Gov. Barbour Rewrites History: Republican Rise In The South Had Nothing To Do With Race

September 01, 2010 12:44 pm ET — Matt Finkelstein

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour

Today, Human Events posted a new interview with "the most powerful man in Republican politics," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.  In the interview, Barbour bucked conventional wisdom and argued that the rise of the Republican Party in the south had nothing to do with race.  The governor explained that he was raised as a Democrat before he dropped out of college to work on Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968, and said that his parents' generation, which was more concerned about race, "became Republicans after their children" did. 

Asked directly about Nixon's "southern strategy," Barbour was cagey, saying, "There's no question that in the fifties and probably the sixties there was some of that." He claimed, however, that "the people who led the change of parties" were part of a younger generation who "went to integrated schools" and recognized that segregation was "indefensible." Additionally, he said that many older people wouldn't leave the Democratic Party because "it was the party of the Civil War."   

BARBOUR: There's no question that in the fifties and probably the sixties there was some of that.  At the same time, the people who led the change of parties in the South, just as I mentioned earlier, was my generation.  My generation who went to integrated schools — I went to integrated college, um, never thought twice about itAnd it was the old Democrats who had fought for segregation so hard.  By my time, people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, it wasn't gonna be that way any more.  So the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration.  In fact, I can never forget — I mentioned we elected these two young congressman.  We were just itching to get a senator, and one of my friend said, "Haley, we're just a few funerals away." You had some of the old crowd that just wasn't going to give up on the Democratic Party because it was the party of the civil war, segregation.  

Barbour's version of history is so grossly distorted that it's tough to decide where to start.  Broadly speaking, Barbour's claim that Democrats are the ones who fought for segregation is incredibly misleading.  Although it's a popular argument among southern conservatives, particularly when they're feeling defensive about race, the fact remains that the Civil Rights Act was passed by Democratic majorities in Congress and signed by a Democratic president. The real division among lawmakers was geographic — it was southern conservatives who bitterly opposed the bill.  

The Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights led some southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond, to flee for the GOP.  In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater — who opposed the Civil Rights Act — won only five states outside his home state of Arizona: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  None of them went for the Republican four years earlier. 

This deception is particularly rich coming from Barbour, who has always worn his roots on his sleeve.  Barbour says that he was raised an "Eastland Democrat," but fails to mention that Jim Eastland once said that "segregation is not discrimination," but rather "the law of God." Barbour boasts that his generation didn't think about race because "they went to integrated schools," but he enrolled at Ole Miss just a few years after the first black student at the university, James Meredith, whose enrollment led to violent rioting and who was frequently harassed on campus.  Barbour completely glosses over the issue of Nixon's "southern strategy," even though he personally worked on the campaign.    

Forty years later, according to Newsweek, Barbour has a Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis hanging on the wall in his office.  When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) came under fire earlier this year for issuing a proclamation to honor Confederate History Month without even mentioning slavery, Barbour was among the first to defend him.  "It's trying to make a big deal out of something that didn't matter for diddly," Barbour said.