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Posts Tagged ‘Presidential Election 2012’

In the summer of 1998, I took a job as an intern reporter at the newspaper in Picayune, Mississippi, not far from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.  This isn’t a scenario where I needed a job and the only one I could find was in Mississippi – I wanted to be there. I’d never been to the Deep South and the Robert Duvall movie, The Apostle, had come out that winter, piquing my curiosity about the region.  So, I looked for jobs and found one and off I went that May.

My father drove down with me to help me get settled in. My clearest memory of that long-ago road trip was actually crossing into Mississippi. Bolted under the Welcome to Mississippi sign, in that standard highway green and blocky white font, was another sign which read, “Only ‘Positive Mississippi’ Spoken Here.”

Dad and I hooted. We guffawed. We swung into a litany of one-liners about that slogan and the poor state of any state which feels compelled to ask passers-through to think of its self-esteem.

To a degree, I understood exactly why that sign was there. Being a Tennessean, I was familiar with the saying, “At least we’re not Mississippi,” something we had to repeat any time statistics on public schools, obesity, or any other number of issues pertaining to public well-being were released.  I knew that Mississippi had a complicated image. On the one hand, blues and Faulkner. On the other, poverty in both wealth and education. One thing I did not think much about was the Civil Rights Movement and all the atrocities which had occurred within the state.  That, surely, for generations of travellers, was wrapped up and intoned in “Only ‘Positive Mississippi’ Spoken Here.”

I did, obviously, learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Summer later, and that has become part of my mental landscape when I think on my summer there.  But at the time, I didn’t know much more than what you would tell a grade school child in the 1980s – which is to say, not enough.

And now, Haley Barbour, the governor of this state with the troubled past, has announced his intention to run for President in 2012.

NPR recently ran an interesting story about how Barbour will need to overcome “scrutiny on race” if he wishes to clinch the nomination. The article quotes a GOP political consultant who says, “It just haunts the South. It’s just the specter that haunts every politician I believe and it’s haunting him.”

Race is the specter that haunts every Southerner, every American. Politicians, being public figures, serve as the public mouthpiece and sounding board for our own debates, our own unconfronted turmoil.

As disturbing as some of Barbour’s comments have been, I have to say that I’ve heard nothing from him that I haven’t heard from other white people in his generation (and even younger). The notion that White Citizens’ Councils did more than intimidate black citizens out of seeking their rights, the idea that the desegregation process “wasn’t that bad,” (a phrase and approach so fraught with assumptions that one doesn’t even know where to deconstruct it) – I’ve heard all of this before.  It’s the way the story has emerged from the past and been presented to many Southerners of my generation, the lens through which so many whites who lived through the actual time have chosen to frame it.

Incidently, one of Willie Morris’ lesser-known tomes is Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town.  I’ve not read all of it, but it was one that I referenced as I wrote my own book, and I plan to go back to it this summer. Yazoo City is the hometown of both Morris and Barbour, and Morris clarifies the picture past the “it wasn’t that bad” phenomenon.

If Barbour makes it very far into the nomination process,  we will be hearing a national debate on phrases and ideals that are part of the verbal landscape in this part of the country.  Stay tuned.

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