Why Haley Barbour Defends the Citizens Councils

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 20 2010 5:30 PM

Why Haley Barbour Defends the Citizens Councils

A safe prediction: Every time Haley Barbour talks about race , it will end like this.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has set off a firestorm of controversy over his comments that the civil rights era in his hometown of Yazoo City was not "that bad," and now, the president of the state's NAACP organization is calling his remarks "offensive" and akin to revisionist history.

"It is quite disturbing that the governor of the state would take an approach to the history of this state," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. "It's beyond disturbing -- it's offensive that he would take that approach to the history of this state to many African-Americans who had to suffer as a result of the policies and practices of the Citizens Council."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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Full context: Barbour said of civil rights turmoil in Yazoo City that "I just don’t remember it as being that bad," and (more problematically) called the Citizens Councils a mere "organization of town leaders" who opposed the KKK, when it's not really disputed that the Yazoo council persecuted people who participated in NAACP campaigns.

So: Why does Barbour keep doing this? Why does he stand pat and refuse to accept the premises who argue that -- to pick some recent examples of Barbour stances -- it's insensitive to defend the Citizens Councils or to have Confederate history months that don't recognize the role slavery played in the war? One reason is that Barbour has continued to court the support of the Council of Conservative Citizens throughout his career. I've linked to the web archive capture of the CCC's web site from October 2003, when Barbour was about to be elected governor of Mississippi. The photo is gone, but you can see the caption, and the SPLC has reprinted the photo on its site.

The election year Mississippi Black Hawk Barbecue and Political Rally held on July 19 drew dozens of political candidates and was attended by a crowd of over 500. The Black Hawk Barbecue is sponsored by the Council of Conservative Citizens to raise money for private academy school buses. (Pictured L-R: Chip Reynolds, State Senator Bucky Huggins, Ray Martin, GOP gubernatorial nominee Haley Barbour, John Thompson, and Black Hawk Rally emcee and C of CC Field Director Bill Lord.)

Now, there are two ways to explain away your connection to a group or person that voters don't like. You can take the Barack Obama route and deny that you interacted all that much with them, as he did vis a vis Bill Ayers and ACORN.* Or you can argue that the group isn't as bad as everyone else says it is. This is what Barbour does. He is helped by the simple facts that 1) no one accuses the CCC of crimes, just of being controversial and 2) conservative voters are inclined to believe that all accusations of "racism" against conservatives are politically-driven bunk .

Here's how Barbour explained why he didn't demand that the CCC remove its photo of him, in an October interview with the AP.

I don't care who has my picture. Once you start down the slippery slope of saying "That person can't be for me," then where do you stop? Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan like Robert Byrd?

The nudge at Byrd is a pretty standard Republican deflection whenever this comes up, so Barbour has clearly decided to stick to the "there's nothing controversial unless you're a liberal hypocrite" defense.

*I hope it's clear that I'm not equating their work with the CCC's, just making the political comparison.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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