BILOXI, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour drew mixed reactions from analysts on Wednesday for his decision to push for a civil rights museum for his state ahead of a possible presidential bid.
Barbour urged the state’s legislature during an annual address to build the $50 million museum in a state that became notorious during the 1950s and 1960s for violent enforcement of racial segregation and opposition to civil and voting rights.
Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, says he is mulling a bid to be his party’s nominee in 2012 where he would likely face President Barack Obama vying for a second term in the White House.
The governor apologized last month for saying in a magazine interview that the civil rights era was not “that bad,” a comment that put the Republican politician on the defensive.
“I urge you to move this museum forward as an appropriate way to do justice to the Civil Rights Movement and to stand as a monument of remembrance and reconciliation,” Barbour said in the speech late on Tuesday.
“The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it. People from around the world would flock to see the museum and learn about the movement,” he said.
Some analysts said Barbour’s advocacy, driven by a desire to remake the state’s image, was also in part an attempt to deflect criticism over his December remarks on civil rights and his apparent defense of the white Citizens Councils, which also opposed civil rights.
Barbour also drew criticism when on December 29 he suspended the life sentences of two African-American sisters convicted of an $11 robbery, releasing them after 16 years in prison saying the dialysis of one was costly for the state and releasing the other on condition she donate a kidney to her ailing sibling.
“He is trying to get that hurdle that he created for himself ... out of the way and still leaving his options open,” said Marty Wiseman, head of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
Analyst Roland Martin, who frequently defends Obama, said: “There is little doubt that his newfound embracing of civil rights is his quest to burnish his credentials before announcing a run for president.”
But some politicians welcomed Barbour’s decision and said it showed an understanding of the importance of reflecting on the state’s racial history.
“That is one of the things that unites us and not divides us,” said state representative George Flaggs of Vicksburg.
“When we can come together with a common understanding of civil rights and at the same time learn from the mistakes of the past ... (we will) leave the state better than we found it,” said Flaggs, a Democrat.
The museum’s construction would coincide with the 50th anniversary of protest by Freedom Riders, who challenged segregation on public transport, and with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, he said.
Barbour, who was reviving an idea originally proposed in 2007, said the museum should be paid for with private donations.
Editing by Matthew Bigg and Peter Bohan