Understanding our History on Race (and the Citizens’ Councils)

A little history about the Citizens' Councils.

Anyone who thinks that we shouldn’t be concerned about a politician who dismisses all too easily the difficulties of the past needs to read this:  Barbour Mistakes Black for White.

It specifically deals with the actions of the Citizens’ Councils in Yazoo City, Mississippi in the 1950s.  Read the post and then tell me that the following statement from Governor Barbour is anything but highly problematic (and yes, understatement is in play):

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.

The post linked above not only illustrates the historical inaccuracy of the statement, but demonstrates why the notion that the Citizens’ Councils should be discussed as in any way as benign is simple wrong.  While the Councils were not violent like the Klan, they were in no way less insidious.  And this fact requires recognition, not downplaying.

If you would like to review some of the newsletter’s from the Citizens’ Councils, go here.  The archives load slowly, but the contents of the newsletters in question are quite illuminating.

And yes, I know that Barbour has already stepped back his flippancy about the Citizens’ Councils.  However, that does not explain or excuse the degree to which his original statement painted them as sort of the good guys of Yazoo City.

As I said this morning:  “When Barbour (or really anyone) downplays all that went it, it picks at this still not fully healed wound.  We need to be more honest about our past and the way that that past continues to effect the present.”

Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. michael reynolds says:


    1) Most Republican voters — particularly tea party types — have no interest in facts.
    2) Barbour has done himself a lot of good with this. He just went from asterisk to Palin-alternative.
    3) This was not a gaffe or a misstep, it was well-timed and effective.

  2. @Michael,

    In fairness, I think that people in general prefer whatever they believe to be true instead of having to deal with hard facts regardless of partisan or ideological affiliation.

    I figure all I can do is try and point out said facts when I can and hope they are at least considered by those who read the posts.

  3. tom p says:

    Revisionist history is not the province of tone deaf politicians alone:


    >”The rub, of course, is that the one freedom that was capable of uniting white South Carolinians behind secession in the fall of 1860 was the freedom to own slaves. Yet this was the only argument that Confederate enthusiasts at Gaillard Auditorium were unwilling to consider. Instead, they danced around history far into the night.”

  4. PD Shaw says:

    “This was not a gaffe or a misstep, it was well-timed and effective.”

    Michael, you have a very strong bias towards assuming that people are far more calculating than I can ever imagine they are. That goes for Obama, and that goes for Barbour, who I think just killed whatever slim chance he had at national office.

    Perhaps my bias is that if I had a microphone in front of me as often as a number of these people, I’d say something stupid from time to time. I assume the same for most.

    What’s his plan, to come in ninth in Iowa and New Hampshire, and start out in South Carolina?

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    Michael, I think you are giving Barbour way too much credit. He stepped in it, period. There will be many, many dog whistles blown in the coming two years but this one is a f**k-up. It reminds me of a senator (I forget who) who told an interviewer he really enjoyed Amos n’ Andy in the past and then went on to imitate them in dialect.

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    I did a little research, It turns out it was Bob Michel who stepped in it in the 80s. I distinctly remember him speaking like The Kingfish in this interview “Former Illinois congressman and House Republican party minority leader Bob Michel caused a minor stir in 1988, when on the USA Today television program he fondly recalled minstrel shows in which he had participated as a young man and expressed his regret that they had fallen out of fashion.[105][106]” This from Wikipedia.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    PD and Prosser:

    I think it’s a fair suggestion that I may impute too much intentionality. But I don’t think it’s true. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested Sarah Palin was being clever.

    What’s Barbour doing? Well, let’s look at what he got: national attention, identification as either a) an ignoramus, or b) a victim of political correctness.

    My guess is that GOP primary voters will choose b).

    When’s the last time we talked about any 2012 candidate other than Palin? Now, just as some conservatives are actually taking Palin on, up steps Haley to draw focus. Nothing he said is easily quotable in an attack ad. He didn’t drop the “N” bomb. And in fact we see him being defended here in various comment threads.

    So the net for Barbour gets three days of free publicity.

    As for the suggestion this might hurt him in Iowa or New Hampshire, really? Like Pat Buchanan’s race-baiting hurt him?

    The proof will be in the next poll. If Barbour bumps up 5 points I’ll declare victory, if not I’ll confess to abject failure.

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    Don’t abase yourself, I’m just saying Barbour’s not that sharp off the cuff; after all, this is the guy that said a major oil blowout is just a gasoline sheen.

  9. I honestly think that rather than being calculating, Barbour represents a typical mindset of some southerners that really does reflect a view that the racial struggles of the past really weren’t that big a deal/it is a totally settled issue.

    I run into people like that all that time.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    The conventional wisdom for launching a Presidential bid within our current primary system is that the candidate wins who establishes themselves as more than a regional candidate. This whole incident underlines how different the South is from the rest of the country.

    I’m not suggesting that Northerners aren’t racist. They invented sundown towns, restrictive zoning and racial covenants. It’s just not a shared history and it particularly expresses itself differently in states with over 95% white majorities.

  11. sam says:

    Meh, it was just a barbourism…