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Segregation impossible to forget

Of his youth during the civil rights era in Yazoo City, Miss., the state’s governor, Haley Barbour, said in an interview, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”

Associated Press

Of his youth during the civil rights era in Yazoo City, Miss., the state’s governor, Haley Barbour, said in an interview, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”

I'm a little younger than Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi who's considering a run for president. • So maybe my memory is slightly better. • In Barbour's memory, as you've probably heard, the Mississippi of his youth — at the height of the civil rights movement — was apparently idyllic. I guess he didn't read the papers. In any case, he must have missed Mississippian William Faulkner's famous line "The past is not dead. It's not even past." • What we do know is that in a warmly lit profile in the Weekly Standard, Barbour was asked about his youth in Yazoo City, Miss., during civil rights days.

"I just don't remember it as being that bad," he said. As if to make the point, he cited a visit that he recalls Martin Luther King Jr. making to Yazoo City in 1962.

"He spoke out at the old fairground," Barbour said, "and it was full of people — black and white."

Maybe it happened that way, blacks and whites coming together in 1962 Mississippi. Barbour said he was there, but that he was too busy checking out girls to recall much.

He was a little older in 1970 when Yazoo City schools were finally integrated by court order. When asked why there was no violence then, Barbour credited his local Citizens Council, which he said kept the klan away. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that these councils were prosegregationist and blocked racial progress at every turn.

Barbour, seeing the political damage, has issued a clarification, noting that the councils and segregation were "indefensible." In today's world, people like Newt Gingrich and Tom Tancredo like to toss around the word "racist" to describe people like Sonia Sotomayor. Barbour knows what real racism is. He was born in Mississippi in 1947.

He grew up during the Jim Crow era, when blacks couldn't sit in the front of the bus or, in some states, legally play checkers with a white person in a public square. He grew up when violence against peaceful protest was commonplace, when governors stood on school steps to block integration, when little girls were blown up by terrorists.

And Mississippi was at the center of it.

In 1962, James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss led to riots, in which two were killed and scores injured. Federal troops and the National Guard were called in. There are still bullet holes in some school buildings.

In 1963, Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway. Evers was getting out of his car when he was shot, carrying T-shirts that said "Jim Crow Must Go."

In 1964, the Freedom Summer, there was a massive attempt to register black voters in Mississippi. At that point, black registration in the state was 6.2 percent. Beatings were routine. Churches were routinely burned down. And three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — were investigating a church burning when they were shot and killed near Philadelphia, Miss.

This was apartheid, and no issue was too small. In 1963, Mississippi State was invited to play in the NCAA basketball tournament, but couldn't — because it might have to play an integrated team. But despite a court order, the team snuck out of town to play integrated Loyola of Chicago. Yes, it was just that bad. And I'll bet Barbour, all these years later, can recall every detail.

In 1962, I lived in Newport News, Va. — as a Yankee somehow deposited in the South. I was in eighth grade and on the debate team. Our topic: Should public schools be integrated? This wasn't the Deep South, but we had one black student. He played halfback.

The state Legislature had tried to close public schools rather than integrate. The courts forced them open, but segregation — separate but equal — was everywhere. There were separate sports leagues. There were separate band competitions. There were separate debate tournaments.

My father, who had worked at the local newspaper, put me in touch with an editorial writer there who showed me, in the pre-Google days, how to use microfilm.

When I finished, a woman was there in his office. She asked what I was doing, and I told her I was researching a debate on integration.

When she asked which side I was taking, I said, innocently, "I'm pro-integration."

"How would your mother like it," she said, and I find it stunning even today, "if you brought home a little colored girl?"

It would be years before I would bring home a girl of any color, but I summoned up a reply: "I don't know, but I'm sure my dad would think it's fine."

When I got home, my parents were bent over laughing. They told me I had been talking to the owner of the newspaper.

The next day, my debate coach asked what I'd done. The newspaper owner had called the superintendent of schools, who called my high school principal, who called in the debate coach, who was told there would be no debate on integration.

And there wasn't.

The world would change. Years later, Virginia would elect the country's first black governor since Reconstruction.

I had long since moved away. But when I wrote a column about the governor and about the non-debate, it would run in my hometown paper.

I'll never forget it. Not even Haley Barbour could forget it.

Segregation impossible to forget 12/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:44pm]
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