Mississippi GOP Gov. Haley Barbour is one of those politicians beloved enough by the Beltway punditocracy to be a longshot candidate for president -- but that shot seems a lot longer tonight. In fact, I think Barbour shot himself in the foot with this:
As Barbour recalls it in a new profile in The Weekly Standard, things weren't so bad in his hometown of Yazoo City, which took until 1970 to integrate its schools (though the final event itself is said to have gone on peacefully). For example, Barbour says that there was no problem of Ku Klux Klan activity in the town -- thanks to the Citizens Council movement, an organization that was founded on the basis of resistance to integration and the promotion of white supremacy.
"You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK," said Barbour. "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. 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."
There is a small amount of accuracy on what Barbour says, in that the Citizens' Councils for the most part weren't big on the KKK. You know else they were even less big on, even in Barbour's hometown of Yazoo City? Black people:
Look," said Nick Roberts of the Yazoo City Citizens Council, explaining why 51 of 53 Negroes who had signed an integration petition withdrew their names, "if a man works for you, and you believe in something, and that man is working against it and undermining it, why you don't want him working for you—of course you don't."
In Yazoo City, in August 1955, the Council members fired signers of the integration petition, or prevailed upon other white employers to get them fired. But the WCC continues to deny that it uses economic force: all the Council did in Yazoo City was to provide information (a full-page ad in the local weekly listing the "offenders"); spontaneous public feeling did the rest.
None of this stopped Barbour from playing political footsie with the still-existing successor to the White Citizens Councils, known as the Council of Conservative Citizens, or CCC:
The Council also flexed some muscle in last year's gubernatorial election, which pitted incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove — who led the fight to change the Mississippi state flag — against Republican Haley Barbour. During the campaign, the CCC Web site ran a photograph of Barbour posing with Council luminaries at the Black Hawk Barbecue, a CCC fundraising event for "private academy" school buses.
When the photo caused a stir, Barbour was quick to call the CCC's segregationist views "indefensible." But he refused to ask that his picture be taken down from the Web site. It was a matter of principle, Barbour explained. "Once you start down the slippery slope of saying, 'That person can't be for me,' then where do you stop?" he asked. "Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan?"
That's the picture at the top of the blog post. The guy on the far right of the photo, Bill Lord, is a CCC leader and apparently still head of its Mississippi chapter. I went to the chapter's web site and there are some real gems on its blogs -- items like "Blacks Lag Behind -- Anyone Surprised?" or "Miliitary Homos." (They also seem to feel they're synonymous with the Tea Party -- but that's another day.)
Slate's Dave Weigel tries to get at what Barbour is thinking:
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.
No dount, there are white conservatives in Mississippi in 2010 who aren't racists, and of course they would deeply resent being called one. But one of the best ways to avoid being tarred with a racism brush is to steer clear of racist groups -- a simple task that Haley Barbour hasn't been able to do. There may be some reward for doing that in a state like Mississippi, but there's also grave political risk when you enter the national stage. Barbour's kind words for the White Citizens Councils doesn't automatically disqualify him from becoming president, but it pretty much does the trick for me, and I think for millions of other Americans as well.
UPDATE: Oh, brother.
UPDATE II: U-turns allowed? We'll see about that.