Haley Barbour turned quite a few heads this weekend when he came right out to CNN saying that Bob McDonnell's omission of slavery in his proclamation of Confederate Memorial Month "didn't amount to diddly." But keep in mind, this is also the guy who turned heads by openly referring to himself as a "fat redneck" when asked to give his opinion on the Michael Steele RNC fiasco.
But this isn't just about me "in a nit" about Barbour or the confederacy with the rest of my fellow Kossacks. This is about the overall mentality of the South and Southerners when it comes to touchy subjects like civil rights (yep, still a touchy subject for a few folks, even in 2010) and remembering the Confederacy.
I need your help. Mississippi needs your help. The Deep South needs your help.
More below the fold.
Mississippi is the same state where, in front of our state capitol, we have a monument dedicated to the "wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of the Confederacy." Slavery isn't mentioned anywhere on this monument. What the monument does mention is how these women stood behind their families as they fought for a cause that they believed was worth dying for.
A few months ago, some teabaggers were rallying outside of the capitol, and one woman stood by the monument, holding up a sign with the tenth amendment written on it. She told me that she thought states "should use our tenth amendment rights to challenge the tyranny of the Obama administration." I asked her if she meant secession by that comment, and she said, "Well, no. I don't think it has to come to that."
I'll give you another example of the Southern mentality- I'm a member of couchsurfing.org, which is a great project that brings people together thru hospitality, trust and friendship. Like facebook for travelers, essentially. You create profile, discuss your life philosophy, describe your interests, have a few pictures up, and folks who have surfed with you before can write references for other guests, talking about how great of a host you were. It's an amazing social network, and I love it.
Well, just last week, I had a couchsurfer named Jerry Nelson. He's a 54-year-old veteran of the Navy, and he's riding his bike across the country to raise awareness about homeless vets. He's also especially interested in the South, as he's a history buff and curious about the civil rights era. Before riding down to see me in Jackson, he told me about visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, which is in the Northeastern part of the state, up in Neshoba County. That part of the state is known as "Hill Country." It's also where a a lot of the hot-headed right-wing religious folks live.
He told me about the hospitality he was shown upon coming into a small convenience store and asking for directions, and a bike shop where he could get his spokes fixed. He said the woman behind the counter was extremely friendly and conversational.
Then, he asked her about any "cool civil rights history locations" where he could stop by and take pictures. He told me the woman then looked at him with pursed lips and said, "Oh, we don't talk about that."
Now, about an hour South of Jackson off of Highway 49, is a little town called Mendenhall. I traveled there a couple of weeks ago to cover a story about some stimulus funds for the SBA helping small business owners get loans and grow jobs (you mean the big bad mean federal government's spending helps people?!?) and found something that caught my eye.
It was a mural of an American flag on the side of a shed, just down the street from a warehouse that had another mural with "USA- God Bless America" written on the side, colored like the stars and stripes. This flag mural, however, had a box of french fries centered on it. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the fries had "FREEDOM FRIES" written on the box. Remember back when France didn't support our war of choice based on faulty intelligence? I'm guessing that mural is about 7 years old. But still painted on the side of a building, undisturbed.
So, needless to say, a lot of Southerners are painted as backwards, ignorant, uneducated, racist, or a myriad number of derogatory terms by folks in more progressive places out West or up North. Generalizing never has helped people much in the way of understanding, though. So that's where I come in.
Being Progressive in the South
Patton Oswalt had a bit talking about how every red state has that one haven of sanity, tolerance, intelligence and progressiveness "in the midst of just...shit." For example, Texas has Austin, North Carolina has Asheville, Kentucky has Louisville, Louisiana has New Orleans, and some people would say that Mississippi has Jackson.
I moved to Jackson to take a job as the capitol correspondent for a well-known and respected news organization available across the state. I consider myself a progressive, although I make sure not to include my own personal views in my news stories, because I need to keep my job. I pride myself on what I do in bringing the truth out into the open, in speaking truth to power, and doing my best to educate Mississippians thru the news. Keeping them informed of legislative affairs, public policy, and the impact of severe budget cuts to all agencies and employees, from education to universities to mental health to transporation, and everything in between. I feel journalism is a noble calling of public service; we journalists are trusted to provide the full story, to give readers/listeners/viewers the scoop on how their policymakers are dealing with unprecedented budget crises. I also talk frequently with Gov. Barbour.
I'm familiar with Gov. Haley Barbour's national prominence, of his celebrated chairmanship of the RNC back in the early '90s, when he oversaw the Republican takeover of congress in 1994, and the death of Clinton's health care reform bill. I'm familiar with his career as the highest-paid lobbyist on K Street, lobbying for Philip Morris and plenty of other highly influential firms. He is a master politician. I refer to him as the anti-Bill Clinton; a Southern gentleman politician, a natural charmer with a comical accent, but a top hustler for his causes and ruthless in commandeering the legislature- particularly the Senate. He is everything Bill Clinton was to the left, except for the far right instead.
In November, when he presented his Executive Budget Recommendation, he had the entire state's black population jumping at the bit when he proposed consolidating all of the state's Historically-Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, under one umbrella. The state college board commissioner shurgged his shoulders when I asked him about it, and said he didn't see how that would save any money at all in the long-term, and that the process in itself might actually cost money. State legislators, who actually put the budget together, both in the liberal house and conservative senate, said the HBCU proposal was dead on arrival, that it wouldn't happen, and that they didn't see why the media was getting everybody worked up about something that just wasn't going to have any traction.
After Gov. Barbour made his HBCU announcement, he was nowhere to be seen for weeks. This was around the time Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln still had lukewarm support for health care reform. Arkansas and Louisiana are states that border Mississippi. Both of their campaigns are heavily subsidized by the private health insurance/pharmaceutical lobby. Gov. Barbour has infinite connections on K Street. Putting two and two together, one could speculate that it wouldn't be too hard for Haley Barbour to make a few calls to Landrieu/Lincoln's supporters, and urge them to put money behind primary opponents in the elections if they voted for health care reform.
In the meantime, he's seen at bill-killing rallies in Washington, talking down health care reform with a folksy Southern accent, much like he talks down taxing the rich to offset budget cuts to services for the poor, or how he talks down Democratic proposals by state lawmakers to offset budget cuts with some of the state's $700M plus in reserve accounts. He does so masterful framing, and simplistic sound bites that register in the minds of his deep southern constituents.
In short, Haley Barbour is a shrewd political mastermind.
Electability of Southern Politicians
So, this brings me to the whole Confederacy thing. Gov. Barbour is right in that our state lawmakers made Confederate Memorial Day a holiday. State offices are closed on the last Monday of April because of it. I should also mention that Robert E. Lee's birthday is celebrated each year on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. MLK day is a national holiday, Robert E. Lee's birthday is a state holiday. You can pretty much choose which day you want to celebrate on the third Monday of January.
However, many of our elected officials are black, usually representing the impoverished Delta or the Jackson area, which is our biggest city, and home to all of the state's young progressive professionals. All of the black elected officials in Mississippi are democrats. but even they are seemingly terrified of speaking out against any sort of Confederate memorial or celebration, because of the potential political fallout in a deep southern state like Mississippi. Why, do you ask?
Gov. Barbour won his office after the 2003 election against Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, using the flag as a wedge issue. Mississippi's state flag is compsoed of three stripes; a red, white, and a blue stripe, like France's flag. However, in the corner of our flag is the Confederate Stars and Bars. Musgrove was in support of a ballot initiative that would remove the Confederate flag from the state flag. Haley Barbour defeated him with a simple slogan- "Keep the flag, change the governor." He won by a significant margin. He even won much of the black vote.
Basically, what I'm getting at here is that there is a deep-seeded Southern/Confederate pride that's been hammered into the heads of voters, which is why we elect governors like Haley Barbour, and why even black elected officials don't want to talk on the record about the flag or anything involving the Confederacy. With a steady stream of truth from an honest news media, perhaps this mindset can be changed in the long term. But fighting towards a more progressive South will be an uphill battle. We need the help of Kossacks most of all, not to bash the South, but to understand it and help reverse the cultural mindsets of southerners.
We southerners are a proud people. We are warm. We are kind. We are hospitable. Our waitresses will call you "doll" and "honey" while they pour you a glass of sweet tea and tell you how cute your kids are. We are not openly hateful or racist or even willfully ignorant. We need the help of our fellow Americans to bring us all together, and to provide diverse knowledge and a deeper understanding of tolerance and social progression.
Hating on all of the south or even all of Mississippi because of one governor's comments is not helpful.