In defense of Haley Barbour’s unbelievably bad memory

WASHINGTON — Last week, Haley Barbour, the affable   governor of Mississippi, became the first to drop out of the preliminary race for the Republican nomination for the presidency.  He said he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” necessary to withstand the punishing rituals of the campaign trail, but political observers added other reasons, including his family’s resistance to having their lives upended.

There was also this: Barbour would have been hounded by questions about his awkward answers and inaccurate recollections on the subject of race and the civil rights movement. As a fellow Southerner, I was astonished that Barbour would be so clumsy — and clearly wrongheaded — on a subject that consumed the South for much of his life.

In a December interview with The Weekly Standard, for example, he defended the White Citizens’ Councils — an uptown version of the Ku Klux Klan — and downplayed the turmoil of the civil rights era. “I don’t remember it being that bad,” he said.

In fact, Mississippi harbored vicious racists who perpetuated savage acts of violence against civil rights activists — including the notorious murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. It seems remarkable that Barbour has little recollection of the bloodshed which tainted his beloved state for decades.

A few months earlier, at a journalists’ roundtable I attended, he had described the mid-60s at the University of Mississippi as “a very pleasant experience” where integration had been accomplished easily. In fact, James Meredith’s entry to Ole Miss in 1962 set off a riot by white segregationists.

Barbour’s memories were pure fantasy, vivid reminders that even accomplished public figures can fall victim to the widespread human tendency to soften the harsh edges of the past and discount facts they find disagreeable.

Nowhere is that tendency more troubling than in our fractious conversations and fraught memories about the nation’s racial history and its violence, its bigotry, its injustice. Consider this: 150 years after shots fired at Fort Sumter plunged the nation into a civil war, many white Southerners still insist that slavery was not its defining cause. Myth is more powerful than history.

And memory is not a reliable archive. It is notoriously unreliable — prone to sharp revisions and subtle re-writes more favorable to current circumstances. If Barbour’s racial consciousness has evolved since the 1960s — and it probably has — he may have repressed his earlier attitudes and the era they represented.

“It’s very hard for us to put on the lenses of the ways we thought and felt years ago,” Drew Westen, Emory University psychology professor, told me, “especially when we now consider those ways of thinking morally wrong and repugnant.”

Having grown up in Alabama during the turmoil of the civil rights era, I don’t interpret that deep-seated denial as prima facie evidence of racism. I’ve known too many well-meaning white Southerners who could not face the facts about the region’s long history of state-sanctioned racism or the toll it had taken on their black neighbors.

When I was a teenager, an older white lady whom I barely knew volunteered to help me hone my piano solo for the county Junior Miss Pageant, in which I played W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” My talent presentation included a short recitation explaining the origin of the blues — born of black folks’ suffering. Upon hearing me recite the prose I’d written, she said, “Cynthia, the Negroes never had it that hard.”

I was stunned by her certitude, her arrogance and her lack of compassion. But I didn’t believe her response was born of flat-out racism. It was born of a willful ignorance — an unwillingness to confront the truth about a system in which she was complicit.

Nor do I believe Barbour is racist. But he showed the same blindness my piano tutor did — an inability to empathize with Jim Crow’s victims. Given his state’s history, that’s no minor failing.

61 comments Add your comment

TnGelding

April 29th, 2011
3:06 pm

Well, I think he realized he was just a little too Southern. But he was better than most the GOP has to offer.

Agnes

April 29th, 2011
3:21 pm

Today’s tea-party is yesteryear’s segregationists.

arnold

April 29th, 2011
3:23 pm

There is no way a southerner will beat Obama. It’s going to be difficult as it is for the GOP to present a viable candidate from those that are in the news. A southern accent and a revisionist memory equates to a losing ticket.

Rascal

April 29th, 2011
3:41 pm

Tucker might benefit from looking in a mirror. While there are many white people with skewed perspectives, they are not alone. Missing reality as we interpret facts from our own perspective is hardly restricted to one race or the other. Tucker has no monopoly on the truth.

Eric Holder had the same issues as he suggested that the US was too cowardly to engage in ah honest dialog about race. Maybe some of the cowardice was his.

BH

April 29th, 2011
3:44 pm

I worked for a company that did business with a small mom & pop shop. The owners were in thier late 50s early 60s and I got to know them very well. I guess the wife was at ease with me so she started as questions like why didnt black people like amos and andy and my favorite……was slavey so bad? I was born a sharechoppers child and the slave shacks were better than anything I lived in.
I was thinking my people were not treated as though they were human and you think it wasn’t that bad because they had better housing??? WOW

buck@gon

April 29th, 2011
3:58 pm

Rascal,

Great point. I wish I’d made it.

I find great irony in Civil Cynthia Tucker dialoging on “willful ignorance” and “civility”. It seems to me that if you are a conservative white politician discussing times prior to 1970 you absolutely MUST express sorrow, regret and sympathy for your black brothers and sisters and capitulate on most social and fiscal liberal issues.

Remember Robert Byrd? He was a Klukker himself, and he died serving Democrats in the Senate. Wonder if he ever got the same workout by the “media”.

Auburn fan

April 29th, 2011
4:15 pm

I remember saying once that I missed the “good old days”, and one of my black co-workers said
“it wasn’t so good for us.” I did think about what he said and I got his point. I just think we spend way too much time dwelling on the past when it comes to race. It seems like the new racists are the ones that were the victims of the past.

Hootinanny Yum Yum

April 29th, 2011
4:35 pm

Thank you, CT!

Keep the Hate alive…

Emmanuel Hall

April 29th, 2011
4:45 pm

Ms. Tucker, your analysis of Governor Barbour is far more forgiving than I could ever be. But, I congratulate you for your willingness to adjust and accept the possibilities of a phycological trauma in some southerners re-vision of history, including Mr. Barbour.

Cynthia's Song

April 29th, 2011
4:47 pm

The Founding Slaveowners didn’t see anything wrong with their property rights either. Thomas Jefferson’s idealism lost out to his creditors. What an evil, evil society what bore America. How many more times do Black Americans have to apologize for being black? Haley Barbour is a pig. Plain and simple.

Del,

April 29th, 2011
5:29 pm

More about race from Cynthia.

Auburn fan

April 29th, 2011
5:43 pm

Will black folks ever be happy in America? Will white folks always have to apologize for being white?

Moderate Line

April 29th, 2011
7:08 pm

Whatever the reason for his statements they are troubling because of their detachment from reality. This is a sign that he doesn’t take in evidence that contradicts his world view.

Moderate Line

April 29th, 2011
7:34 pm

When I was a teenager, an older white lady whom I barely knew volunteered to help me hone my piano solo for the county Junior Miss Pageant, in which I played W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” My talent presentation included a short recitation explaining the origin of the blues — born of black folks’ suffering. Upon hearing me recite the prose I’d written, she said, “Cynthia, the Negroes never had it that hard.”

I was stunned by her certitude, her arrogance and her lack of compassion.
+++++
Your statement doesn’t exactly show much sympathy for someone one who was trying to help you.

Kamchak

April 29th, 2011
7:37 pm

Will black folks ever be happy in America? Will white folks always have to apologize for being white?

Will douchebags ever quit being douchebags?

Lil' Barry Bailout

April 29th, 2011
7:39 pm

Let it be known that it is Cynthia Tucker fanning the flames of racism with this post. To what end, Ms. Tucker?

To paraphrase our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the way to end racial animosity is to lose your own racial animus.

stranger in a strange land

April 29th, 2011
7:46 pm

Auburn Fan:
No to first question
Yes to second question

My question: Will CT ever be able to go longer than one week w/o a column devoted to race baiting.

Mark in mid-town

April 29th, 2011
7:50 pm

The South has made remarkable progress over the past few decades, so much progress that there is little doubt in my mind that there is more de-facto racism (segregation) today in the North and northeast than there is in the South. Let’s also remember that when the South was exponentially more racist than today, it was overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. One could easily argue that John Kennedy owed his election to racist white people in the South. As the South has made more racial progress than just about every other part of the country, it largely became Republican. Thus today’s Republicans in the South are tarred because yesterday’s Democratic Party supporters in the South were largely racist.

Mr Charlie

April 29th, 2011
7:50 pm

Kam, a simple NO and YES would have sufficed, reason to call people names.

Get Real (the original)

April 29th, 2011
7:55 pm

Will douchebags ever quit being douchebags?

I don’t know Kamchak; it would be more appropriate to change your name to Summer’s Eve

Jack

April 29th, 2011
7:56 pm

Race relations are not made better by articles like this.

Kamchak

April 29th, 2011
7:58 pm

Kam, a simple NO and YES would have sufficed, reason to call people names.

Who exactly did I call a name, chucky-poo?

Bob White

April 29th, 2011
8:00 pm

I don’t have a problem with his comments. Many people talk about empathy but in reality, most people have none. Especially today. We are mostly concerned with what is happening to ourselves. So, I’m going to school with a bunch of students that are have a really bad time. I’m not. I don’t think about another person’s experience, consequently it does not color my memories. Why do so many black people not remember the good times back in the 50s so many whites remember fondly? Same reason. Although many people were having a good experience, they were not. What I find interesting is the cultural identification that causes young people today to feel hurt for things that their parents experienced but that they will never experience- whether it’s racial bias or the feeling of pride in a culture that died at Appomattox Courthouse…. The expectation that any human being should be empathetic is unrealistic. That’s why John Lennon’s song was called “Imagine”.

IloveGeorgia

April 29th, 2011
8:11 pm

Cynthia, once again you present your racist thoughts. Cynthia, just as the Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans, whatever the current race word is today were discriminated against in the past, so were compassionate, Christian, loving whites discriminated against. We truly need to put this history behind us and leave it as history. A certain percentage the Black community continue to try and play the race card in hopes of continuing discrimination and gaining entitlements, I don’t believe that these Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans will ever be happy, no matter what is given or done for them, and you Ms. Tucker are one of them. We need to put the past in the past and MOVE FORWARD and not keep bringing up the treatment of Blacks over 50 years ago. Blacks do not have to apologize for the color of their skin, brown or black, nor should whites have to apologize for the color of their skin in 2011. I am getting very tired of these “racist” remarks from the Black community, but they are NEVER referred to as RACISTS. You, Ms. Tucker are one of the biggest Negro/Black/African-American, however you wish your heritage to be referred to as, racists that I know!

Agnes

April 29th, 2011
8:12 pm

tea-baggers work diligently everyday to prove american exceptionalism is a myth….

Billings

April 29th, 2011
8:13 pm

even accomplished public figures can fall victim to the widespread human tendency to soften the harsh edges of the past

And then there are “accomplished figures” like you, Ms. Tucker, who run themselves ragged trying to hold onto the past for political gain, keeping folks mired in the muck of your dem party plantation.

All’s well that spins well.

slim

April 29th, 2011
8:17 pm

there’s good whites and bad whites, most of the bad ones are ajc bloggers.

Tommy Maddox

April 29th, 2011
8:44 pm

Gee – black folks can’t get any where in the South. Just look at the city of Atlanta! Well, uh, maybe we should look at New Orleans! Uh, well…

Lil' Barry Bailout

April 29th, 2011
8:47 pm

Cynthia seems intent on making sure everyone stays as angry as she is.

Red Neckerson

April 29th, 2011
9:06 pm

Too bad he withdrew- Barbour’s pro-racism platform would have assured the gop nomination.

Ramguy

April 29th, 2011
9:09 pm

Why do people think think CT is fanning the flames of hate? I found this column elegant and forgiving.

Born in the 50s

April 29th, 2011
9:54 pm

We have civil and intelligent discussions on race in college, formal discussions in the workplace (you know those initial and annual EEO trainings), and in private discussions amongst family and friends, however it seems that discussions about race in this forum are never appropriate or civil.

Cal

April 29th, 2011
9:55 pm

Ramguy said: “Why do people think think CT is fanning the flames of hate? I found this column elegant and forgiving.”

Instead of racist she calls white southerners willfully ignorant? I don’t see elegance or forgiveness in her scribblings. But then not everyone is blinded by allegiance to some leftwing political hack.

Maybe it’s just you.

Tech Man

April 29th, 2011
11:24 pm

CT – How was she complicit if she was helping you? Do words speak louder than actions?

scott

April 29th, 2011
11:42 pm

As long as there are racists like Cynthia, there will be racism.

auburn fan

April 30th, 2011
12:01 am

So what are the chances that Michelle Obama becomes first lady in any other country but America? I think her father was a janitor? Is she proud of us yet?

Most of our ancestors came to this country with nothing. Yes I understand they were not slaves but as far as I know we ended slavery. It took a terrible war to do it but it is over and you are not being opressed any more.

Can-Obama-2012

April 30th, 2011
12:16 am

I cannot wait to see how Cynthia defends Obama in his efforts to deny reporter Clara Marinucci freedom of the press rights. I know Cynthia will defend him until the end, but I thirst for how she will do a task opposed to a fundmental American right. How do I know….Obama has already given her instructions.

0311/0317 -1811/1801

April 30th, 2011
12:24 am

Cyntia:

How many times do I have to tell you it was NOT a civil war or Confederate leaning citizens of New York would have been kIlling Union leaning citiens of New York and vice versa in “civil” warfare all over Rochester !!!

It was a war between the:

“UNITED (oxymoron) SATES OF AMERICA AND THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (who had in state assemblies voted to leave the UNION (oxymoron).

I have heard it told that a yankee soldier once asked a captured Confederate soldier, “why are you fighting the U.S. Army?”

The reply, “Because you are down here!”

Paddy O

April 30th, 2011
12:45 am

yeah, agnes keep playing the victim card/inferiority complex. see how much happier & successful that makes you every day.

Paddy O

April 30th, 2011
12:48 am

kamchak – from your persistent positions and comments, I think the answer would be NO.

Paddy O

April 30th, 2011
12:51 am

agnes, and liberal americans work every day to prove that the democrats don’t stray very far from the “bleeding heart liberal” “tax and spend” stereotypes that have dogged them for 70 years or so.

Paddy O

April 30th, 2011
1:08 am

This is an interesting platform for discussion. What % of whites owned land? The remainder struggled every day prior to the 1900’s. The slave had economic value in the antebellum south. The freed negro had very little. But, he did have freedom, and the ability to make his own choices. So, why are so many housing authorities in GA apparently magnets for so many poor blacks? Most folks around Atlanta know about the cess pools that the old public housing complexes were. Why were they so awful, criminal places? So bad, that the Atlanta Housing Authority decided to demolish many of them (what a horrible waste of taxpayer investment). This country was founded by primarily English rejects. But, those rejects were also subjects of the King. Most of the rest of Europe was NOT aligned with the British King, and were actually in direct competition. Thus, the French, Spanish & Portuguese pursued the same interests as the Brits. The Brits were just a whole lot more efficient, and effectively violent. The crux of the civil war was slavery. But it was also competing economic systems. By seceding, the southern states did the blacks in slavery a favor – it (although there was no guarantee of a Northern victory, just as there was no guarantee of a US victory in WW2) hastened the termination of slavery – as opposed to the its slow death, probably over at least 50 years time frame. Most people today can not imagine a genuinely laissez faire government where the citizens were actually self dependent. The industrial revolution has created terrific wealth, but it has also created grotesque dependency and a chasm between the capable and the inept. the problem is, by allowing so much of our manufacturing capacity to slither over to China (a communist country with no civil rights – why does Cynthia not write about that?), our ability to sustain this welfare mentality is not possible. Obama is not the man to address the problems of this country. He is simply enlarging the welfare system. That is a recipe for disaster, and if we destroy the value of the US dollar, then we will return to a barter system, and the inept in society will suffer poverty they never dreamed of. Obama may be the most unqualified person, at least since 1900, to assume the seat of the Presidency.

Rightwing Troll

April 30th, 2011
8:05 am

What a bunch of skinheads…

By ignoring and/or revising history we are doomed to repeat it… Much like the wingnuts who whine incessently about Obama, even though he continues most of W’s disasterous policies and wars, these wingnuts will not even acknowledge the disaster that was the years 2000-2008, but will scream and howl about all that “that person” does, and claim that the state of our union somehow magically came to be in the last 2 years…

Rightwing Troll

April 30th, 2011
8:08 am

Take Paddy-O just above…

According to him, all of our manufacturing has left the shores of our nation in the last 2 years. When in reality our manufacturing has been migrating to other locales for the last decade… again, revisionist history…

Tommy Maddox

April 30th, 2011
8:38 am

Oh brother…

TnGelding

April 30th, 2011
8:52 am

Folks, we’re still the largest manufacturer in dollar value on the planet. Congress has been very successful in picking winners and losers. And some companies are bringing jobs back “home.”

jconservative

April 30th, 2011
9:12 am

“It was born of a willful ignorance — an unwillingness to confront the truth about a system in which she was complicit.”

Cynthia this may be the best sentence you have ever written. This is the truth for many from that era.

And yeah I agree on the Civil War comment. But I still do not understand why southerners continue to celebrate getting their ass kicked up one side and down the other. The dumb fools picked on someone a heck of a lot bigger and got stuffed in a sack. What other outcome could they have expected?

My great, great grandfather was a soldier in a Georgia company during the cilil war. Died 35 miles from his home of typhoid fever. Never fired a shot, never owned a slave and probably never had 10 dollars in his pocket in his short life. What a waste! And another 620,000 were killed in that war. And 2/3 of those died from disease, not battles. What a waste!

What’s to celebrate?

murf4HOF

April 30th, 2011
10:09 am

ok what happened in slavery was WRONG and can never be excused.Period. and those in slavery were/are owed.However none of those folks are no longer with us justas the slaveowner devils are gone as well. It’s time for folks of both of the primary races to move on…I’m not saying to forget, but move on……

liberalefty

April 30th, 2011
10:18 am

every country was built on violence, slavery and servitude…but i hate it when slavemasters are defended as lovingf freedom and being patriotic…they dealt in human bondage for the almighty dollar…

Dave

April 30th, 2011
10:35 am

Cynthia is a racist bigot. Once that fact is understood, Cynthia is understood.