In Mississippi, all things are about race.
Giving signals of a run for President in 2012, Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi appears engaged in his own racial tap dance of monumental proportions. Already adding insult to literal injury is the fact that the state is the most impoverished in the nation, with the African American poverty rate twice that of White populations in the state. But, controversy abounds over Barbour’s racially insensitive gaffes, with the latest issue surrounding the making of a new state license plate honoring Klu Klux Klan founder and infamous Confederate Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The proposal to produce the specialty plate honoring Forrest comes from the Mississippi chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is considered somewhat of a moderate Civil War revisionist front for White Supremacists groups in the South. The issue has created a firestorm of criticism for Barbour. The former Republican National Committee Chair and Washington lobbyist (famously known for his unapologetic old boyism) has been mostly silent on the issue when asked about it.
“I don’t go around denouncing people,” an annoyed Barbour snapped back at reporters. “That’s not going to happen.”
But, the controversy is stirring renewed passions beyond Mississippi on the issue of race as the license plate seeks to honor a renowned Confederate general who helped lead a rebellion against the federal government and is known for ordering the horrific 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre in which he and his men murdered surrendering Black Union troops. Forrest later went on to establish the Klu Klux Klan.
“For those who do not see the Civil War through a revisionist gauze of gallantry and Spanish moss, Forrest is an abomination,” writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson in a recent column.
Barbour appears to place himself in a bind as he is reluctant to offend the sensibilities of Southern white conservative voters who still hold Confederate history in some esteem. Watching the political tea leaves, the potential Presidential contender figures that he’ll need those votes to win what will be a contentious, internecine primary battle in a crowded GOP field.
The political game is all too clear as observers point to Barbour’s history of cunning electoral maneuvering in achieving larger aims.
Keeping to legend and in a new twist, Barbour is announcing his support for a Mississippi House measure that would approve over $30 million in bond funding for a new Civil Rights History to be located in the capital of Jackson, Mississippi, also the state’s largest city.
“I think the civil rights museum will be an enormous tourist attraction,” says Barbour.
The recent comments by Barbour fit the profile of master pol looking for an opening. Conversation about the state House bill was perfect timing as the Governor found himself embroiled in controversy over the new license plate. But, it will be a tough ride for Barbour as he’ll have to continue shedding the weight of other previous controversies, from his seeming dismissal of slavery to a clumsy endorsement of it, followed by back-track on the Jim Crow-era White Citizens Councils. Hence, if Presidential aspirations are in the making, Barbour figures he has enough time to strike a balance between mostly White conservative primary voters and a more diverse national stage.