Friday, February 4, 2011

Symbolism vs. Policy: Do Barbour's Civil Rights Words Match Actions?



I saw Stanley Nelson’s marvelous documentary FREEDOM RIDERS on February 3 in Baltimore. It will be shown in May on PBS. Don’t miss it, as it is a good fit with the scenes from the revolt in Egypt.






Symbolism vs. Policy: Do Barbour's Civil Rights Words Match Actions?


by U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson

Guest columnist


Clarion Ledger (Mississippi)


January 30, 2011


For as long as white Mississippi politicians have embraced

the moral cause of the civil rights movement and the heroism

of the civil rights activists, the question has been: When

will those white Mississippi politicians convert their

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 Mississippi did not suffer the same racial

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, Bolton Colored School - we remember

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

more meaningful.


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

affordable housing.


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 Mississippi has several hundred

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. Mississippi spends

less per capita on our schoolchildren and teachers than any

other state.


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,

historic Tougaloo College location, which was at the center

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 Mississippi to follow the laws of this

great land.


[U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Bolton, represents

Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District.]




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