It has been my experience that many white Southerners are uncomfortable talking about race. Some do not want to confront guilt; others are terrified of saying the wrong thing and being branded a racist (or the softer insult of racially insensitive). For reconciliation to occur and wounds to heal, we must be able to openly talk about race and Mississippi's past.

It seems in politics - particularly for Republicans - that is not possible.

In a profile of Gov. Haley R. Barbour in this week's edition of "The Weekly Standard" Barbour makes some remarks about his youth during the civil rights movement and the non-violent integration of public schools in Yazoo City. Barbour said the Citizens Council in Yazoo City kept Klan violence out of town. For this, Barbour has been accused of praising the Citizens Council. He described the Citizens Council as "town leaders" in Yazoo City. Making such a factual statement is hardly an endorsement of their philosophy.

Barbour said as a youth in Yazoo City he didn't remember those times "as being that bad." In contrast to violence in McComb, Laurel, Jackson, Philadelphia and other Delta towns, Yazoo City was certainly not as bad. I suspect Barbour's black counterparts would have different personal experiences, but his memories of the time, like many white youths, were not consumed by the social-political revolution of the day.

Barbour described a visit by Martin Luther King, Jr. to Yazoo City, an event he remembers to be in 1962 but some press outlets have suggested was actually 1968. He said he and his friends attended the speech, sat out on the periphery and spent most of the time sitting on cars, "watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King."

Many have attacked Barbour for these childhood recollections. But, I think Jim Geraghty blogging at "The National Review Online" likely hit the appropriate level of criticism, "His sin is that, decades later, he remembers his hometown through rose-colored glasses? Don't most people do that?"

Brett Kittredge at Majority in Mississippi takes a similar position, "I think Barbour is guilty of apathy here...Barbour was like a lot of other whites especially of his age. They might not have been marching with Martin Luther King, but they weren't marching with the Klan either...I honestly don't think that's too unusual, and don't think Barbour can be knocked for that too much."

Following the uproar over his remarks, Barbour released a statement on Tuesday: "When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn't tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the 'Citizens Council,' is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time."

Those seeking to attack Barbour won't let facts get in the way. I remember when liberals in Washington DC attacked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals nomination of Charles Pickering and cited as one of their reasons because he was a law partner to "devoted segregationist J. Carroll Gartin." Liberal columnist Bill Minor - the dean of civil rights reporting in Mississippi - wrote that such accusations against the racial moderate Gartin were "barking up the wrong tree." So, liberals branded Minor a Pickering apologist. I'm not sure which was more insulting to Minor - that he would be described as a defender of a conservative Republican, or that political hacks - whose knowledge of civil rights would not fill just one of Minor's thousands of reporter's notebooks - thought they knew better about Mississippi's struggle than he did.

Pickering writes in "A Price Too High: The Judiciary in Jeopardy" about a meeting between then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Pickering's son, Chip, who was then Mississippi's Third District Congressman. Reid told Rep. Pickering it had "nothing to do with substance or merit." Reid said in the end, it was nothing personal, just politics.

The worst of these liberal attacks on race is that it makes reconciliation more difficult by incentivizing silence. The attacks cloud the truth of the struggles by failing to examine the complexities of the South during that time. Were he not a Democrat, I suspect even a hero like former Gov. William Winter would be blurred into a villain.

While Barbour may have failed to see what was happening around him as a youth, his adult attackers are intentionally ignoring the contexts and complexities of those times. It isn't out of moral outrage they attack Barbour, and it's not personal, it's just politics.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at