JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Haley Barbour's folksy style, savvy leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and success as a GOP strategist have made the two-term Mississippi governor a serious contender early in the wide-open contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now if the 63-year-old could just shake his penchant for airbrushing his state's segregationist past, a period he's inclined to describe as more like Mayberry than "Mississippi Burning."
Critics have dogged him for such comments, and Barbour has recently attempted to make amends, a sign he's aware that if he is to carry his party's banner next year against the country's first African-American president, he will have to be more forthright about Mississippi's troubled history.
Even after apologizing and backtracking on certain remarks, Barbour has trouble striking the right note: Just days ago, the governor told The Associated Press he remembers little about the racial violence pulsating through the state and the South during his youth. What does Barbour recall about the Freedom Summer of 1964, when he was 16 and the slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi shocked the nation?
"Not much," Barbour said casually, the kind of answer his critics find at once unbelievable and predictable.
"The governor has a pattern, in my opinion, of doing things that are outrageous and insensitive," said state Rep. Rufus Straughter, who is black and a decade older than Barbour and grew up a county away from him.
"He's been getting away with it because in Mississippi, he's been speaking to groups that agree with him," Straughter said. "What he fails to understand is that whatever he says gets out there into the wider world."
The Mississippi in which Barbour grew up was home to some of the deadliest conflicts of the civil rights era, as black citizens sought to gain voting rights and to integrate public facilities, including schools and universities. Those who knew Barbour then say he stayed out of the fray, neither a civil rights activist nor a vocal opponent of the movement.
Barbour told the AP his memories of those days are more personal than political. For example, to many older Americans, the Mississippi of 1961 means images of black and white Freedom Riders being rounded up and thrown in sweltering prison cells for challenging segregation on interstate buses. Barbour, on the other hand, fondly recalls a successful season as a 13-year-old on a Yazoo City baseball team.
"I didn't know much about much," Barbour said. "I was a pretty good baseball player. We won the state championship that year."
Barbour argues that his generation of political leaders attended integrated schools, but his 1965 high school class — he was valedictorian — was segregated. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi three years after a bloody battle in which federal troops and marshals were ordered on campus to enforce the court-ordered enrollment of James Meredith as Ole Miss' first black student.
"I went to integrated college, never thought twice about it," Barbour said this past fall in a webcast interview with Peter M. Robinson of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, with whom he served in the Reagan administration.
It's true that the university was integrated, but just barely: Though Ole Miss had an enrollment of at least 3,300, the yearbook shows fewer than a dozen black students when Barbour arrived as a freshman in 1965.
One of them, Cleveland Donald Jr., said he didn't know the future governor, who joined a fraternity, got involved in student government and helped organize campus concerts. With no chance of joining a fraternity himself, Donald tried to attend a meeting of a Christian student group.
"I went to one meeting and they moved off campus because several of them did not want me there," recalled Donald, now a University of Connecticut history professor.
Barbour said he remembers sitting next to a pleasant young black woman in a literature class, and that she let him borrow her notes.
"I had a great experience," he said of his time in Oxford, adding after a slight pause, "I didn't study too hard."
The aw-shucks approach is vintage Barbour: Using self-deprecating humor to deflect from serious questions.
"He may be kind of remembering it the way he wants to and putting a gloss on it the way he wants to," said Charles Eagles, a University of Mississippi professor and author of a book on Ole Miss' integration. "The motivation and the intention here, we don't know."
Barbour left college to take his first political job in 1968, working in Mississippi for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. (He never completed his undergraduate degree because he was six credits shy in Latin, but he went back to Ole Miss and earned his law degree in 1972.)
He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982, chaired the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s and was a Washington lobbyist before being elected governor in 2003.
Barbour conceded to Robinson that Nixon's 1968 "Southern strategy" involved appealing to white voters unhappy with the Democratic Party over civil rights and affirmative action. He also said there's some truth to the widely held view that many Southern whites migrated to the GOP over racial issues.
But it was "the old Democrats who had fought for segregation so hard," and "the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican was a different generation from those who fought integration," Barbour maintained.
"What a lot of people don't realize is in the '60s in the South, that the Republican Party was the party of change, and the Democratic Party was the party of the status quo," Barbour told the AP. "And young people in the '50s and '60s were attracted to the Republican Party."
That assessment flies in the face of conventional thinking on the period, and Barbour's description raises deeper questions for some of his critics.
"As far as I'm concerned, he has never done anything as a governor or a citizen to distinguish himself from the old Democrats who fought tooth and nail to preserve segregation," said Democratic state Rep. Willie Perkins, who is black and five years younger than Barbour.
Barbour faced more criticism in December, when the conservative Weekly Standard magazine published a profile in which he recalled how his hometown of Yazoo City avoided violence when the public schools integrated in 1970, when his brother Jeppie was mayor.
"The business community wouldn't stand for it," the governor said. "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. 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."
Historian John Dittmer, whose 1994 book "Local People" chronicles Mississippi's civil rights struggles, told the AP that the Citizens Council was "really a vicious organization" that helped enforce segregation by publishing lists of black people who sought to integrate schools and by pressuring whites to maintain the status quo.
"Mississippi at that time was a police state, and the Citizens Council was the major cop," Dittmer said.
Barbour eventually issued a statement saying community leaders did prevent violence and keep out the Klan when Yazoo City's schools were integrated, but condemning the Citizens Council and segregation.
Last year, Barbour declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month, proclaiming it "important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation's past to gain insight from our mistakes and successes."
The move angered some African-American leaders, as did his 2009 proposal to merge the state's three historically black universities into one, to save money. Legislators squelched the idea, but Barbour says he still wants to pursue it.
Still, Barbour finds some friends among black lawmakers when it comes to his dealings with the defining issue in his state. State Rep. George Flaggs said he often disagrees with Barbour on politics and policy, but he believes critics are being too harsh.
"I have been with the governor for almost eight years, and I know emphatically that the governor is very sensitive toward race," said Flaggs, a Democrat.
Over the recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Barbour used emphatic language to address Mississippi's place in the civil rights area: "Deplorable actions including the murder of innocent people, young men in service to a cause that was right, will always be a stain on our history."
As part of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Barbour plans to host a reception honoring the activists. And this month, Barbour used his final "State of the State" address to say this is the year for Mississippi to build a long-delayed museum dedicated to the civil rights movement.
"The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history," he said, "and millions of people are interested in learning more about it."
© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.