Haley Barbour is the Republican governor of Mississippi. He and I have at least one thing in common: We grew up in that troubled state in the same generation. We both came of age in the 1960s. Strangely, Barbour remembers those days a bit differently than I do.
He recently gave an interview to a conservative magazine and website in which he claimed that it was his generation - my generation - that led the switch in the South from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party and that it was all because of that integration thing. He said that the old Democrats fought "tooth and nail" against integration but by the time the '60s generation came along, they realized that it was indefensible, so the people who changed from Democrat to Republican were a whole different generation than those who fought integration. Barbour's generation, he said, led the switch because they had gone to integrated schools and an integrated college and they "never thought twice about it."
This is a pack of lies from beginning to end!
It is true that the old Democrats fought tooth and nail against integration, but in 1964 those old Democrats became new Republicans because that was the party that would let them be who they were. I know exactly when the switch occurred. I was there.
I remember vividly in the fall of 1964 a day or two after the presidential election, I was having lunch at a cafe in Belmont, Mississippi and eavesdropping on the conversation of two old men at the next table. They were bemoaning the fact that Lyndon Johnson had beaten Barry Goldwater in an overwhelming landslide. One of the few states that Goldwater had carried was Mississippi, along with some others of the Old South. One of the old men turned to the other and said, "Well, Johnson may have got the most votes but you and me know that the BEST people voted for Goldwater."
That was the autumn when Mississippi and the South became Republican. President Johnson had predicted that his signing the Civil Rights Act would mean that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. He was right.
As for Barbour attending integrated schools, no he didn't! Schools in Mississippi did not begin to be integrated until 1970 when it was forced by the Supreme Court. As for the colleges - well, Barbour went to the University of Mississippi in the mid '60s. Ole Miss had grudgingly admitted its first black student in 1962. One black student who had to be escorted around campus by U.S. Marshals. The next year, they admitted one more black student. By the middle of the decade, there was a handful - literally - of black students there, but to say that the white students "never thought twice about it" is about as bald-faced a lie as I am likely to hear or read in my lifetime. The white students made life for the black students as miserable as they possibly could through isolating and ostracizing them. I don't know, of course, but I would be very surprised to learn that, while a student at Ole Miss, Haley Barbour, the new Republican, had gone out of his way to befriend or defend or even acknowledge any of those black students.
Why is Barbour telling these lies? Perhaps because the media, what passes for journalism these days, will let him get away with them. There are those who say he wants to run for president in 2012 and is trying to clean up his image. Well, he can try, but there are some of us who still remember what Mississippi and the South were like in the 1960s and it was not the fairy tale land that Barbour is talking about. It was a place where people cheered when they heard that the president of their country had been murdered and cheered again a few years later when his brother and Martin Luther King were murdered. It was a place where white people could get away with murdering black people, where the Ku Klux Klan murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and got away with it.
Mississippi has changed a lot since those days, but mostly it hasn't been changed by Barbour's and my generation. It's been changed by those later generations who actually did go to integrated schools, who grew up watching Bill Cosby on television and realized that maybe his family didn't look so different from theirs - except perhaps richer.
Mississippi, like the rest of the nation, still has a long way to go, but it won't get there with liars like Haley Barbour for leaders.
(For more and much better writing on this topic, read Eugene Robinson's column in today's Washington Post. He remembers, too.)