Just before our holiday hiatus we were following the story of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s comments to the Weekly Standard about how smoothly the desegregation of schools went in his hometown of Yazoo City. It was his defense of the role of the white Citizens’ Councils (which he later recanted) that prompted a lot of backlash.
I was happy to see so many historians–and so many of them UNC Press authors–out front setting the record straight about what really went down in 1950s & 1960s Mississippi. Todd Moye, author of Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 194-1986, was summoned to give insight over at TalkingPointsMemo.com:
“At any given time in Mississippi in the 50′s, the Citizens Council would have included people who led the Rotary Club and the local bank and the Boy Scout troop — all these positions of leadership you can think of. But they were also members of this group that is, I think, a terrorist organization,” [said Moye].
The councils were dedicated to political activities opposing civil rights, notably through the use of boycotts against African-Americans who sought out their civil rights, and whites who supported them — including a famous instance by the group in Barbour’s hometown. It was distinguished from the Klan by the public self-identification of its members, and its image of suits and ties as opposed to white robes and nooses.
“They used economic terrorism for the most part, but they definitely reserved the right to use violence. And in a few cases they did use violence,” Moye further explained. “Now they were distinguished from the Klan because they didn’t go around shooting people. But you saw the story in Yazoo County where the people who signed petitions lost their jobs. That was really the modus operandi.”
So why, I asked, do people continue to defend the Citizens Councils? “It’s in part because the people who led the Citizens Councils really were respectable members of the community,” said Moye. “It’s hard for people to admit today that what they were doing was disrespectable.”
Governor Barbour had a hard time admitting it, apparently.
Historian Blair L. M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, was next up to the mic, in an appearance on MSNBC’s Countdown soon after Barbour issued a new statement to retract all support for the Citizens Councils (Kelley appears around the 2:50 mark of this clip):
When I read that Barbour had described his family as “Eastland Democrats” during that era, I thought of Chris Myers Asch, author of The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer, which we will publish in paperback next month. Asch was a step ahead of me, and responded to Barbour’s comments with an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. He offers insight into what being an “Eastland Democrat” implies and warns against minimizing the effects of the Citizens Councils’ campaign to protect white supremacy. He writes:
Pundits now are frothing over the political ramifications of Barbour’s comments, but there are more fundamental issues at stake.
First is a basic matter of historical truth and the responsibility of our leaders to speak honestly about our past. We are a nation – North and South – with a complicated history, one that is at once both honorable and horrifying. We should celebrate our triumphs while candidly confronting the unpleasant realities of our past lest we succumb to the temptation of feel-good, fairy-tale history.
But more important and enduring than simply the facts is the meaning that we as a people attach to those facts and how that meaning influences our lives today. To dismiss segregation as “not that bad” is not simply wrong historically, it also diminishes the value of the civil rights movement and, by extension, continuing efforts to challenge injustice. It implies that the movement was much ado about nothing, just a bunch of uptight do-gooders with nothing better to do.
To pretend that council members were somehow honorable people is to distort our basic sense of right and wrong. There was no honor in the citizens’ councils. They were created by powerful whites who sought to perpetuate a dehumanizing system of white supremacy. The heroes of the time – the people whom we want our children to honor the way we revere the patriots of the American Revolution and the GIs of the greatest generation – are the men and women, white and black, Northern and Southern, who courageously challenged an entrenched, evil system and won.
As these civil rights historians have all addressed, it’s important to set the record straight when public figures (especially those with presidential ambitions) get their history wrong. But when I heard historian John Dittmer refer to Barbour as an “unreconstructed Southerner,” the historical parallels started to pile up in my mind. There is a higher charge at stake here, and that is public memory of the civil rights movement–both its past and its present. UNC Press has published lots of excellent books about Civil War memory and Lost Cause mythologizing. Seems to me, Barbour’s doing some Lost Cause mythologizing of his own, only it’s about the civil rights movement, not the Civil War.
I was not alive during the 1950s and 1960s, but I know the civil rights movement came long before, and lasted long after those critical midcentury decades. And electing a black president does not mean the movement is over. The movement continues today. That’s part of what Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement is about: documenting and discussing the struggle–then and now.
UNC Press will continue to publish books that both set the record straight and invite new modes of exploring and questioning the past, the present, and the future. And as individuals, we–you, me, all of us–have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the history of what came before, to listen to the history being made all around us now, and to use our voices in dialogue with others raise us all up toward justice.