Haley Barbour Under Fire Over Recollection of Race Relations in 1970s Mississippi

WASHINGTON -- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential Republican presidential candidate, rebutted critics Monday who said he is sugar-coating his state's history of racial integration.

At issue is the January 1970 integration of public schools in Barbour's home town of Yazoo City, when he was 20. Historical accounts confirm the schools integrated peacefully, as Barbour stated in a recent profile in the Weekly Standard magazine. Some liberal groups, 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. However, the white supremacist groups had their chief influence in the 1950s and early 1960s, years before the Yazoo City schools integration.

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 database search found records of King speaking in Yazoo City in 1966, when Barbour would have been 16, but not in 1962.

Calls to Barbour's press office were not immediately returned. But his spokesman Dan Turner told other news outlets that the governor is not racist and he was commenting on specific events in Yazoo City, not on the broader Citizens Councils movement.