Haley Barbour clarifies comments on civil rights era

Too late?

When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.

To answer a question raised in yesterday’s post, yeah, it looks like the local branch of the Citizens Council in Barbour’s hometown was as bad as all the rest. According to author John Dittmer, as quoted in Michelle Goldberg’s piece for the Daily Beast, “The Yazoo City chapter of the Citizens Council went on record opposing the Klan, adding that ‘your Citizens Council was formed to preserve the separation of the races, and believes that it can best serve the county where it is the only organization operating in this field.'” This isn’t the first time that Barbour’s glossed over the nastier aspects of civil-rights-era Mississippi, either: Geraghty ticks off a number of examples and notes a comment he allegedly made in the early 80s in front of a Times reporter about blacks and watermelon. There was no direct quote of what he said provided in the Times piece, an omission that makes even lefty Greg Sargent reluctant to use it against Barbour, but I’ve got a funny hunch that any similar misgivings by the left and the media will suddenly evaporate if he ends up winning the nomination and squares off against The One.

So, case closed on Barbour and race? Not quite. Majority in Mississippi has the transcript of the speech he gave in 2004 in Philadelphia on the 40th anniversary of the famous murders of three civil rights workers. Key quote:

We know that when evil is done it is a complicit sin to ignore it, to pretend it didn’t happen even if it happened 40 years ago. You have to face up to your problems before you can solve them…

The fact that our state has made as much or more progress in race relations than others is praise worthy but it doesn’t mean that we should or can forget the reprehensible murders that ultimately led to our being brought here together today…

Yes, our state of Mississippi is a wonderful place and our nation as great as ever but we are not perfect. We are sinners, one and all and evil can still raise it heinous head.

By remembering this 40-year-old evil and considering today’s evil of fanatical Islamic terrorism we recommit ourselves to fighting and defeating the extreme hateful intolerance in both these evils.

Powerful words, but sure to be dismissed by Barbour’s enemies as less revealing than his off-the-cuff remarks about the era to reporters. (Ironically, Chris Cillizza speculates that it’s because Barbour has such a famously good relationship with the press that he tends to let his guard down around them even when broaching a subject as dangerous as this. If he thinks being a media darling will help him against Obama, I encourage him to talk to John McCain posthaste.) Yesterday I compared him to Mitch Daniels in his odd willingness to tap dance on political landmines, but the more I think about it, the more I think he’ll end up having the same problem as Palin among undecided primary voters — namely, the electability issue. If we roll the dice on Barbour, this will be a major theme of Campaign 2012, fairly or not. The left will pound it at every opportunity to steer the conversation away from Obama’s record, and our studiously “above the fray” president will make sure that his surrogates bring it up at every opportunity. The question is (a) whether deep down Barbour really is the man who gave that speech in Philadelphia and, assuming he is, (b) whether he’s such a singularly talented executive and fundraiser among the GOP field that it’s worth taking on the extra baggage to nominate him. I give him the benefit of the doubt on the first point but I’m not sure about the second. Barbour fans are invited to make the case in the comments. Geraghty, at least, now seems to believe that he’s unelectable.

Exit question: Would a “speech on race” help limit the damage from this? Politico suggests that he and his staff are thinking about doing one sometime before May, but nothing’s definite.