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Dec 22, 2010 1:10 pm

Barbour & Educational Standards

Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has received some well-deserved criticism for his attempts to whitewash the attitudes of the Citizens’ Councils. (Ralph has a roundup below; as he points out, TPM has done a particularly good job at using the governor’s remarks as a teaching moment to remind people just how odious the Citizens’ Councils were.) The episode probably finishes Barbour as a viable presidential candidate, though it always seemed to me highly unlikely that suburban voters in the key swing states for 2012—PA, VA, MI, CO—would vote to replace the nation’s first black president with the governor of Mississippi. America, as Jon Chait has joked several times, probably isn’t ready for Boss Hogg as president.

The Barbour remarks, however, are also significant for the light they shine on an educational travesty that likely will persist after the Barbour-for-President bubble has burst. Yesterday brought news that the NAACP and LULAC are threatening a (longshot) lawsuit against the state of Texas, to try and stop implementation of the state’s new history and social studies curriculum. Among the curriculum’s other anti-intellectual items is an attempt to encourage teachers to portray Republicans as the key figures in the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation. The amendment, as originally offered, was as follows:"describe presidential actions and Congressional votes by party to address minority rights in the United States, including desegregation of the Armed Forces, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965." The final amendment dropped an explicit reference to the party breakdown.

This agenda seizes upon a kernel of truth—in the Senate, a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the act than did Democrats—to falsely portray history, in multiple ways.

Some congressional Republicans did play important roles in the passage of civil rights legislation—William McCullough in the House; Jacob Javits and especially Everett Dirksen in the Senate. But the impetus for the legislation came from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the most important figures on the bills in both the Senate and the House were Democrats (Manny Celler, Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield). To claim otherwise is to rewrite the past.

Politically, the suggestion that Republicans in the South were in any way sympathetic to civil rights is absurd. The handful of Southern Republicans then in Congress—such as the three Republicans in Texas’ own 1964 delegation, John Tower in the Senate, Bruce Adler and Ed Foreman in the House—passionately opposed the Civil Rights Act. The modern GOP in Barbour’s state, and in neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, trace their origins to passage of the act—the first 20th century Republicans elected to the House from Alabama and Mississippi came thanks to the Goldwater landslide in the Deep South. (Republicans just missed knocking off House majority leader Hale Boggs in 1964.)

And while there’s been some interesting literature (such as Matthew Lassiter’s book) repudiating a mono-causal link between the growth of the Southern Republican Party and civil rights backlash, it’s pretty clear to which party voters hostile to civil rights migrated. Take a case Barbour would know well, that of Trent Lott in Mississippi. Lott served as a staffer for a segregationist Democrat, William Colmer; when Colmer retired in 1972, Lott joined the Republican Party and easily won election to the House. He was elevated to the Senate in 1988; no Democrat has come within 10 points of winning a Senate election in Mississippi since. From South Carolina through to Texas, state Republican parties are overwhelmingly white; the state Democratic parties are overwhelmingly black (or, in Texas, black and Hispanic).

Like the Texas educational board, Barbour has championed a view of the Southern GOP’s past that defies reality—in his portrayal, the Democrats lost ground because of their support for segregation, and vibrant, race-neutral Republicans ascended in the 1970s and 1980s. In short, the GOP wants to reap the benefits of the Southern Strategy without accepting any of the tarnish. This is the whitewashing of history for the most nefarious of purposes—advancing the standing of a political party. It should not be allowed to stand.

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