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Twenty-five years ago I worked for an organization in Atlanta founded as the National Anti-Klan Network.  Even after we changed our name to the Center for Democratic Renewal, we remained listed in the phone book under our anti-Klan name.  And occasionally we would get phone calls from people who had obviously called up information and asked for the number of the Ku Klux Klan. Several of those who called were women–white women that is–looking for the Klan to come and teach their errant husbands or boyfriends a lesson about what happens to wrongdoers.  The Klan, it seemed, still had an ill-deserved reputation for chivalry in some circles left over from the period in the 1920s when it would horsewhip wayward husbands.  Where possible we would sometimes direct these callers to the closest possible battered women’s shelter.  Most of those women could be forgiven for looking for help in all the wrong places.  They simply did not know any better.

Haley Barbour has no such excuse when he engages in dishonest myth-making about the Citizens Councils.

Barbour credits the councils for keeping the 1960s-era Klan out of his hometown, Yazoo City, in a now oft-quoted story in the December 27 edition of the Weekly Standard.  “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.”

According to Barbour, the Citizens Councils were an anti-Klan outfit.  As Barbour’s press agent Dan Turner put it, “that doesn’t sound like a racist to me. Does it to you?”

Actually, the line between the Klan and the Citizens Councils in Mississippi was often a distinction without a difference.  Consider Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the Greenwood Mississippi Citizens Council.  He was also associated with Sam Bowers’ White Knights Klan.  In 1963, Beckwith used a sniper rifle to gun down the president of the Mississippi State NAACP, Medgar Evers, while he was virtually on the doorstep of his home in Jackson. And when Beckwith went to trial the first time for this brutal slaying, the Citizens Councils provided essential aid and succor.  Haley Barbour would have been a sophomore in high school the year of the murder.  In 1994, when Beckwith was finally convicted of first degree murder in that crime, Barbour would have been head of the Republican National Committee.  Certainly he read the newspapers then.  He has no excuse for even a momentary lapse with a Weekly Standard reporter.

Further, when Barbour claims that the Citizens Councils kept the Klan out of Yazoo City through the threat of economic boycott, that was actually the tool the Councils tried to use to keep the NAACP out.  Across the South, Citizens Councils would gather the names of NAACP supporters and threaten them with economic sanctions if they continued to support desegregation.  In Yazoo City, the town newspaper, The Herald, helped the councils with this threat, according to Neil McMillen’s authoritative history, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction 1954-64.  The Herald published an advertisement by the Council with a list of NAACP supporters in the area.  That list was then posted in the “stores, the bank, and even in the cotton fields.”  Within a few weeks the threat of economic retribution paid off  for the Councils, and NAACP support dropped to a handful.

Barbour’s recitation of Mississippi history, as it turns out, is going 180 degrees in the wrong direction. His remarks can be “clarified” from now until the end of time. The simple truth about the Citizens’ Councils and Governor Barbour’s sympathy for racism can not be denied.


Leonard Zeskind is the president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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