Please look more deeply, Mr. Barbour

Updated

Scott County, Mississippi, I think. Photo by Sarah Goodyear Mississippi just hunts you down sometimes. It so happens that I share a home state with Haley Barbour, the governor who has spent the past week trying to explain why he first praised the white Citizens Council for promoting peaceful integration and then blasted it as “totally indefensible.” For the record, the Citizens Council was an enemy of progress. An organization of white-collar racists, the Citizens Council was actually paid taxpayer money by the state of Mississippi in the 1960s for the work of protecting segregation. If you don’t believe it, check out the old state Sovereignty Commission files. The record tells us that Mr. Barbour wasn’t seeing that part of our state’s history clearly. But neither is he looking all that clearly at its present or at his role in it. “It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time,” Gov. Barbour writes about those years now half a century gone. He writes that like it’s over and done, gone, gone, gone, the past receding as it should into the past. Call it a white man’s burden if you like, but I do believe we have a moral responsibility to wrestle with the conditions we’re born into. I understand why Mr. Barbour remembered the town leaders fondly – he’s talking about his own people, the relatives who loved him so. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we’ll see that the greater calling is to understand our own part in the still-unfolding story of discrimination and privilege. We need to understand what happened after most of the violence stopped. Mr. Barbour is my parents’ age, exactly. He went to the newly integrated Ole Miss, which might have had as many as two African-Americans on the entire campus where he claims he “never thought twice about it,” and then sent his kids to an all-white “segregation” academy. Go ahead and think twice, Mr. Barbour. There are schoolkids on the other side of that equation. Me, I went to a private college in Mississippi that had about 1,200 kids when I enrolled, and by one count no more than 50 of them were African American. In the quiet of my own head, I try to think twice about that – try to imagine what the black students’ college experience was like, which I should have done at the time and mostly did not. I try to think twice about a lot of what I saw in Mississippi, what I see when I return, the abandoned public places, the falling-down towns, and also the signs of hope that people of different backgrounds are talking to each other, working with each other, playing together, living together. The signs that our old story is changing and a new one is coming into being. We’d ought to be part of that new story, too. If we can understand the Mississippi we were born into, if we’re willing to admit not just what our kinfolk did wrong but what we did decades later without thinking twice, we can start to fix the injustice that remains. This is our particular responsibility and our particular offering. Please look more deeply, Mr. Barbour.

Haley Barbour and Mississippi

Please look more deeply, Mr. Barbour

Updated