The Spectacle Blog

Haley Barbour, Civil Rights, and the New South

By on 12.27.10 | 3:37PM

After his comments about Yazoo City's White Citizens Council, Haley Barbour is probably done as a serious presidential contender. (Jennifer Rubin wonders if being on the cover of the Weekly Standard is to Republican presidential candidates as the Madden Curse is to professional football players.) While it's far from the whole story, there's more where that came from on the racial front and the baggage of being a lobbyist was going to be difficult enough to overcome all by itself.

But it's worth noting that there is an element of truth to Barbour's comments. There were many people in the South who weren't sympathetic to integration -- and were in fact sympathetic to white racism -- who nevertheless made the success of the civil-rights movement possible by abjuring violence and extremism, marginalizing the Klan, and ultimately accepting the changes in the law and culture after they came to pass. Walter Russell Mead wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the retirement of Jesse Helms:

Even as the passions of the civil-rights movement were at their height, Messrs. Helms and Thurmond (whose father was Ben Tillman's lawyer) shunned violence. Without ever losing their credentials as hard-core defenders of Southern values, they hired African-American staffers and gave African-Americans the same level of constituency service they gave whites. Even their opposition to affirmative action is based on their claim that these principles violate what ought to be a color-blind stance on the part of the government.

That is something no white Southern politician, and especially one representing Mr. Helms' core supporters of farmers and small-town whites, would have ever said before Jesse Helms came along. It is something they all say now.

Mr. Helms could have followed the Tillman path and led the white South into violent resistance; he also could have failed to carry his supporters with him into grudging acceptance of the new racial order. He disciplined and tamed the segregationist South even as he represented it to a hostile nation. We are all better off because he managed this difficult high-wire act.

John O'Sullivan made a similar argument in a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, unfortunately no longer online, when Trent Lott got himself in trouble at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. This isn't to argue, as Barbour seemed (perhaps inadvertently) to suggest, that those who grudgingly accepted racial equality are somehow the real heroes of the civil-rights movement. But perhaps the country would be better off if we recognized their role in the New South instead of trying to recreate the divisions of the Old one.

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