The first time I saw Yazoo City was in the summer of 1965. I spent that summer at Tougaloo College near Jackson, and Yazoo is only 40 miles away, up Highway 49 northwest toward the Mississippi Delta.
The drive was picturesque. After leaving the Jackson suburbs, Highway 49 was a two-lane road that went up and down the dramatic Loess Hills, covered with kudzu vines, intensely green in early summer. Right at Yazoo City the Delta begins. The highway went down a last hill through an attractive white residential neighborhood and reached the vivid contrast of a flat flood plain. Now, to the right, Yazoo City provided an equally dramatic display of Delta poverty.
I was accustomed to the abject poverty of poor African Americans in the Mississippi Delta. I’d visited with a family in Clarksdale, for example, that had one pair of shoes for three children. Naturally the kids didn’t get to school when it was cold, and it was below freezing when I spoke with them, clustered around a coal stove in one room of their three-room house. Nevertheless, the poverty in Yazoo City actually made me cry. I saw ramshackle wooden houses built on stilts over the flood plain, with slanted planks providing a walkway to the shoulder of the highway. The houses did have toilets of sorts, but no plumbing. No privy out back, because out back was under water, often as not. Instead, the toilets emptied onto the floodplain through a hole in the floor. You can imagine the odor in August.
That was 1965. Haley Barbour was 18. He had lived in Yazoo all his life. He could not have not seen those houses. On the other hand, he could not have seen those houses and still say, as he did to Andrew Ferguson recently, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”
During the summer of 1969, public school systems across Mississippi were supposed to desegregate. Whites in Yazoo City responded by organizing a private school, Manchester Academy, just in time for the fall of 1969. Owing to a deal between Mississippi Senator John Stennis and President Richard Nixon, the U.S. flip-flopped at the last minute and opposed desegregation. In October, the Supreme Court ordered a halt to what had become known as “the Stennis delay” at the end of the fall semester. In midyear — January, 1970 — the Yazoo public schools desegregated, sparking white flight. Manchester Academy formed as an explicitly racist all-white school and is still almost totally white. Its website reveals no images of black teachers or administrators. Possibly 2 of about 200 people shown in photos are nonwhite, although they may not be African American.
Manchester Academy claims as its philosophy:
We believe that in a free and democratic society such as ours, it is essential that every citizen have an opportunity to receive an education and that it is the duty of every citizen to take full advantage of the educational opportunities afforded him.
Haley Barbour knows better, however. When he enrolled his two sons in it, it was still all-white on purpose. Since 1969, it has sucked not just white students but also much of the money and leadership of Yazoo City away from the public schools. By definition, although Manchester Academy may believe “that every citizen [should] have an opportunity to receive an education,” it officially does not believe that every citizen should have an opportunity to receive an equal education. Moreover, it formed to restrict the educational opportunities afforded to African Americans by providing better educational opportunities to white Americans.
In 1971 I testified in Yazoo City about how the county formed its juries. Among its registered voters, Yazoo County was almost exactly 50% white, 50% black. White officials drew juries from the list of registered voters, supposedly randomly. Nevertheless, juries, consisting of twelve members and two alternates, kept coming out twelve white, two black. Moreover, the African Americans would often be the same two individuals! As a sociologist, it was not hard to do the statistics and show that this could hardly have happened by chance. Indeed, such a string of juries would have occurred randomly less than one time in four billion attempts! Haley Barbour was 24. He had just managed the U.S. Census for the state of Mississippi, so he had to know the racial composition of his home town. He had enrolled in Ole Miss law school and had connections with his family’s law firm in Yazoo City, so he had to know the racial composition of Yazoo’s juries. Yet about the state of civil rights in his home town, as he told Andrew Ferguson, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”
In 1971, Yazoo City was under boycott, because downtown merchants refused to hire black clerks, not even one per store, even though most of their customers were African Americans. Whites overheard one of the leaders of the boycott movement saying to another something like, “If they don’t hire some of us, we’re gonna shut this motherfuckin’ town down.” Yazoo had a law against public profanity, published back in the nineteenth century, and probably never enforced since. The sheriff arrested both young men for violating this ordinance. I was testifying at their trial.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, for whom I was testifying, was using this otherwise trivial case to try to end racial bias in jury selection. Not only Yazoo County but perhaps forty counties across the state suffered from this unfair infirmity.
From a forensic viewpoint, the case was perfect. Since Yazoo was 50/50 in black/white population, I could use the analogy of a coin toss. It was easy to convince the judge, even though he was a white supremacist who did not want to be convinced, that it was highly improbable to get 12 heads in 14 flips of an unbiased coin, and then 12 more heads in 14 more flips, and then achieve about the same result a third time and a fourth. To show that it was equally unlikely to wind up somehow with the same two African Americans twice in a row required more complicated statistics, but again, the coincidence was simply too startling to be ignored.
As a sidebar: Electronic calculators had hit the market three years before. In 1968, just two models were available. For $5,000, Wang, the electronics company that had made its fortune selling dedicated word processing computers(!), later to be done in by the PC, sold a central unit about two cubic feet in size with fat cables going to four different calculators. Sharp sold a single unit, about the size of Time magazine but two inches thick. It had the same capabilities of today’s $1.98 calculators — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as two memories — although it had no battery. It cost a mere $1,300. Readers over 65 will recall Monroe mechanical calculators that made a racket and did addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and could be tricked into approximating square roots. Aware that these had become obsolete, I persuaded my new employer, Tougaloo College, to buy a Sharp electronic calculator. It turned out to be the third unit sold in the state; the state government had bought the first, the [White] Citizens Councils the second. When I used it in court to calculate probabilities, it caused at least as great a stir as my statistical testimony.
My testimony didn’t interest the judge much. He was an archetypical Southern judge: old, white-haired, sleepy, even sleeping. When he heard the phrase “I object!” he would snap to and look over to see who had objected. If it was our side, the defense, he would say, “Objection overruled,” and if the prosecutor had objected, he would say, “Sustained.” None of this bothered our lawyers much, because their task was to make a record for appeal. After the judge got done with his kangaroo proceedings, and after the jury found the defendants guilty, then they planned to appeal on the grounds that jury selection was biased in Yazoo.
It didn’t work out that way. At the request of our side, the court ordered all witnesses sequestered during the trial. That meant they could not hear testimony preceding their own. A deputy sheriff, one of the arresting officers, was asked if he had ever heard the sheriff use profanity himself. He allowed that he had. He was asked for examples and supplied them. Taking the stand, the sheriff was then asked, “Had he ever cursed on the streets of Yazoo?” He denied it. The deputy’s testimony was read back, showing him to be a perjurer. He changed his testimony to agree with his deputy. Such problems led to a hung jury, and not hung ten to two on racial lines; we learned the prosecutors could only muster eight votes to convict.
The defendants were elated, but not their lawyers. Since there was no adverse decision, there was nothing to appeal. Yazoo’s biased jury system — the reason for my testimony and the reason several attorneys had worked on the case — escaped unscathed. We had to start all over again, in another county, before we could bring jury bias to judicial attention and correction.
Barbour’s absurd comments on the [White] Citizens Councils have already been roundly rebutted — best of all by Hodding Carter III on NPR. Before 1970, when African Americans in Yazoo tried to enroll their children in white public schools or otherwise tried to get their town to move beyond segregation, they jeopardized their livelihoods if not their lives. The Citizens Council took the lead in getting them fired or otherwise forced from town or forced to back down.
The issue isn’t that Barbour misremembers the past. Nor is the problem that when he was a teenager, he was not attentive to Martin Luther King’s visit. The problem is that Haley Barbour has spent his entire life not seeing injustice, so he could work to perpetrate injustice.
James W. Loewen
James W. Loewen taught at Tougaloo College and the University of Vermont. After his critique of K-12 U.S. history textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me, became a bestseller, he became an independent scholar based in Washington, DC. More recent books include Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, and Sundown Towns. In August, 2010, the University Press of Mississippi published, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, with a co-editor.
Loewen is still trying to identify every sundown town in the U.S. at his website.
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