Much cluck-clucking in political blogosphere today over Haley Barbour’s downplaying of school integration tensions in his home state. The comments sent liberal bloggers scurrying for copies of Willie Morris’s 1971 book, Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town.
All the slightly juicy bits about Haley’s older brother, Jeppie, have already been posted across the Internet
, but in flipping through my copy a first-person account of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in action is what caught my eye. It was in a section of the book where Morris is introducing various leaders in Yazoo’s white and African-American communities. In this case, Walter Bridgforth, a “courtly conservative lawyer” who is a stand in for the community’s educated, older segregationists:
“These people in the Republican Administration,” he says over lunch, “have really tried to give us a break, more than our cousin Lyndon did, but they’ve been subjected to pressures and they’re running scared.” A twenty-nine-year-old Justice Department lawyer in Jackson had said to him the other day, “We’re completing the Reconstruction of the South.” But the Justice lawyers under Nixon are better to deal with than the L.B.J. ones, he says. “At least they cut their hair.”
Hardly a shocking comment, but it caught my eye because not long ago I got into a Twitter argument with some conservative about the Republican Party’s history. His argument was that the GOP was founded as an anti-slavery party, whereas Democrats had fought civil rights.
True, absolutely true. But when I pointed out the shift that took place in the post Civil Rights era — white Democrats in the South defecting en masse to the Republican Party — my sparring partner professed ignorance of the so-called Southern Strategy
Bridgforth’s comments to Morris aren’t evidence of a Nixon directed strategy, but they do highlight how white Southerners — people like Bridgforth who were born Democrats — perceived Nixon’s administration to be more sympathetic to their plight.
For what it’s worth, a quick scan of Yazoo
shows Haley’s brother to be a middle-of-the-roader on school integration. He’s clearly not thrilled, but he’s not calling for violent resistance. Jeppie comes across as a guy who’d just assume that the civil rights movement hadn’t happened, and in that capacity he’s probably like most other educated whites of that era. Perhaps he’s evolved in the intervening decades, or perhaps he’s become more hard line
There’s at least one other mention of the Nixon administration in the book:
Since the October Supreme Court mandate, the white community in Yazoo had been undergoing an agony of survival. The Nixon Administration, with which that community sympathized, had tried to slow the pace of integration, but its deliberate conservatism had not prevented the Court from acting on its own. Many intelligent, well-meaning whites where baffled and perplexed. “We see on television that the Negro militants say integration doesn’t matter any more,” one of them said to me. “We hear the Administration doesn’t believe in it, either. Does it or doesn’t it matter?
It’s important to bring this up, in my opinion, because there is an effort by some conservatives to portray Democrats as hypocrites on race given the deplorable history of white Southern politicians (all Democrats) voting against Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. These efforts are mostly confined to the conservative blogosphere — examples here, here and here.
Republicans today — even those in the South — aren’t all racists, nor are all Democrats exemplars of a color-blind society. But when history gets distorted — when Southern Democrats’ history of segregationist policies is forgotten AND the national Republicans’ successful efforts to lure those same whites to the GOP by playing up “states rights
” and anti-affirmative action
rhetoric is glossed over — everyone loses. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to his own opinion; no one is entitled to his own facts.
UPDATE, 12/21 — Barbour’s office issued the following statement: “When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.”