Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. — Haley Barbour's folksy style, savvy leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and success as a GOP strategist have made the two-term Mississippi governor a serious contender early in the wide-open contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now if the 63-year-old could just shake his penchant for airbrushing his state's segregationist past, a period he's inclined to describe as more like Mayberry than "Mississippi Burning."
Critics have dogged him for such comments, and Barbour has recently attempted to make amends, a sign he's aware that if he is to carry his party's banner next year against the country's first African-American president, he will have to be more forthright about Mississippi's troubled history.
Even after apologizing and backtracking on certain remarks, Barbour has trouble striking the right note: Just days ago, the governor told The Associated Press he remembers little about the racial violence pulsating through the state and the South during his youth. What does Barbour recall about the Freedom Summer of 1964, when he was 16 and the slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi shocked the nation?
"Not much," Barbour said casually, the kind of answer his critics find at once unbelievable and predictable.
"The governor has a pattern, in my opinion, of doing things that are outrageous and insensitive," said state Rep. Rufus Straughter, who is black and a decade older than Barbour and grew up a county away from him.
"He's been getting away with it because in Mississippi, he's been speaking to groups that agree with him," Straughter said. "What he fails to understand is that whatever he says gets out there into the wider world."
The Mississippi in which Barbour grew up was home to some of the deadliest conflicts of the civil rights era, as black citizens sought to gain voting rights and to integrate public facilities, including schools and universities. Those who knew Barbour then say he stayed out of the fray, neither a civil rights activist nor a vocal opponent of the movement.
Barbour told the AP his memories of those days are more personal than political. For example, to many older Americans, the Mississippi of 1961 means images of black and white Freedom Riders being rounded up and thrown in sweltering prison cells for challenging segregation on interstate buses. Barbour, on the other hand, fondly recalls a successful season as a 13-year-old on a Yazoo City baseball team.
"I didn't know much about much," Barbour said. "I was a pretty good baseball player. We won the state championship that year."
Barbour argues that his generation of political leaders attended integrated schools, but his 1965 high school class — he was valedictorian — was segregated. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi three years after a bloody battle in which federal troops and marshals were ordered on campus to enforce the court-ordered enrollment of James Meredith as Ole Miss' first black student.
"I went to integrated college, never thought twice about it," Barbour said this past fall in a webcast interview with Peter M. Robinson of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, with whom he served in the Reagan administration.
It's true that the university was integrated, but just barely: Though Ole Miss had an enrollment of at least 3,300, the yearbook shows fewer than a dozen black students when Barbour arrived as a freshman in 1965.
One of them, Cleveland Donald Jr., said he didn't know the future governor, who joined a fraternity, got involved in student government and helped organize campus concerts. With no chance of joining a fraternity himself, Donald tried to attend a meeting of a Christian student group.
"I went to one meeting and they moved off campus because several of them did not want me there," recalled Donald, now a University of Connecticut history professor.
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