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Haley Barbour Endorses Union Victory in the Civil War

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Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and likely 2012 Republican presidential aspirant, has recently made a series of missteps involving race and the Civil Rights Movement. He seemed unclear about basic historical points.

But he has now made a forthright declaration about the events swirling around what some Southerners still call the Late Unpleasantness between the States -- or the War of Northern Aggression. "Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession," Barbour told me Friday. "The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery," he continued. "Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it's regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did."

Now, saying slavery was the cause of the South's Lost Cause hardly qualifies as breaking news -- it sounds more like "olds." But for a Republican governor of Mississippi to say what most Americans consider obvious truth is news. Big news.

Notice that Gov. Barbour's last comment means that he believes that it was a good thing that the Union won the Civil War. One wonders how well that will go over with some of the Republican base in the South.

His statement is significant for two reasons: First, it sounds like Barbour is indeed running for the GOP presidential nomination. Second, it suggests that Mississippi has changed considerably since the 1960s.

Since the President Richard M. Nixon's first administration, the GOP's "Southern Strategy," has aimed to lure white voters away from the Democrats. Before that, white Mississippi delegations walked out of Democratic National Conventions in 1948 and 1964, in protest over advances in civil rights.

In 1964, after President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act, Mississippians, who had never before voted in significant numbers for any Republican presidential candidate, cast an astonishing 87 percent of their ballots for Sen. Barry M. Goldwater.

In 2002, Sen. Trent Lott said he was proud that Mississippi had supported arch segregationist Strom Thurmond for president in 1948. If Thurmond had been elected, Lott said "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." This list could go on and on.

Many white Mississippians--though not nearly as many as in the past--still insist that secession was about "freedom" and states' rights, not slavery. Those people are part of the Republican base in Mississippi -- and elsewhere in the South.

* * *

Fifty years ago today, white Mississippi staged an extravaganza, billed as the "Secession Day Centennial." Gov. Ross Barnett, decked out in a Confederate general's uniform, led the parade, followed by thousands of men, marching or riding horses, all wearing Confederate gray uniforms. (Gray still seems an odd color choice for people adamantly opposed to the mixing of black and white.) Also on parade were marching bands, majorettes and women in antebellum dresses sipping mint juleps. Tens of thousands looked on, many giving the Rebel yell.

It was described as the biggest celebration in Mississippi's history -- and the grandest of the events across the South to mark the anniversary of the dissolution of the Union.

Virtually all Mississippi's political leaders took part. The world's largest Confederate battle flag, which stretched across Capitol Street, was the principal object of veneration. Thousands of people watched an outdoor re-enactment of the secession convention. Four grand balls were held that night to honor the state's decision to secede.

A substantial fraction of Americans still have this image of 1961 Mississippi etched in their minds. Recent news stories from the state have only helped to confirm that stereotype.

Much attention, for example, has been given to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' proposal to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial by issuing a license plate honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. He is notorious for ordering the massacre of African-American Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn., in 1864 and as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Meanwhile, Barbour, in a December interview with the Weekly Standard, said that the White Citizens' Council, which helped enforce segregation, had been an organization that helped to bring about peaceful integration. He later had to issue a statement that the council was "totally indefensible." He also had to revise his comments that he just didn't remember the Civil Rights era in Mississippi as "being that bad."

When combined with his refusal to denounce Forrest or the proposed license plate--all those images of Mississippi as a land of unreconstructed racists pining for the bad old days are back in people's minds.

Mississippi got that reputation the old-fashioned way: It earned it. NAACP President Roy Wilkins spoke the truth in 1963 when he declared: "There is no state with a record that approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list."

It is time to ask, 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, how much Mississippi has changed. Attitudes toward secession and the war can provide a rough gauge.

A comparison of the centennial celebration of the state's secession in 1961 with this year's marking of the sesquicentennial is telling.

"Here in Mississippi," the Biloxi Sun-Herald noted, "observances of milestones in Confederate history--if any have taken place--have escaped public notice."

The exception that proves that rule is that the principal commemoration of Mississippi's secession, held in January at the Old Capitol Museum, site in 1961 of the play glorifying the secession vote, began with the reenactment of a fiery speech by delegate John Wood -- against secession.

Two historians followed with academic presentations, pointing out the fact, as stated in the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union," that secession was motivated entirely by the desire to maintain slavery.

The few neo-Confederates in the audience maintained their silence throughout. In stark contrast to the commemoration 50 years ago, no major public officials or candidates for statewide office were in attendance.

"We are continuing to move away from the old myths of the Civil War," former Mississippi Gov. William Winter told me recently, "the myth that it was not about slavery, that it was about states' rights and control by the central government."

"If we know anything about history," the former governor continued, "if we read about the background of secession, we know that, of course, it was about slavery. The Southern states at that point would not have seceded but for the issue of slavery."

Now Barbour, the sitting governor, has dared to make a similar statement. In so doing, he is stepping away from a portion of his base at home in an attempt to go national.

The evidence that Mississippi has changed greatly over the past half-century is clear. The state House of Representatives passed is a bill designating the last Monday in April as "Civil Rights Memorial Day."

And, finally, there is this: The large commemorative event planned in Mississippi this year is not for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War -- but for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

That fact says a lot more about how far Mississippi has come than does the attempt by a few neo-Confederates to honor a Klansman or the previous statements of the current governor. The latter, though, remind us about how far we still have to go.

{Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm professor of arts & letters and chairman of the History Department at Millsaps College, in Jackson, Miss. His books include The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. He is now writing "OH, Freedom! -- The Young ' 60s."

{This piece appeared originally in a slightly different form in Politico}.