Total Pageviews

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cunnigen: On Haley Barbour on Race and Racism in Mississippi (Revised)

Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi, has made absurd assertions that in his experience racism was no longer an issue.  Professor Donald Cunnigen sets the record straight.  He challenges Barbour's recollection of the times. RGN

The White Citizens Councils and Haley Barbour

The White Citizens Councils and Haley Barbour

As Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson has stated accurately, the White Citizens Councils members were no more than Klansmen in business suits. Unlike Joe Scarborough who attended schools in Mississippi from 1969-1974 and was oblivious to the existence of the White Citizens Councils, I grew up in Mississippi during the heyday of the White Citizens Councils from the late 1950’s through my high school years in 1970’s Mississippi. It was a powerful group that had a strong impact on the lives of African-Americans and whites in Mississippi.

When I conducted research for my dissertation on white southern liberals in Mississippi, I discovered the impact of the White Citizens Council. One of my research subjects was a racially progressive Jewish businessman. His business was boycotted by the efforts of the White Citizens Council. The boycott was a result of his decision not to fire African American workers in his dry cleaning establishment who planned to enroll their children in the newly proposed integrated Jackson (Mississippi) Public Schools. The boycott was so effective that he lost his business. As a man of conviction and integrity, he felt it was not his role to dictate to his workers the appropriate racial position regarding the education of their children. In his mind, American citizens had a right to provide the best education available for their children.

In the case of African-Americans, the White Citizens Council sympathizers published the names of African-American students who opted to participate in the integration of public schools via the new “Freedom of Choice” program. It was a program designed to prevent the massive integration of schools by allowing only a limited number of students to enroll in the local white schools, i. e., those students and their parents signed a consent form. The forms provided the names of the students and parents to local authorities who often used the information in nefarious ways. Consequently, their families were harassed and many parents lost their jobs. Personally, this activity had a direct impact on my own attempt to enroll in the local white high school. After I covertly submitted a form to enroll in the white high school, my mother’s fears for my physical safety and my father’s fear of job loss as a public school teacher resulted in their insistence that I remain in the African-American high school. My father personally contacted the school district to inform the authorities that I would remain in my present all-African American school rather than join a small group of students who integrated our local white high school. The White Citizens Councils were not viewed by my parents as a mild-mannered group of whites who were adverse to destroying the lives and livelihoods of African-Americans.

Mississippi tax payers, African-American and white, witnessed the White Citizens Councils take a pseudo-state sponsored role in the governmental affairs of Mississippi. The White Citizens Councils had an office located in close proximity to the state Capitol. The organization produced slick television presentations to support their segregationist point of view. In addition, it created a network of segregationist academies to thwart school integration. There was no doubt in the minds of any African-American of the period that the White Citizens Councils were more than benign middle-class whites who provided “segregationist leadership” in the period. The White Citizens Councils represented a powerful force in the arsenal of the segregationists throughout the South.

The impact of the White Citizens Councils continues to have an impact on the state because many of the old segregation academies have become critical elements in the state’s educational system. As a result, many communities have poorly funded segregated public school systems due to the middle-class white exodus from the systems. The grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren of the old White Citizens Council stalwarts are now the students in those academies. While the old racist rhetoric and ideology which was the basis for the formation of the schools may not be obviously present, the underpinnings of a racist history may still linger in other ways. On the national scene, “racial events” in southern states do not capture the attention of the media; for example, many African-Americans in Mississippi were well aware that former Senator Trent Lott spoke at a White Citizens Council event long before the infamous Strom Thurmond incident.

While the South has made tremendous strides in race relations, it is unfortunate that some individuals have chosen for political expediency to “whitewash” reality by creating a false racial narrative that does not vaguely resemble the life experiences of many African-Americans, especially in Mississippi. Progress can be made in American race relations when all parties acknowledge and appreciate the complex racial history that has made our nation great.

Donald Cunnigen, Ph.D.

No comments: