By Eugene Robinson
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who may seek the Republican nomination for president, is trying to sell the biggest load of revisionist nonsense about race, politics and the South that I’ve ever heard. Ever.
He has the gall to try to portray Southern Republicans as having been enlightened supporters of the civil rights movement all along. I can’t decide whether this exercise in rewriting history should be described as cynical or sinister. Whichever it is, the record has to be set straight.
In a recent interview with Human Events, a conservative magazine and website, Barbour gave his version of how the South, once a Democratic stronghold, became a Republican bastion. The 62-year-old Barbour claimed that it was “my generation” that led the switch: “my generation, who went to integrated schools. I went to integrated college—never thought twice about it.”
The “old Democrats” fought integration tooth and nail, Barbour said, but “by my time, people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, it wasn’t gonna be that way anymore. And so the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration.”
Not a word of this is true.
Barbour did not attend “integrated schools,” if he’s referring to his primary and secondary education. Mississippi ignored the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that was meant to end separate-but-unequal school systems. Eventually, officials implemented a “freedom of choice” desegregation plan—but black parents who tried to send their children to white schools were threatened and intimidated, including by cross-burnings. Finally, in 1969, the Supreme Court ordered Mississippi to integrate its schools immediately. The long-stalled change took place in 1970.
That was long after Barbour had graduated from high school in Yazoo City and gone on to attend the University of Mississippi—the “integrated college” he mentioned in the interview. The federal government had forced Ole Miss to admit its first black student, James Meredith, in 1962; he had to be escorted onto the campus by U.S. marshals as white students rioted in protest.
The following year, a second black student was admitted. In the mid-1960s, when Barbour was attending Ole Miss, it’s no wonder that he “never thought twice” about integration. There were only a handful of black students, and by all accounts—except Barbour’s—they were isolated and ostracized by their white peers.
The governor’s assertion that segregation was a relic of the past “by my time” is ludicrous. He was 16, certainly old enough to pay attention, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss. He was a young adult, on his way to becoming a lawyer, when the public schools were forced to integrate. I’ll bet Barbour could remember those days if he tried a little harder.
Equally wrong—and perhaps deliberately disingenuous—is his made-up narrative of how the South turned Republican. Let me correct the record.
As he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said that the Democratic Party had “lost the South for a generation.” Among those who voted against the landmark legislation was Sen. Barry Goldwater, who became Johnson’s opponent in the presidential race that fall.
Johnson scored a landslide victory. Goldwater took his home state of Arizona and just five others: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. It was the first time those Deep South states had voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reconstruction—and marked the moment when, for many Southern voters, the GOP became the party of white racial grievance. It wasn’t “a different generation from those who fought integration” that made the switch. Integration was the whole reason for the switch.
Now, Haley Barbour is not stupid. Why is he telling this ridiculous story?
Maybe this is the way he wishes things had been. You’ll recall that earlier this year, when asked about a Confederate history month proclamation in Virginia that didn’t mention the detail known as slavery, Barbour said the whole thing “doesn’t amount to diddly.” Most charitably, all this might be called denial.
It’s much more likely, however, that Barbour has a political purpose. The Republican Party is trying to shake its image as hostile to African-Americans and other minorities. It would be consistent with this attempted makeover to pretend that the party never sought, and won, the votes of die-hard segregationists.
One problem, though: It did.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group