WASHINGTON -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has set off a firestorm of controversy over his comments on the civil rights era in his hometown of Yazoo City, and now the president of the state's NAACP organization is calling his remarks "offensive" and akin to revisionist history.
"It is quite disturbing that the governor of this state would take an approach to try to change the history of this state," said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. "It's beyond disturbing -- it's offensive that he would try and create a new historical reality that undermines the physical, mental, and economic hardship that many African-Americans had to suffer as a result of the policies and practices of the White Citizens Council."
"Because the business community wouldn't stand for it," he said. "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. 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."
"In fact, if you look at Yazoo City, their approach to integration was very similar to other communities across the state, where the parents pulled their children out of the public school system so white children would not have to attend an integrated school system," responded Johnson. "They established a private segregated academy which still exists today. The majority of the white citizens of Yazoo County and Yazoo City still do not allow their children to attend public education today. That trend happened as a result of the civil rights movement and full integration, and that the struggle that blacks had across the state was the same in Yazoo City as it was across the state."
Robert Mickey, an associate political science professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, said that Barbour is correct in asserting that the Citizens Councils were often against Klan organizations forming in their communities. It wasn't, however, to promote racial integration; instead, they were concerned that such groups would spoil the economic environment, and in turn, Citizens Councils used economic intimidation to further segregation.
"This was an organization that spread very quickly across the South, directly in response to Brown v. Board of Education," said Mickey in an interview with The Huffington Post Monday. "Usually they were against violence because of its harm to economic development; firms wouldn't want to relocate to places that had a lot of violence. So their tools of slowing down the South's democratization was to use economic intimidation. ... They intimidated black parents from signing petitions demanding that school districts be desegregated, sometimes by printing the signatories in local newspapers, which oftentimes led to the signatures being recanted because the parents understood and feared the consequences of being publicly outed like that. So Barbour's right -- on one hand, they often helped out on the Klan, and a lot of times they were interested in deterring white mob violence. But Northerners are right that it's like the Klan."
Joseph Crespino, an associate professor of history at Emory University, also noted a particular incident in Yazoo City undermining Barbour's claims. "One of the things the Citizens Council would do is carry out economic harassment -- sometimes physical intimidation -- against local blacks," he said. "There was this well-known incident in Yazoo City in the 1950s where a handful of black parents tried to file a lawsuit against a local public school. They lost their jobs because they filed a lawsuit and they participated in the local civil rights movement. So it's well-documented that the kind of harassment that blacks faced when they tried to desegregate the schools there in Yazoo City."
In his interview, Barbour also said that he once attended an event at which the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke. "I just don't remember it as being that bad," he said of the civil rights era 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."
Johnson said he doubted Barbour's account. "In the period of which he was speaking of, it was one of the most racially turbulent times in this state's history. And any event during the early 1960s where Martin Luther King would have spoke, there were very few, if any, local whites in attendance in support of the civil rights movement or the message that Dr. King would have been speaking about."
UPDATE, 5:14 PM: In a 1956 article in Commentary David Halberstam describes the White Citizens Council as an organization determined to "not just oppose integration in the public schools but to stop or at least postpone it. In most of the the Deep South, where hostility to integration is nearly universal, it is this militancy and dedication that make the Council member stand out. Despite occasional efforts by supporters to build the Councils up into a movement of broad conservatism, their only serious purpose is to fight the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Not only do they contest the NAACP's desegregation suits, but they seek to cancel much else that the Negro has gained over the last half-century by keeping him out of the voting booth." On Yazoo City specifically:
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.
At the WCC's initial meeting at Indianola, Mississippi, in the summer of 1954, it was decided to isolate and silence white dissenters. The Council organizers knew that the Negroes would need white leadership and help--ministers, editors, school-board members--and it resolved to use social ostracism to deny these to them. In Holmes County, Mississippi, a mass meeting sponsored by the WCC asked Dr. David Minter and Eugene Cox and their families to leave the county. Minter and Cox had been running a cooperative farm for Negroes under the auspices of the Presbyterian church. After the Court decision they were seen as a danger. The Cox and Minter families, however, had never been very much involved with the community, and so they stayed on--in spite of threats and the cancellation of their fire-insurance policies. Nevertheless, Negroes became afraid to come out to their farm, and the two families found themselves isolated. The neighboring minister, a conservative and one of the two men who had defended them at the mass meeting, was transferred out of his parish. (A South Carolina minister lost his church after co-authoring a resolution Which denounced economic sanctions against partisans of integration as un-Christian.)
In another Mississippi city, two doctors were told that their white patients would be denied the use of a new hospital unless they agreed not to bring Negro patients even into the segregated wing. (The Council leaders, who expect the Court eventually to abolish segregation in hospitals, believe that the best policy is to keep Negroes out altogether.) And in Clinton, Tennessee, where mob demonstrations greeted the opening of the school year last month, principal D. J. Brittain received so many threatening and abusive telephone calls that he had to change his number.
UPDATE, 5:24 PM: Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress notes that in 2003, Barbour refused to ask for his picture to be removed from the national website of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the successor to the Citizens Council. The site featured Confederate flags and linked to articles such as "In defense of racism." Barbour called the content "indefensible" but said he didn't want to tell any group that it couldn't use his image.
In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Barbour's spokesman said people were trying to "paint the governor as a racist," when "nothing could be further from the truth."
UPDATE, 11:00 p.m.: HuffPost reader Edward S. points out that the Citizens Council's newsletters are all online here.
Johnson's comments have been updated for clarity.