Wednesday, September 11, 2013 1:00 AM
As part of the coverage of the of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, the national newspaper USA Today asked former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to write about the changes in race relations in Mississippi.
Barbour notes in his column, "Mississippi today has more African-American elected officials than any other state, 1,075. The percentage of African Americans in our state registered to vote compared with the black voting-age population is 90.2%, compared with 62.1% in New York, and turnout among African Americans has exceeded that of whites in recent elections."
He writes, "While these achievements occurred at a somewhat evolutionary pace, it is unrecognized that many white Southerners accepted them rather quickly" and gives as examples the prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith by Hinds District Attorney Bill Waller (later governor) for the murder of Medgar Evers, and the work by Laurel prosecutor Charles Pickering (later federal judge) in testifying against Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers.
The lone Democrat in Mississippi's federal delegation, Rep. Bennie Thompson, took issue with Barbour's comments on Mississippi and responded in a column in the Clarion Ledger.
I'm sure Thompson's wounds from racism and discrimination are a trauma not easily healed. But in 2003, I watched Thompson work with then U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering to pass a resolution in Congress honoring Evers, after both stood graveside at a ceremony recognizing the 40th anniversary of his death at Arlington National Cemetery. I watched Thompson and Pickering lead a bipartisan "Congressional Pilgrimage" to Mississippi to visit civil rights shrines. I watched Thompson share the stage with Barbour at the 40th anniversary of the killing of the civil rights workers in Philadelphia, where Barbour denounced the evils and sins of the past and compared the "extreme hateful intolerance" of segregation to "today's evil of fanatical Islamic terrorism."
So I was frustrated reading Thompson's animus toward Barbour.
Thompson writes, "Even after the [Voting Rights Act] was approved in 1965, white politicians in our state have used redistricting to deny blacks the opportunity to hold office."
Much of those past fifty years, those "white politicians" were Democrats. But if we're talking about change, we can look at last year when under Republican leadership, redistricting was used to increase the number of majority black state Senate districts from 12 seats to 15 seats.
Thompson continues, "In addition, not one of the black elected officials [Barbour] raves about is a Republican, nor did he endorse any of them for municipal, county, state or federal office."
Republicans do need more black elected officials. Barbour has supported and endorsed a number of black Republicans for office, but they haven't won. Thompson is glad some of those black Republicans didn't win - they ran against Thompson. I imagine Barbour did not endorse the other black candidates not because they're black, but because they're not Republicans. In fact, had Barbour endorsed them, Thompson may have used that against them. This year in Canton and Jackson, Thompson publicly attacked Democrats in their primaries that he believed had support of Republicans.
Thompson further writes, "I do, however, recall the then-governor's support for Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to the Fifth Circuit - a move opposed by every major civil rights organization and ultimately rejected by the U.S. Senate."
Actually, the "then-governor" who supported Pickering's nomination was Democrat Ronnie Musgrove (whom Thompson supported in his 2008 Senate campaign), along with every statewide elected official in Mississippi (all but one were Democrats). I also recall that civil rights activist Charles Evers, brother of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, supported Pickering's nomination to the Fifth Circuit (Evers challenged Thompson to discuss which of them had been involved in civil rights work longer). Also, while we're recalling, the U.S. Senate never rejected the nomination; it refused to vote on it despite Pickering's majority support (Democrats filibustered consideration).
Thompson closes his response, "There is a public record that does not lend itself to revisionism."
Thompson also has a public record which, as mentioned above, includes radio commercials in Democratic primaries saying, "Now the Republicans have hand-picked candidates in every race. They can't win out-right, so they picked people who look like US to run" and "When I see Republicans from Rankin and Madison County supporting the other so-called Democrat in this race, I know that something is fishy."
Barbour closes his piece by writing, "Political change in Mississippi and the South has been ubiquitous, and everyone is better off for it. Yet we must admit that that doesn't mean there are no racial problems or no racism. To expect there will never be any racial discrimination in the South or anywhere else is unrealistic. And racial animus can cut both ways."
Indeed it does.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.