The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson excoriated Mississippi Gov. Haley R. Barbour for his reflection on race in the Mississippi of his youth.

Robinson attacks Barbour for saying he went to integrated schools. In the interview, Barbour is clearly talking about college, which Robinson concedes is accurate. Robinson properly criticizes Mississippi's failure to integrate public schools, but fails to direct that criticism at the Democrat power structure of the day.

The modern Mississippi Republican Party - a group of twenty-something reformers led by Wirt Yerger, Jr. - was founded in 1956. They defeated a motion to insert a segregation plank in their first platform. When in 1957, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower used troops to force integration at Little Rock, many Mississippians called for the young Republicans to denounce Eisenhower and return to the Democratic Party. But Yerger remained true to the real issues: an intellectual conservatism in the mode of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr. promoting pro-business policies, small government, low taxes, free markets, industrialization and the right-to-work; in opposition to the old line Delta agrarians, labor unions, and big government New Deal Roosevelt Democrats.

On the biggest single issue of the day, the political litmus test of segregation, the Republicans were called moderates and still bore the stigma of a Yankee-forced Reconstruction. The Republican Party was never founded to protect segregation; Mississippi already had the Democrats to do that.

Robinson concedes Ole Miss had been integrated when Barbour attended and walks the reader through James Meredith incident. But Robinson fails to mention it was Democrat Gov. Ross Barnett who incited racial acrimony for purely political purposes. Republican Yerger actually believed Barnett deserved to be in jail over the incident.

Robinson continues, "The governor's assertion that segregation was a relic of the past 'by my time' is ludicrous." Barbour actually said, "By my time people realized that was the past, it was indefensible, it wasn't going to be that way anymore. And as the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican were a different generation from those who fought integration."

Robinson notes Barbour was 16 "during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss." Robinson proves Barbour's point. It was not Barbour's generation - kids in high school - or Republicans that murdered those civil rights activists.

That same year Democrat Gov. Paul Johnson, Jr. attempted to pass 22 laws to outlaw the Republican Party and its threat to ending white one-party rule in Mississippi.

To Barbour's point, consider the 1963 and 1967 gubernatorial elections. Reubel Phillips, the Republican nominee for governor both in 1963 and 1967 was considered a racial moderate.

In 1963, Paul B. Johnson Jr. defeated the 38 year old Phillips by campaigning on "Stand Tall With Paul" to recall his role on the Ole Miss steps fighting the enrollment of James Meredith and integration. Phillips said publically he would have admitted Meredith and supported Mississippi athletics competing with integrated teams.

John Bell Williams defeated Phillips in 1967. First, Williams defeated William Winter, telling voters that "Winter's election will insure Negro domination of Mississippi elections for generations to come. White Mississippi, awake. Vote on August 29 against William Winter and Negro domination of Mississippi's future." Winter's "moderate" position on race that year was, "I was born a segregationist and raised a segregationist. I have always defended this position. I defend it now." (Winter went on to be elected governor in 1979. He served on President Bill Clinton's Advisory Board on Race. Today the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi bares Winter's name.)

During that 1967 election, the Republican Phillips went on television to proclaim that "integration is inevitable...we must accept it and adjust to it." He said like Winter, "By personal upbringing and conviction, I favor segregation of the races." Phillips said, "The rebuilding of communications and cooperation between responsible leadership of both races must take place. You and I have got to make it possible for this switch, from dependence to productivity, to be made by tens of thousands of Negroes and poor whites. We have got to be willing to remove the barriers to their economic advancement."

This may not sound "liberal" today, but it was earth shattering in 1967 Mississippi and signaled a change in politics and society. It was that change Barbour referenced and Robinson rejected as false.

Robinson claims Barbour was telling a "ridiculous story." When you look at historic facts, it is Robinson who is ridiculous.

Racism and segregation are mighty sins that stained our state. The Republicans of that day were not civil rights activists.

Still, Robinson does a disservice to history in absolving the true villains by ignoring reformers in his attempt to take a political shot at a Southern Republican.


Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.