A truism of human nature is that people tend to see the same event from different perspectives, sometimes vastly different. And, as a black Southerner, I can testify to the very different perspectives black and white Southerners of about my age often bring to segregation and the civil rights movement.
In a recent interview with the conservative magazine Human Events, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had very sunny and pleasant memories of desegregation, as well as a self-serving and historically inaccurate description of the role Southern Republicans played. Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson ripped Barbour to shreds over that in a recent column.
I agree with Robinson wholeheartedly about Barbour’s deliberate political misinterpretations, but I’m also fascinated by his personal memories of his student days at Ole Miss in the mid-1960s. I remember that era as one of fiery segregations attempting to keep black kids out of state-sponsored schools, but Barbour, speaking to a group of reporters on Wednesday, claimed to remember that time as quite pleasant.
Maybe he does remember it that way. But one of his black classmates, interviewed by McClatchy, has very different memories:
It’s hard to believe that Haley Barbour and Verna Bailey attended the same University of Mississippi in 1965, and even sat next to each other in a class.
Barbour, who’s now the governor of Mississippi and a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, recalls that time — when Ole Miss was being forced to integrate — as “a very pleasant experience.”
Bailey does not. At times, she said, “I thought my life was going to end.”
He’s white. She was the first black female to attend.
Their seats were assigned alphabetically, and he said they developed a friendly rapport. She let him copy her notes when he skipped class.
“I still love her,” he quipped.
He remembers her name almost as if it were yesterday, though he’d recalled her middle name as Lee. It’s Ann. . .
In an interview last month with the conservative magazine and website Human Events, Barbour said it was “my generation who went to integrated schools. I went to an integrated college, never thought twice about it.”
It was the old Democrats who clung to segregation, he said. “By my time people realized that was the past, that was indefensible, wasn’t going to be that way anymore.” He said that “the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican (were) a different generation from those who fought integration.”
That interview set off a backlash from black commentators, who accused Barbour of everything from being clueless to pushing revisionist history.
Barbour defended those comments Wednesday at a Washington reporters’ breakfast.
“When I became a Republican in the late ’60s, in my state and probably some other Southern states the hard right were all Democrats,” he said. “They didn’t want to have Republicans because, in their words, ‘It split the white vote.’ And young people were more likely to be Republicans than our grandparents.”
That’s when he brought up Bailey.
He said she was “a very nice girl” who “happened to be an African-American, and, God bless her, she let me copy her notes the whole time. And since I was not prone to go to class every day, I considered it a great — it was a great thing, it was just — there was nothing to it. If she remembers it, I would be surprised. She was just another student. I was the student next to her.”
Bailey, reached by phone, reacted to Barbour’s story with surprise that bordered on confusion.
“I don’t remember him at all, no, because during that time that certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for me,” she said. “My interactions with white people were very, very limited. Very, very few reached out at all.”
I don’t think either of them is lying. But it’s clear that Barbour, a white man, and Bailey, a black woman, had very different experiences at Ole Miss in 1965, something Barbour never noticed.