It’s a question hounding Mississippi’s Republican governor as he gears up for a possible 2012 presidential run. Barbour refused this week to condemn a proposed state license plate to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was also an early Ku Klux Klan leader.
Barbour wouldn’t say what he thinks about Forrest, a Tennessee native who’s venerated by some as a brilliant military strategist and reviled by others for leading the 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn.
“Look,” Barbour told The Associated Press, “if you want a lesson on Nathan Bedford Forrest, buy a book.”
Was Barbour’s decision not to denounce a divisive historical figure a political calculation to appeal to conservative voters in early presidential primary states such as South Carolina? Or was he simply showing his well-known stubborn streak?
The 63-year-old governor himself said repeatedly this week – and with some frustration evident in his voice – that the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposal for a Forrest license plate was a “dead issue” even before it gained national attention this month, because he believed Mississippi lawmakers wouldn’t approve it. The SCV wanted a 2014 Forrest tag as part of a five-year series commemorating the Civil War, which it calls “the War Between the States.” The state NAACP had called on Barbour to denounce the plan.
“I don’t go around denouncing people,” said Barbour, who was a high-profile Washington lobbyist, White House political director under President Ronald Reagan and Republican National Committee chair before he was elected governor in 2003.
Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political scientist, said the decision not to speak ill of a long-dead Confederate leader won’t hurt Barbour in that state’s presidential primary but it could play differently in other parts of the country.
“It’s obviously going to be much more of a problem or could be potentially more damaging when he gets to, certainly, New Hampshire and probably Iowa,” Oldendick said.
Barbour says he’s seriously considering a presidential run, and could announce a decision by April. He has already visited early primary states. He went to South Carolina last month to chat with Republican power brokers, and he’s speaking at a GOP fundraising dinner March 15 in Iowa.
This month, he also became the third potential Republican presidential candidate to travel to Israel.
Since last fall, Barbour has been dogged by criticism of his statements about the civil rights era in his home state. The period included brutal attacks on Freedom Riders in 1961, riots during the 1962 court-ordered integration of the University of Mississippi, the slaying of the NAACP’s Medgar Evers in front of his Jackson home in 1963 and the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964.
Although Barbour last month condemned the era’s “deplorable actions including the murder of innocent people,” he in December praised the Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City as a moderate counterweight to the Ku Klux Klan at the time. Historians say the councils used harsh tactics to enforce segregation. Barbour later condemned the Citizens Council and segregation.
As governor, Barbour has courted a wide range of Mississippi voters, including groups involved in preservation of Confederate heritage.
During his successful re-election effort in 2007, Barbour’s campaign payroll included payments to Earl Faggert, the leader of a group that fought to keep the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag.
“He’s got good ties in the African-American community in the area of the state where he lives and he’s helping us there,” Barbour told the AP in 2007.
In a 2001 referendum, Mississippi voters decided by a 2-to-1 margin to keep the state flag design with the prominent Confederate symbol – a blue X with 13 white stars, atop a red field. But the flag remains divisive within the state, and some African-American lawmakers still favor changing what they consider a symbol of slavery.
Although Barbour wasn’t in office during the Mississippi flag election, he has been an unabashed supporter of the flag. For years, he regularly wore a lapel pin with tiny U.S. and Mississippi flags. That accessory has largely disappeared in recent months, replaced by a lapel pin in the shape of Mississippi.
When Barbour took office in January 2004, he asked his newly appointed commissioner of public safety to review a 2000 decision to remove the Mississippi flag from state troopers’ vehicles. Barbour’s commissioner reversed the earlier decision, by the state’s first black Highway Patrol chief, and the flag reappeared on patrol vehicles.
Before the current flap over the proposed Forrest license plate, the governor declined to criticize another racially divisive figure.
In an interview with the AP in December, Barbour said segregation is “indefensible” but spoke fondly of a long personal relationship his family had with the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat who espoused racial segregation during a Senate career that spanned the 1940s to the 1970s.
“We grew up Eastland Democrats,” said Barbour, who became a Republican as a young man in the mid-1960s. Asked whether he had agreed with Eastland on race, Barbour said: “When I grew up, the South was segregated. And once I got grown and to the point of having some judgment, it was obvious to me segregation is indefensible. And doesn’t exist here and hasn’t really existed here in my adult life.”
In an article published in December by the Weekly Standard magazine, Barbour said he didn’t recall Mississippi’s civil rights era as “being that bad.”
The comment outraged Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a Princeton University professor of African-American studies who grew up in Mississippi and left the state after finishing high school in the mid-1980s. Glaude told the AP this week that Barbour has shown a “morally reprehensible” pattern of indifference to the way black people were hurt by racial strife in Mississippi’s past. Glaude said the refusal to denounce Forrest is another example.
“I know he’s playing to different audiences here,” Glaude said. “That just simply reveals a kind of deep indifference and that indifference is troubling.”
Barbour has taken positive steps to recognize black leaders in Mississippi. During his state of the state speech in January, he called on lawmakers to revive dormant plans to develop a civil rights museum in Jackson. They’re working on that now.
In a speech on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he condemned the racial violence of the 1960s.
And in May, Barbour will host a reception for the Freedom Riders who met mob violence when they challenged interstate bus segregation across the South 50 years ago.
Still, the governor seemed exasperated Thursday when asked again in Kentucky about the license plate issue.
Said Barbour: “I’m expecting to be asked next, ‘What do you think of Kublai Khan?'”