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Whistling Dixie

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour just can’t let his old South memories wither and die without a fight for redemption.

Barbour, who is considered a leading contender for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination, said in a recent interview with the conservative magazine and website Human Events that it wasn’t people like him who fostered opposition to school desegregation. No, it was all those “old Democrats” in the South who stood in the door to prevent blacks from attending public schools across Dixie.

“By my time, people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore,” said Barbour, who at 62 is old and politically astute enough to know better than to say something so clearly inaccurate. “And so the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration.”

Horsefeathers! They were the same people. Conservative white Southerners began fleeing the Democratic Party in 1948 with Strom Thurmond’s short-lived Dixiecrat Party to eventually find a warm embrace within the GOP some two decades later, just as legal segregation began to lose its grip on the South’s throat. This political evolution is well-established history. So well documented, in fact, that it has its own moniker: The “Southern Strategy,” which inflamed racial fears to persuade a majority of white Southerners to vote for Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I and II.

Barbour, as a rising political operative, was in the thick of it all. Now, as he contemplates a run for the White House, he wants to pretend it didn’t go down that way. So he’s reconstructing his days as a student at the University of Mississippi during the mid-1960s and the height of the civil rights movement as “a very pleasant experience.”

What’s more, he claims to have “never thought twice” about the fact that federal courts forced his university to admit black students during his time there. Instead, he recalls getting along well with a kindly black, female classmate. Proof, he argues, that racial antagonism wasn’t such a big deal during his college days at Ole Miss.

Verna Bailey’s recollection of those days isn’t nearly as rosy.

Bailey, the first black woman to attend Ole Miss and currently a Beaverton, Oregon, elementary school principal, is that classmate Barbour remembers so fondly. But asked for a reaction to Barbour’s comments after they made national news, Bailey paints a vastly different picture of those days on the Oxford, Mississippi campus. In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, she described her college experience as a hellish time, one of alternating periods of pain, humiliation, isolation, and fear from the behavior of her white classmates.

One example: She and another black student danced in Oxford Square at a school celebration, drawing the wrath of a white crowd that threw coins and beer at them. “It was just an awful experience,” she recalled. “I just saw this mass of anger, anger and hostility. I thought my life was going to end.”

No one is accusing Barbour of mistreating Bailey or any other black student at Old Miss. In fact, Bailey said she barely remembers him at all and pointedly refused to criticize him. She would, however, love to talk with him about “the future of civil rights . . . the here and now, rather than reliving the past.”

Still, even if you take Barbour at his word, a huge question looms: Why does his joyous memory of college life veer so wildly from Bailey’s frightful recollections?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson argued in a scathing column that Barbour deliberately intended to deceive potential future voters into believing a “civil rights fairy tale.” Quick to counter that argument was Gerard Alexander, a politics professor at the University of Virginia and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In a Washington Post op-ed rebuttal, he insisted that “old conservatism-as-racism story has outlived all usefulness and accuracy.”

Clearly, a debate is brewing over how to explain the GOP’s racial history to an emerging generation of voters who consider the sixties and the civil rights movement as prehistoric museum artifacts. But memories are stubborn things that shape our present and future. It’s never easy to allow the past to go gentle into that good night.

This is especially true, if you’re plotting a run for the White House. So if Barbour expects to win—and in the process defeat the nation’s first black president—he must work overtime to sanitize the current image of the Republican Party as historically hostile to the interests and well-being of black and other minority Americans.

Barbour would have been wise to speak with Verna Bailey before crafting his revisionist history. The white Mississippi governor might have discovered that a black former classmate’s memory hasn’t been as clouded by politics and ambition as his appears to be.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.