as one of the leading edge of the conservative move from the Democratic Party to the GOP, is going to be under mega-scrutiny. Andrew Ferguson's profile of Barbour spends a lot of time on one of Barbour's narratives -- that his home town of Yazoo City was a bright spot of racial co-existence in the 1960s.

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."

This is how a lot of Southerners remember the city in this period. It's true. The schools integrated without incident. But why does Barbour go the extra step to credit the Citizens Council with this? As Matthew Yglesias points out, the Citizens Council organized boycotts and -- to borrow Barbour's explain -- made sure anyone who signed on to NAACP petitions had their asses run out of town.

In a full-page advertisement in the Herald, the Council published "an authentic list of the purported signers" of an NAACP petition. The list was also printed on large cardboard placards which were displayed in many of the community's stores, the bank, and even in cotton fields surrounding the city. As had happened elsewhere, economic sanctions followed and within a matter of weeks the petitioners' ranks were reduced to half a dozen.

Like I said, Barbour is not dumb. If he's being a revisionist about race in Mississippi, he's not alone, and he's fighting back against a media standard that all conservatives hate -- this idea that Southerners and conservatives can never stop atoning for Jim Crow. Why should he have to apologize for this, after all? He wasn't in a Citizens Council. With the exception of some people, like Howell Raines -- who covered Barbour's 1986 Senate bid -- how many of these reporters know what they're talking about, anyway? And there are few things conservative voters hate more than being told they were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement.

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post.