By Ruth Marcus
It’s too bad for Haley Barbour that he’s not in my book group.
Sure, the Mississippi governor and potential presidential candidate might feel a little out of place. He would be the only man—and, as it turns out, the only Republican.
But Barbour might have saved himself a heap of trouble if he had been with us Sunday night to talk about “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett’s novel about white women and their black maids in Mississippi during the 1960s.
Barbour is a smooth pol who seems to stumble whenever he encounters the subject of the South and race. When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell erased slavery from the annual Confederacy Day proclamation, Barbour dismissed critics for “trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.” His soft-focus recollection of the civil rights era makes “Gone With the Wind” look like a hit job on the Old Confederacy.
A few months back, Barbour gave the conservative magazine Human Events an interview that wished away the South of fire hoses and church bombings. “My generation,” said Barbour, “went to integrated schools. I went to an integrated college—never thought about it.”
Perhaps he never thought about it because the actual facts were less pleasant. Barbour arrived at Ole Miss a few years after federal marshals were required to escort James Meredith onto the riot-torn campus. The schools in his hometown of Yazoo City were not integrated until 1970, by which point Barbour was in law school.
Now, Barbour, in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard, has taken his airbrush to Yazoo City. Explaining how the local schools managed to desegregate without violence, 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.”
By 1970, Yazoo’s white establishment had concluded—albeit 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education and in the face of a federal court order—that segregation was not a winning strategy. “We don’t have much other choice,” Mayor Jeppie Barbour, Haley’s older brother, told writer Willie Morris.
But Barbour’s portrayal conveniently omits the more sinister role played by the councils—“the South’s answer to the mongrelizers,” as one council pamphlet put it (http://bit.ly/grWyEc). In Yazoo City as elsewhere in the South, the councils worked to intimidate whites and blacks from pursuing desegregation.
Not in Barbour’s soft-focus recollection. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said of racial tensions in Yazoo City. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”
I don’t think that Barbour is being deliberately ahistorical or insensitive here. These comments are not a calculated political tactic. They are far more damaging than helpful, as Barbour’s oops-I-did-it-again clarification Tuesday indicated. Barbour is no dumb tactician. Rather, and this is where “The Help” comes in, they reflect the limits of Barbour’s cloistered worldview. As with the rest of us, his perceptions are inevitably skewed by the distorting lens of his background and upbringing.
“The Help” takes place in Barbour’s backyard, Jackson, in 1962. The white women are not so much evil as they are oblivious to the inequities around them, not to mention the inequities they inflict themselves. Even the worst, Hilly, energetically raises money for “The Poor Starving Children of Africa” as she presses the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” so that the African-American help would have separate bathrooms in their employers’ homes.
The unpleasantness of the civil rights movement is a subject to be diligently avoided. When one of the white women, Skeeter, begins to watch a television report about Meredith at Ole Miss, her mother immediately flips the channel to Lawrence Welk, announcing, ‘Look, isn’t this so much nicer?’ ” After Skeeter anonymously publishes a book about the maids’ difficult and humiliating lives in “Niceville,” her friends can scarcely recognize themselves.
So when Barbour says he does not remember things “being that bad,” I suspect he is telling the truth. Barbour’s failing is not in his faulty memory. It is in his consistent unwillingness to recognize the edifice of self-serving myth on which he has constructed his comfortable conclusions.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
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