Selling History Short in Mississippi

Selling History Short in Mississippi

Why is Haley Barbour so eager to turn Mississippi into a civil rights tourist attraction?


A spokeswoman responsible for promoting the town of Dachau and marketing its most famous installation once complained that it was difficult to separate visitors from their money once they’d seen the crematoriums. “No one is really in the mood to bite into a sandwich after visiting,” she said. Who’d have thought it?

Cashing in on historical trauma is a tricky business. To convert painful memories into hard money, it is usually necessary to sanitize their reality, rebrand their import and distort their legacy. And that means extricating the very people who made the history you are trying to tell from the history you are trying to sell.

Meet Haley Barbour, former chair of the Republican National Committee, present governor of Mississippi and undeclared 2012 presidential hopeful. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this is the man who wants to reinvent Mississippi as a civil rights tourist attraction. “This is the year to get this [civil rights] museum going,” said Barbour in his January State of the State speech, referring to a plan to build the facility in downtown Jackson. “People from around the world would flock to see the museum and learn about the movement.” Barbour plans to host a reception honoring the Freedom Riders.

There are three main reasons Barbour is so eager.

The first is money. Just how much profit there is in civil rights history is not clear, but some believe it’s there. Jim Prince, owner of the Neshoba Democrat, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, once told me, “I tell people, if they can’t be behind the call for justice because it’s the right thing to do—and that’s first and foremost—then they need to do it ‘cause it’s good for business.”

The second is Mississippi. In the national and global psyche the state’s image is a sepia-toned nightmare of burning crosses and black men hanging from trees. Marketing it as a venue for civil rights tourism could turn those weaknesses into strengths, showcasing resistance rather than bigotry. Some cities, like Birmingham, Alabama, have been somewhat successful in this regard.

The third is Barbour, whose appeal to moderate Republicans hinges on portraying himself as a man who rose through the racial squalor of Mississippi politics and somehow emerged untainted.

The three are linked. Rebranding the state is essential to both making money and burnishing Barbour’s presidential ambitions.

This is not entirely fair. The rest of the country has been too comfortable using the South to deflect criticism of its own racist shortcomings. None of the nation’s five most segregated cities are in the former Confederacy, and black people are more likely to live in poverty in Indiana than in Mississippi. While Mississippi’s particular history is extreme, it is hardly aberrant.

For Barbour these are distinctions without a difference: his task is not to expose racism but to deny it. So while Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream about the future, Barbour keeps dreaming about the past. In Barbour’s world, integration went smoothly and he was in the vanguard. It was “my generation who went to integrated schools,” he told Human Events in September. “I went to integrated college—never thought twice about it.”

He specifically recalls sitting next to Verna Bailey, whom he described recently as “a very nice girl” who “happened to be an African-American, and, God bless her, she let me copy her notes the whole time…. If she remembers it, I would be surprised…. I still love her.”

In December he claimed his hometown of Yazoo City escaped the state’s most vicious scenes, because the White Citizens Council was in charge rather than the Ku Klux Klan.

The trouble with Barbour’s dreams is they are built on other people’s nightmares. Bailey, the first black woman to go to Ole Miss, does not remember him. But she does recall being terrified. “That time…certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for me,” she said. “My interactions with white people were very, very limited…. I thought my life was going to end.”

In a letter to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Steve Mangold, Barbour’s best friend from his youth, recalls the atmosphere in Yazoo City differently. When his parents opposed the Citizens Council’s campaign to turn a federally funded Hill-Burton “separate but equal” hospital into a whites-only facility, there were “threatening phone calls, dead cats on the lawn and other acts of intimidation” that ran his father out of town for two years.

But even if Barbour is telling the truth, this makeover works only if the civil rights struggle is relegated to a bygone era. “There appears to be a strategy of convincing people who are not in Mississippi that Mississippi is past racism,” explains Diane Nash, a key leader of the Freedom Rides, “that things are fine now; it was just a few bad apples in the day. They have never acknowledged the state agencies that were involved. There is a deliberate effort to deceive.” Nash and other original freedom fighters will not be attending Barbour’s reception. “It’s enough to make a person angry. But it’s also a betrayal of the effort and the sacrifice that people made. And I know that if the Mississippi-type forces have control of the legacy of the movement, they will be inaccurate and they will use it against the cause.”

The evidence of the unfinished history of the civil rights era is everywhere. Black workers’ wages in the state are 70.1 percent of white workers’; black kids are four times more likely to live in poverty; and while blacks are 38 percent of the state’s population, they are 67 percent of its prison population. Indeed, Barbour opposed affirmative action and rejected federal stimulus money—just two examples of how he’s making things worse.

When it comes to the South the past is never dead, argued William Faulkner, Mississippi’s most famous son. “It’s not even past.”

Editor’s Note: Gary Younge writes that "[Diane] Nash and other original freedom fighters" will not be attending a reception honoring Freedom Riders that Mississippi governor Haley Barbour will be hosting. To clarify, some Freedom Riders, including John Lewis and Bob Filner, will be in attendance.

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