Symbolism vs. Policy: Do Barbour's Civil Rights Words Match Actions?
by U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson
Clarion Ledger (
January 30, 2011
For as long as white
the moral cause of the civil rights movement and the heroism
of the civil rights activists, the question has been: When
will those white
political symbolism into public policy reality? The recent
actions of our own governor, Haley Barbour, further prove
that this question remains unanswered.
We see this use of political symbolism in the recent remarks
made by the governor to The Weekly Standard and The Clarion-
Ledger editorial board. In brief, Gov. Barbour was asked why
his hometown in
violence as other places when he was a young man, his reply
was: "Because the business community wouldn't stand for it.
You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it
was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization
of town leaders."
That response left many of us doubting his knowledge of our
state's bloody history and his commitment to overcoming the
effects of that history. Gov. Barbour later offered up two
symbolic gestures - building a civil rights museum and
welcoming the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Riders.
Consider this: the governor and I were born three months and
40 miles apart. For those of us who attended segregated
schools - in my case,
outdoor toilets, two or three classes per room, hand-me-down
textbooks and the other trappings of grade school life in
the segregated South.
With these vivid memories, the governor's symbols would be
met with less skepticism if they were accompanied by public
policies that sought to transform the symbols into something
Here is one thing of which I am sure: if we were to take the
hundreds of men and women who brought civil and voting
rights to black Mississippians in the 1960s and transport
them into the world of today, they would not be lobbying for
a museum or a celebration. They would be lobbying for decent
health care, full funding of education and safe and
While symbols are important, they are no substitute for a
record of what has been accomplished, or what has not been
accomplished. When we take a look at Haley Barbour's record,
we are left with the impression that his use of symbols is
nothing more than an attempt to cover up a record that many
of us find embarrassing for our state.
While I will be the first to admit that health care
legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by
President Obama is not perfect, it surely offers this
country the first comprehensive attempt at covering people
who need health care insurance and controlling the
increasing costs of health care. If our governor had said
this, had acknowledged that
thousand of its citizens (black and white) who would benefit
from this legislation, and had offered to sit down with the
President and members of Congress to work out any problems,
then we would have gone to battle for him and with him. But
no, he filed a lawsuit, claiming the legislation was
unconstitutional. This is, of course, the same course of
action that Gov. Paul Johnson took when Congress passed the
Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rather than acknowledge the moral
rightness of allowing black Mississippians to vote, Gov.
Johnson and his attorney general sued the federal
government, claiming the legislation was unconstitutional,
that it violated states' rights (sound familiar).
As our governor is working as hard as he can to derail the
federal health care legislation, he is simultaneously
cutting Medicaid spending and creating obstacles that
prevent qualified men, women and children from using the
system. We would receive his offering of symbols with more
sincerity if his pronouncements about Medicaid focused on
the lives that are being improved by the program rather than
the money that could be directed elsewhere. When we see Gov.
Barbour behave in the same manner as his contemporaries did
45 years ago, we begin to believe The Weekly Standard
article might be accurate.
For the young people in our state, again, both black and
white, their only hope to live a successful and prosperous
life is to obtain the very best education we can give them -
not the very best education we can afford, but the very best
education we can develop and deliver to them. Our governor
has never said this. We are now spending less money on
education than we did four years ago.
less per capita on our schoolchildren and teachers than any
If Gov. Barbour were spending as much time working with the
leadership of the State Department of Education and the
College Board to improve and expand our system of education
as he is spending in other states to elect Republican
governors and promote his presidential campaign, the Freedom
Riders would welcome his invitation to a celebration of
their courage and commitment.
In one very real sense, in the political world of today,
black voters and white voters have something in common. We
are all tired of symbols that mean nothing.
And black voters in our state are tired of politicians who
say "we can't" rather than "let's figure out a way to make
it happen." We have watched white politicians, both
Democratic and Republican, turn their backs to help and
interventions from the federal government, rather than
accept it. We have watched white politicians, both
Democratic and Republican, visit our churches and ask for
our vote, and then turn around and oppose funding for
education or decent health care for our children.
Even if we look at the symbols, the commitment is lacking.
Gov. Barbour has been proposing a civil rights museum for
the last five years. In 2006, a committee, with his
blessings, identified a site and made a recommendation. At
that time, he offered to help raise money toward the
museum's construction. Contributions have never
materialized. Leadership has never materialized. But
conveniently, when The Weekly Standard article appeared, he
reached back and pulled the museum away from the preferred,
of the civil rights battles, and opted for a "safer"
downtown business district site.
So, you'll have to excuse me if I admit to some skepticism
in response to Gov. Barbour's offer to build a civil rights
museum or welcome the Freedom Riders. Quite frankly, I would
rather he spend the money on building modern classrooms and
clinics in the less fortunate areas of our state.
Do that, Gov. Barbour, and then we really would have a
welcome mat to roll out to the brave men and women who rode
into our dangerous state 50 years ago to stand up for
justice and force
[U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Bolton, represents