Speaking to a Weekly Standard reporter recently, Haley Barbour said things had gone pretty smoothly in Yazoo City, Mississippi thanks to the strong influence of a moderate white supremacist organization:
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.
And it’s true. The Citizens’ Council movement was a moderate alternative to the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than deploying terrorist violence in favor of white supremacy, they used economic boycots. What’s more as David Halberstam explained in Commentary, the Citizens’ Council movement was narrowly focused on preserving white supremacy. While the Ku Klux Klan was anti-black and anti-semitic, the Citizens’ Councils actively sought Jewish members, going so far as to pressure and coerce reluctant southern Jews into joining their crusade against racial equality.
That said, a moderate white supremacist is still a white supremacist, and it’s odd of Barbour to be praising a white supremacist organization for its work on racial issues. Eric Kleefeld asked Barbour’s spokesman about that:
So, I asked Turner, does Barbour have any comment on the Citizen Council movement’s basis in white supremacy, and its work of launching economic boycotts to cut off employment and business for African-Americans who became active for civil rights — including that notable occasion in Yazoo City?
“Gov. Barbour did not comment on the Citizens Council movement’s history,” Turner responded. “He commented on the business community in Yazoo City, Mississippi.”
I asked further about the Citizen Council movement’s white supremacist activities, such as the boycotts in Barbour’s hometown. “I’m not aware that that’s accurate,” Turner said. “I’m not aware that he [Barbour] has any statement on that. I’m aware of the statement that he made in context of how he made it.”
After being pressed further on whether Barbour’s comments about the Citizens Councils were accurate, Turner said: “I’m aware of what the governor said in this interview. I’m not gonna get into the business of trying to twist what the governor said, or to manipulate it.”
I think both what Barbour said and the context were pretty clear. In Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s most white people were white supremacists. And within the large and powerful white supremacist community, there was a split between more moderate and more radical factions. The moderates pursued a strategy of economic coercion and the radicals pursued a strategy of violence. There was also a small minority of white proponents of racial equality. In Barbour’s home town of Yazoo City, Mississippi the moderate faction of white supremacists had the upper hand. And Barbour thinks the strength of moderate white supremacists helped create a beneficial political atmosphere in his hometown.