So what was Gov. Haley Barbour doing, exactly, when he defended the reputation of the Citizens Councils, a segregationist movement that was formed to oppose the civil rights movement after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision? Barbour released a statement this afternoon, declaring: “My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the ‘Citizens Council,’ is totally indefensible, as is segregation.” So let’s take a look at exactly who they were.
Earlier, I asked Todd Moye, an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas, and also the author of Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986, for his expertise on the matter.
He called the councils a “terrorist organization.”
In a profile in the Weekly Standard, Barbour recalled the group in positive terms:
“You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”
“Well he’s right about the responsible business leaders part,” said Moye. “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.”
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.”
Professor emeritus John Dittmer of DePauw University in Indiana, author of Local People: The Struggle For Civil Rights In Mississippi, gave us this comment today:
Yesterday I talked with a couple of reporters about the Haley Barbour piece, pointing out that the Yazoo City Citizens’ Council had published the names of the black parents petitioning to desegregate the local schools in 1955. And then I saw your article, where you referenced that point. Another factual error in the Weekly Standard story was the assumption that Yazoo City was probably the only city that avoided violence when its schools were desegregated in 1970. Truth is, there was no violence reported in any of the schools that integrated that year, fulfilling the mandate of the Supreme Court decision in the Holmes County case. The Citizens’ Council in Mississippi was, in Hodding Carter II’s words, the “uptown Ku Klux Klan.”
In addition, Amanda Terkel at the Huffington Post got this take from the state NAACP:
“It is quite disturbing that the governor of this state would take an approach to try to change the history of this state,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. “It’s beyond disturbing — it’s offensive that he would try and create a new historical reality that undermines the physical, mental, and economic hardship that many African-Americans had to suffer as a result of the policies and practices of the White Citizens Council.”…
…”In fact, if you look at Yazoo City, their approach to integration was very similar to other communities across the state, where the parents pulled their children out of the public school system so white children would not have to attend an integrated school system,” responded Johnson. “They established a private segregated academy which still exists today.”
In an interview with me yesterday, Barbour’s spokesman insisted that the Mississippi governor is not racist.