OCEAN SPRINGS, Mississippi (Reuters) - A controversy over Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s comments about the civil rights movement could come back to haunt him if he runs for president, political analysts said on Wednesday.
In an interview published online in the Weekly Standard magazine Barbour defended the role white Citizens Councils played in his home town of Yazoo City, central Mississippi, during the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.
The councils are widely seen as having opposed the movement that used peaceful protest in the face of repression to end a brutal system of racial segregation in the South and to win for black Americans the right to vote.
Barbour clarified those remarks on Tuesday in a statement published on his website, calling the Citizens Councils “totally indefensible, as is segregation.”
“Just by raising these issues, Barbour has put himself on the defensive,” said Merle Black, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
Black, who has written extensively about the southern Republican party, argued that race was already a source of vulnerability for southern Republicans because of perceptions of the issue within the national party.
Barbour, a powerful figure in the Republican party, has said he will decide next year whether to vie for his party’s nomination to stand against President Barack Obama, who is seeking reelection in 2012.
The governor is credited with having used his platform as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association to help his party win control of the House of Representatives in November’s elections.
But he would face several other prominent candidates mulling a bid for the nomination including former governors Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Syndicated columnist Roland Martin said the state’s association with the struggle over segregation would make any bid harder for Barbour.
“Every time he stands up as the proud governor of Mississippi, he will have that rebel flag embedded in his state flag and the nation will always be reminded of those days,” he said.
“That is not an image the GOP cherishes, especially for someone seeking to run against the first African American president,” Martin said.
Controversies over race and civil rights have hurt Republican leaders in the past.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is also from Mississippi, resigned his leadership position in 2002 after criticism over a speech in which he appeared to praise white southern conservatives who opposed civil rights.
Barbour in his interview said the Citizens Councils prevented the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan from organizing in his hometown of Yazoo City, central Mississippi.
“I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said while reflecting on the civil rights era, drawing a stream of criticism from civil rights leaders and Democrats who said he was reinterpreting history in ways that were offensive.
Barbour’s chances of winning the nomination were anyway remote because the national party has reservations about a southern candidate, said Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory.
“He’s a long shot. There’s going to be a lot of Republican candidates and he comes from a small state in the Deep South. Republicans are looking for someone who can potentially win a national election and there are real limits to his appeal,” Abramowitz said.
Barbour’s formidable skills as a fund raiser would stand him in good stead were he to decide to run, said Sid Salter, Mississippi’s best-known political columnist.
“Is he a credible candidate for president? Absolutely! I think he’s on everybody’s short-list,” Salter said.
Writing by Matthew Bigg, editing by Greg McCune