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.