It must be Christmas — that season of human goodwill — for this week the political pundits declared that Haley Barbour’s run for the presidency is over before it began. Now, pass the eggnog. At issue is Barbour’s sunny recollection of the desegregation of public schools in his native Mississippi. Liberal bloggers have labeled him “revisionist” in his version and racist for his characterization of it. Aww, dammit, now it’s a history fight and I have to get involved.
For the record, when asked why there wasn’t any violence when the public schools in his hometown of Yazoo City finally desegregated in 1970 (16 years after the Supreme Court made segregation illegal in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) — when there was marked violence in other places — what Barbour said was:
“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 business leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said that 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.”
Of course the Citizens’ Councils (originally called the White Citizens’ Councils) are infamous for being organizations started precisely to fight integration and preserve segregation in the South. A number of historians have written accounts of the groups’ works and racist agenda. This information is common knowledge. Thus, critics have gotten up in arms over Barbour’s apologia for these despicable organizations. They accuse Barbour of abusing history and minimizing the trauma of the civil rights movement. Interestingly, the articles about the subject note the history of the Citizens’ Councils and point out that they were known as the upscale or “country club” Klan. The members were generally local leaders and businessmen — men of standing. These were not angry, violent crackers. They were bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and community notables. Their tactic was to use economic force to prevent integration. It was in fear of economic reprisals like the councils used that parents in Birmingham stayed home and let their children protest segregation. They were afraid that their bosses would fire them if they were involved, and the family’s economic viability would be questionable — and they were right. Business owners and bosses did use their economic power to quash activism. Citizens’ Councils were just larger, well-organized, community-wide versions of this financial coercion. Thus, it would be wholly inaccurate and offensive to suggest that they were proponents of integration.
If that’s what Barbour actually said, I would be inclined to call bullshit myself, but let’s look at his words. He does not suggest that the council in Yazoo City promoted integration. What he said was that they wouldn’t stand for violence as a tool to fight integration. They opposed the Klan then (which was not always the case in every town in Mississippi, but communities do vary in their practices) and used economic means to achieve their ends (and undermine democracy, by the way). Accordingly, Barbour is confirming what the evidence and histories have already told us. He did not alter the history or falsify it. The righteous indignation of his critics who claim to be protecting history is unwarranted then.
What they really want to object to is the sense of Barbour’s statement — that it smacks of tolerance or admiration for Citizens’ Councils, which were abhorrent organizations in many ways. They ignore, then, the truth of what Barbour said about his local history in an effort to defend the larger history of the civil rights movement and Citizens’ Councils generally. In actuality, both of these positions may be accurate, even though they seem to contradict one another. This is a common problem in dealing with generalizations in history. The limitations of general histories mean that you can’t always give detailed specifics about variations on the theme. Thus, when we talk about slavery, we talk about how poorly slaves were treated and the limitations placed on them. What we don’t always do (again, this is in general histories as opposed to detailed monographs) is give all the minute details about regional difference in slavery practices. For example, in some places, slaves were successful at getting their masters to accept the task system, wherein they were required to work a certain allotment of tasks in a day rather than to work a full day (from sun-up to sundown) necessarily. When they finished their tasks, they were done for the day, whether it was noon, 4:00pm or 10:00pm. In other places, though, slaves were worked all day long as their masters saw fit. This is just one example of the kinds of variations that often get lost in summaries of larger events. There just isn’t enough room in a book to cover everything, so historians use generalizations for convenience sake.
Barbour’s comment brings up just such an incidence. In some places, school integration was met with violence and armed resistance. They had to have a military escort for the black students who integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Ole Miss was the site of rioting when James Meredith first enrolled there. But, in other places like Yazoo City, the integration was unwelcome but not forcibly resisted. That fact is true to that community and says something about the people there (and apparently the documentary record confirms this about the town). Most especially, it points to the reason that racism has remained so stubborn and why discrimination is still so difficult to eradicate — in all parts of the United States. That is that the discrimination has become subtle, non-violent, and economic in nature. It still exists and is manipulated by the men (and now women) of power who dominate American communities. It is harder to identify then, harder to hold those responsible for it accountable, and harder to get consensus to resist (as you don’t get the same obvious sympathy for that as you do for little black girls dying in a church bombing or young people beaten or assaulted with fire hoses on national television). The discrimination is now genteel, which makes it more palatable to many. This clandestine racism is what Barbour represents to civil rights supporters and what is so disturbing. He is not abusing history; he is abusing the economically less powerful (which usually in our country includes disproportionate numbers of minorities). Hence, the need for the war on poverty continues: our segregation is now an economic reality instead of a legal structure. Remember this at the mall this holiday season.