Mississippi’s Governor Haley Barbour isn’t guilty of racism. But he is guilty of one of my favorite southern sins – revisionism. Believe me, I know the differences in racism and revisionism.
As an African-American from the deep south who blogs in Mississippi on the state’s leading newspaper website, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, I am keenly attuned to the governor’s positions. I like his state. I’m friends with members of its legislature on my blog site. I featured in Southern Perlo a collection of stunning Mississippi portraits by Dorothea Lange. Lange was America’s top photographer during the Great Depression, and she captured Mississippi life during a 1937 swing through the state. I can tell you Haley Barbour’s verbal snapshot of 1960s Mississippi has simply brought to the front a conversation that I have heard shared in the South for many years. At conferences and lunch tables, after church and at receptions, I have heard it expressed as a view of the period and events that dismantled segregation.
Sadly, to my ear and experience, Gov. Barbour’s quotes are verbatim repetitions of talking points that inform discussions by many old native southerners. Often heard comments also include: “We got along very well; everybody knew everybody; we attended each other’s funerals.” These comments are really not very different than the paternalism expressed in the traditional northern liberal remark, “some of my best friends are African-Americans,” or the remark I once heard in corporate America: “we have no problem in hiring, but many of our clients are opposed/uncomfortable/old fashioned.”
The point of all these remarks, north and south, old and new, in the broad net of American conversation about race is to create a “kinder, gentler” portrait of race relations, one without sting or special privilege or penalty for those whose skin made them oppressed. But the most important part of the civil rights movement was not just to integrate the old South’s schools and lunch counters; it was to end the status of African-Americans as economic chattel. In the governor’s time, thousands worked in a system that combined segregation and share cropping. Most who experienced it remember it as only a nudge beyond slavery, and in some ways, even more restrictive socially and economically.
William Cash, also a native southerner, writing in his brilliant 1941 work, The Mind of the South, pointed out one of the overlooked and misunderstood ironies of slavery; that it was a period of close contact and open relationships. Lives were touched from cradle to grave by contact across the races daily and in the most intimate ways: nursing children, cooking, caring for the sick, celebrating milestones—even as slavery’s dark side, its control of every aspect of human life and its brutal cruelty, was hidden away from this genteel view.
What Haley Barbour omits is even a mention of the dark side of race in Mississippi during his youth. This omission is more telling than what he actually says. He has firsthand knowledge that doesn’t fit the status quo.Yazoo City (like Manning, SC in my home state) was a center of the cotton economy that was still paying adult workers (and children as young as ten who cut school) to hand pick cotton fields in sweltering heat under blazing sun in dusty air that left the taste of grit on your teeth not for a minimum hourly wage but for a piece rate, calculated by the pound: two cents. Two cents a pound; a grand bonus of fifty cents for those who picked a hundred pounds in a single day. There were no worker or health protections or required breaks or heat monitoring or water stations or restrictions on child labor. There was no overtime, however long the day. Martin Luther King, Jr. reported meeting southern pickers in the 1960s who had never seen a dollar bill. I know personally families who worked the fields for shares or piece rates, who worked with stiff, bent fingers stooped over rows of cotton, whose day started well before dawn to get a small edge on the raising heat.
Against this backdrop, Gov. Haley claims, things (race relations) in Yazoo City “weren’t so bad.” His memories certainly differ from those who worked in Mississippi fields that provided Yazoo City with its wealth and commerce. The labor of these field hands enabled his and other families to achieve prosperity during an era when the workers were exploited, discriminated against in education and hiring, restricted in opportunities, and denied the right to vote.
Civil rights was not so much about social protest as it was about economic progress. The video clips and histories and memories of those from “off,” overlook a fact Haley Barbour knows well. Social change was simply the necessary pre-condition for economic change. Schools wouldn’t improve, hiring practices wouldn’t change, streets wouldn’t get paved, officials couldn’t run for office, football players couldn’t take the field until the old system of social segregation was broken apart. Whether it fell easy or hard is not the measure of a community, town, or state’s character. A place’s character is not in marking its process of change, but it celebrating its progress. Mississippi’s greatest legacy is how it won the battle with itself and offered equal opportunity to all, a mission still bearing fruit. As we say in my part of the south, pondering how much damage the rock did is less important than fixing the broken wheel.
Like many Southerners, the governor surely must have respected the character of the people who endured such conditions for so little benefit or hope. He certainly recognized their faces and can greet them by name on the streets of the small southern town that was his home. But the governor’s remarks plainly revise the truth. That despite hard work and personal effort, African-American farm workers in Yazoo City doing his youth were consigned to a life of poverty and to a citizenship that was egregiously and envisceratingly second class.
These citizens who were denied American freedoms petitioned by song and foot, rallying in churches and marching non-violently. They participated in the peaceful exercise of rights considered “inalienable,” clinging to the country, state, and city they loved, despite how they had been wronged. I am glad Yazoo City met them, as the governor notes, with a like spirit. They, not the members of the citizen councils, are the real heroes of southern change and the drivers of its new economic progress, and the governor should have given them credit and said as much.
Thanks for reading! /wr. Stir the Perlo, add a comment. Image: Mississippi: The Fourth of July, 1937, by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress Archives. Use without restrictions.