Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS), a potential presidential candidate, appears to have marked a line in the sand for an expected presidential run sure to be dogged by the politics of race and the legacy of the Civil Rights Era in his state. Asked by reporters today in Jackson, Mississippi, Barbour not only refused to denounce efforts by some to create a license plate honoring Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. He said he was out of the denouncing business altogether.
“I don’t go around denouncing people,” said Barbour, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports. “That’s not going to happen. I don’t even denounce the news media.”
Barbour also added: “I know there’s not a chance it’ll become law.”
Forrest was a slave trader before the Civil War, who became known during the war for his significant innovations in military strategy — and also, the paper notes, for leading a massacre of captured black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. He founded the Ku Klux Klan after the war, but later left the organization.
This is not Barbour’s first time struggling with the politics of race. This past December, in a profile in the Weekly Standard, Barbour praised the segregationist Citizens Councils — a movement of racist organizations that were founded to resist integration and promote white supremacy.
“You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK,” said Barbour. “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.”
While it is true that the Citizens Councils opposed the Ku Klux Klan, the disagreement was based on tactical differences. Whereas as the Klan endorsed violence, the Citizens Councils favored economic coercion and political pressure. The Councils were known mainly for launching boycotts of pro-civil rights individuals, including a notable incident in Barbour’s home town, with the intention of deterring African-Americans from seeking their civil rights.
Barbour subsequently released a statement, declaring the Citizens Councils to have been “totally indefensible.”