Rick Perlstein: What Haley Barbour's Amnesia Tells Us





[Rick Perlstein is the author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus"]

"January 7, 1970, dawned clear and bitterly cold, a cold that rarely comes to Mississippi. It was 16 degrees on South Main Street, the trees along the older avenues were seared and deathly, and the water in the potholes of the roads in the Negro section was frozen solid. All over Yazoo there was a cold eerie calm."

So recorded the great Southern writer Willie Morris in his classic book "Yazoo: Integration In a Deep Southern Town," with suitable melodrama, of the first day little black boys and girls and little white boys and girls sat together in classrooms in his Mississippi Delta hometown. The moment came fifteen years after the dawn of "Massive Resistance": an organized conspiracy, uniting all strata of white Southern society, high and low, to defy the order of the Supreme Court to integrate its schools "with all deliberate speed."

What happened between Brown v. Board of Education and that January day in 1970 comprises some of the most monstrous inhumanity in the cruel annals of American history. Recently, in a cover feature in the conservative Weekly Standard on his presidential ambitions, Mississippi governor and fellow Yazoo native Haley Barbour had occasion to reflect on that place, in those years. The best that can be said about his recollection is that it is not 100 percent a lie -- just deeply confused, mostly wrong, and indicative above all of a cynical man who has made a lucrative career of exploiting racial trauma when it suited him, or throwing it down a memory hole when it did not; which is to say, an archetypal Dixie conservative.

Start with his account of the White Citizens Councils. They were founded in the Mississippi Delta -- "The Most Southern Place on Earth," as a 1994 history by James C. Cobb enshrined it -- and represented, as one of their leaders proudly put it, "damned near a declaration of war against the United States." In Yazoo, as Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo has documented, the method was economic terror: In 1955, when 53 mostly middle class local blacks signed a petition requesting, you know, that federal law be followed, their livelihoods were crushed....

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