Haley Barbour’s MLK Memories Thrown Into Question

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February 28, 2011 5:53 am
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A leading historian is throwing into question recollections from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) that he watched Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in his Yazoo City hometown as a teen.

In an interview with the Weekly Standard in December, Barbour described standing on the outskirts of a rally to hear MLK.

“I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white,” he said. But Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger this week that records show no signs of any such appearance.According to Garrow, as well as interviews with a local NAACP activist who met with King and the owner of the local paper at the time, King’s only recorded appearance in Yazoo City was in 1966 and included no rallies.

“I don’t at all doubt that Barbour indeed once upon a time did see Martin Luther King from a distance in some such setting, but the bottom-line takeaway I have from all of this is that the civil rights struggle was taking place all around him, and Barbour wasn’t particularly aware of it because he was focused on other more typical young-man individual pursuits,” Garrow told the paper.

According to Barbour, he went with friends to check out the scene at an MLK rally in Yazoo City, but he could no longer remember details of the speech.

“I don’t really remember,” he told the Weekly Standard. “The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. 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.”

Barbour’s recollections of the state’s civil rights struggles has been a recurring source of trouble for the potential presidential candidate since he fondly recalled in the same interview how the segregationist CItizens Councils in his area had contributed to the civil rights movement by keeping down the Klan. Historians quickly retorted that the Citizens Councils in Yazoo City and elsewhere were well established white supremacists and Barbour eventually apologized. Recently he declined to condemn an effort by some in his state to put KKK founder Nathanial Bedford Forrest’s image on license plates before eventually announcing his opposition to the proposal.

Update: Ben Smith at POLITICO unearthed a New York Times article referring to a King speech in 1966 in Yazoo City. “The simple fact of the matter is, Gov. Barbour misattributed the year Dr. King spoke,” a Barbour aide told Smith. It’s not clear the article contradicts the Ledger’s account of events, which contains similar quotes from King but attributes them to a private meeting with marchers.

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