Haley Barbour Mississippian of the yearBy JAY WIENER,
Time magazine has named a person of the year for 70 years, beginning with Charles Lindbergh in 1927. If I could award a 2017 Mississippian of the Year, I would select Gov. Haley Barbour for orchestrating the inclusion of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Campus.
Gov. Barbour graciously lauds others involved, heeding the observation contained in Roman Historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus' biography of his father-in-law, Gallo-Roman General Gnaeus Julius Agricola, that, "All claim credit for success, while defeat is laid to the account of one."
"The idea was originally that of Leland Speed, director of the Mississippi Development Authority, who came to me in the second year and said, 'We ought to build a Civil Rights Museum.' Proposal was made to the State Legislature in 2006. A study committee was authorized in 2007. Tougaloo College was chosen as the museum site. Advocates for downtown Jackson campaigned to locate it there instead. Both sites were reasonable and justifiable. In 2010, Judge Reuben Anderson and Gov. William Winter recommended that the Civil Rights Museum become part of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Campus. Their suggestion was taken to the study committee and state Legislature. The proposal was adopted, notwithstanding some pushback.
"Two subsequent Legislatures consistently provided annual funding. Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn were fully committed to the concept, and the project proceeded during a period of fiscal restraint."
Just as an orchestra cannot perform without a conductor, the museums could not have been built without Governor Barbour's vision. His dedication is intensely personal. The governor is directly descended from Louis LeFleur, the Frenchman whose trading post was south of the new museums, north of WLBT, to the east of the Jefferson Street fall line. Another ancestor was Walter Leake, one of our original United States Senators (alongside Thomas Hill Williams) and third governor.
Gov. Barbour's Mississippi roots precede colonial settlement. Benjamin LeFleur's mother was the second of the two Choctaws who Louis LeFleur married. Tump Johnson, a relative of Gov. Barbour, taught at the Choctaw School during the governor's boyhood. His family used to visit there. "Many of my maternal relatives were unmistakably Choctaw, with dark, dark eyes and dark, dark hair." The otherness that some Mississippians found in minorities was contrary to his upbringing.
Barbour played with African-American children at his maternal grandparents' farm in Humphreys County. After graduating from segregated Yazoo City High School and matriculating to Ole Miss, freshman Haley Barbour sat with African-American Verna Ann Bailey from Jackson (the university's first female African-American graduate ) in sophomore literature class. They were friendly. She shared her notes with him: "She was just like me and just like the females with whom I had gone to segregated schools. My generation adapted quickly."
When the governor was executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party in the mid-’70s, he established an African-American Republican Steering Committee.
Gov. Barbour admires George Santayana's aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (Reason in Common Sense )
The Governor acknowledges that, "Slavery is indefensible. While part of the Civil War was economic, the primary cause was slavery. It cannot be defended, then or now." He mentions that Mississippi made more progress than any state in the last 50 years. "We have more Blacks in the state Legislature, in county and municipal government. Mississippians have become accustomed to change. Mississippi has made a fantastic amount of progress."
During the 2011 50th anniversary Freedom Rides commemoration, the governor invited the Freedom Riders to brunch at the Governors Mansion. "In 1961, they were jailed and, in 2011, they were invited to eat with the governor. They were given an apology. What happened in 1961 was not right."
Hank Thomas, the Freedom Fiftieth chairperson, stated, "I visit no state in which the races intermingle as easily as Mississippi. Granted, it had the farthest to go, but still..."
Gov. Barbour proudly participates in the ongoing process of racial reconciliation. Anyone knowing him values the riveting raconteur possessing a powerful sense of humor. Two weeks after becoming the chair of the Republican National Convention, in January 1993, Willie Morris sent Eudora Welty photographs, inscribed: "Haley, as I watched you grow up, I never imagined that one of the Barbour Boys would grow up to be the chairman of the Party of Sherman. Your friend, Willie." Barbour routinely showed it to visitors to his office.
Haley Barbour embodies Mississippi's belated rejection of the 1948 Dixiecrat movement, echoing then-Mayor Hubert Humphrey's admonition, at that year's Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."
Saturday morning's dedication of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, “joined at the hip” as if Siamese twins, symbolizes a Mississippi that is no longer an Apartheid Society, divided by race, by law, but rather that Mississippians are “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.