Walter Rhett

HaleyB Rolling Back the Good Times

In Living, SC on December 23, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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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.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Walter Rhett, Writer and others. Walter Rhett, Writer said: HaleyB Rolling Back the Good Times: […]

  2. I worked on many farms in my 20s, and I can sorely attest to the blazing sun, the searing back pain, the tediousness of repetition…though I was trying all the while to “stretch” myself, challenge myself out of my comfort zone…but all in the context of the immensely privileged, suburban lifestyle I had grown up in…Though the owners of the farm shared white privilege with me, and were ultra-hip and aware and we shared almost all the same values, still, there was undeniably an unspoken resentment in my soul that they were the owners of the farm, and we were their wage-laborers–college students on an organic farm marketing to an equally elite upper middle class group though we may be….

    My parents, however, were from Texas…officially the deep south. They grew up in Jim Crow. And heard Martin Luther King Jr, when he came to speak at U-Texas-Austin…my mother very much identifying with the civil rights, and later, women’s rights movements…my Dad, less so on the surface, but while never officially embracing the civil rights movement, never embracing bigotry either, certainly not the blind, reflexive bigotry of his parents…He did, in fact, eventually at work over the course of his life, make the proverbial “black friends” that you spoke of white northerners liking to boast of….

    But growing up, I clearly noticed the way both sets of grandparents talked about “niggers” and “Mexicans.” They were clearly undesirable, to be feared, and my Dad’s mother was morbidly horrified and interested to know what it was like for me to go to school, side by side with “them.” I couldn’t understand what all this fuss was about when I was little, it was all so confusing….

    As it has remained my whole life…for while I live in a majority black area (if you include the inner city with the suburb I live in), and went to schools that were about 60/40 white/black, my friends growing up were all white, because we all lived in the same neighborhood…

    And now I have returned to the neighborhood of one of my childhood friends, and it is still virtually exclusively all white. To everyone’s loss.

    This, despite the fact, that at work, as at school, we have “racial diversity”—though this time it is more like 70% white, 20% black, 10% “everyone else.” Some of the African-Americans are on my same professional level (nurse), while many more blacks than whites are janitors or lower-paid medical technicians. Many more whites than blacks are MDs, in our hospital.

    The legacy of white guilt looms large, and remains, because it seems undeniable to me that our neighborhoods and job opportunities are in no way “equal.” Yet at the same time, it is clear that no one needs my liberal guilt…they are perfectly fine and are better off than I can ever know, on some level…part coping mechanism, part denial, I guess we all indulge to survive…

    And remaining in segregated neighborhoods, it is easy to just soothe ourselves with the idea that this level of “integration” and opportunity is better than it used to be, even if it is not “perfect”…while it is really easy to drum up populist outrage against the real crooks of society, the Wall St. bankers and overpaid CEOs, against whom we all, of all races, should theoretically unite….

    Yet look how easy it is to drum up resentment against public sector union workers…If the powers that be ever thought a genuine threat might be looming on the horizon, they would attempt to stir up racial hatred…which is actually the purpose of “the immigration debate”–try to leverage relatively minor imbalances of privilege among the poor and middle classes so they do not unite en masse against the truly ruling elite…

    When President Obama was running for election, I took kooky, insane, unprecedented steps: I was so upset by Palin, I stepped out of my enormous shell of shyness and fear and literally started chatting at random to as many people riding the metro(subway) trains as I could….all ages, races, walks of life, military, non-military, everyone…and, with little preface, flat out asked them, “what are your thoughts on the upcoming election?”–and kept asking series of open-ended questions to try to get the “pulse” of the nation…

    I actually forged some great “one-ride” friendships (ie the length of that subway ride) with people, even, wow…African-Americans…as I have come to expect reserve, mistrust, and bitterness waiting to emerge….but so often was enormously surprised at how readily perceived differences melted away….discovering that it is simply friendliness that makes people trust each other, and if you offer the first olive branch, the vast majority of people are all too happy to accept….

    But then I retreated back to my usual comfort zone, and now I tend to vent on the Times website, to little avail in concretely “fixing the broken wheel,” rather than complaining about the size of the hole…

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