Gov. Haley Barbour took heat Monday for comments that appeared to minimize the racial tensions of the civil rights movement and praise segregationist organizations in 1960s Mississippi.
Barbour, whose name has been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for president in two years, was interviewed for a lengthy profile in the the Weekly Standard.
"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Barbour said of race relations during the early 1960s in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss.
The two-term governor credited the relatively peaceful integration of schools in Yazoo City to Citizens Councils, all-white segregationist groups that formed in Mississippi in the mid-1950s. The main organization, originally known as the White Citizens' Council, was formed in protest of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that said public school segregation was unconstitutional.
"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," Barbour told the magazine. "In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."
Barbour said he had hazy memories of a 1962 visit to Yazoo City by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white," said Barbour, who was 15 at the time.
The governor said during King's speech, "We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King."
The remarks garnered criticism from liberal bloggers, the NAACP and Democratic officials.
"He's not ready for prime time or not ready for the 21st century," Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan tweeted Monday. "Either way, it's disqualifying."
A Barbour spokesman, Dan Turner, told Talking Points Memo that the governor's critics were trying to portray the governor as a racist, but "nothing could be further from the truth."
"Tell me what in Gov. Barbour's past gives any indication of any racist leanings, and I'll be glad to address the question," Turner said. "Otherwise, it's not a legitimate question. There's nothing in his past that shows that. If you pick out a sentence or a paragraph out of a fairly long article and harp on it, you can manipulate it. And that sounds to me like what you're trying to do."