WASHINGTON – Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential Republican presidential candidate, said Tuesday he was not trying to downplay the pain that many endured during the South's segregation era when he defended his home town's 1970 public school integration process.
Barbour spoke out a day after several liberal activists criticized his published comments about school desegregation in Yazoo City, which occurred when he was 20. Historical accounts confirm the schools integrated peacefully, as Barbour stated in a recent profile in the Weekly Standard magazine.
Some critics, however, said his comments skimmed over the segregationist role played by so-called Citizens Councils in the state.
Asked by the magazine why Yazoo City's public school integration avoided the violence seen in other towns, Barbour said: "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 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."
A January 1970 Time Magazine article about Yazoo City said, "local white leaders began more than a month ago to prepare their city for the shock of final desegregation. A loosely knit committee of prominent whites met with the city's whites, urging them to support the public schools rather than abandon them."
Several liberal bloggers Monday said Barbour left an inaccurate impression of Mississippi's local Citizens Councils, which sought to thwart integration in many areas. The white supremacist groups had their chief influence in the 1950s and early 1960s, years before the Yazoo City schools integration.
Barbour said in a statement Tuesday: "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."
In the Weekly Standard profile, Barbour said he remembered Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Yazoo City in 1962, when he would have been 12 years old. He said he did not recall King's words.
"The truth is, we couldn't hear very well," Barbour said. "We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King."
A quick data base search found records of King speaking in Yazoo City in 1966, when Barbour would have been 16, but not in 1962.