Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. / Joe Ellis, Ap
Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was at full pitch, and it would be only one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act a year later.
I've been asked to write on the changes in race relations that have taken place in the South and, in particular, my home state of Mississippi as a result.
While most of the change has occurred incrementally, it has been enormous. De jure segregation is outlawed, and equal opportunity exists in most cases. This does not always yield equal results, for that would require identical talent and equal effort, which would be extremely rare, whether between races or among any other groups.
I am most familiar with the immense change in elections. The differences between today and 1963 are not only immense but also have produced electoral results in Mississippi beyond those of many states not covered by the Voting Rights Act. Our state doesn't get much credit for that, but it has a lot to be proud of in this regard.
Mississippi today has more African-American elected officials than any other state, 1,075. The percentage of African Americans in our state registered to vote compared with the black voting-age population is 90.2%, compared with 62.1% in New York, and turnout among African Americans has exceeded that of whites in recent elections.
While these achievements occurred at a somewhat evolutionary pace, it is unrecognized that many white Southerners accepted them rather quickly.
After Medgar Evers was murdered 50 years ago, his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was prosecuted by a young district attorney from Jackson, Bill Waller. When the first jury failed to reach a verdict, Waller tried Beckwith again. The second jury hung as well, and Beckwith was not convicted until the early 1990s.
Conventional wisdom held that Waller would be politically ostracized. Instead, Bill Waller was elected governor in 1971. His son, Bill Waller Jr., is currently chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
During the same period, Laurel, Miss., prosecutor Charles Pickering testified in the 1966 criminal trial against Sam Bowers, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. Pickering was soon elected to the state Senate, became Mississippi Republican Party chairman and served as a federal judge.
If Mississippi had not already begun to change those 40 years ago, these elections would not have resulted as they did. While evolutionary overall, political changes began in my state much sooner than is often recognized, and positive changes in other areas of race relations have continued apace.
During my tenure as governor, Mississippi celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who demonstrated here against segregation. My wife, Marsha, and I hosted these surviving heroes at the Governor's Mansion, and there were several days of events honoring the Freedom Riders but also commemorating the end of segregation. This fall, we will break ground for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to remember our history and honor the fearless citizens who helped the civil rights movement succeed.
Political change in Mississippi and the South has been ubiquitous, and everyone is better off for it. Yet we must admit that that doesn't mean there are no racial problems or no racism. To expect there will never be any racial discrimination in the South or anywhere else is unrealistic. And racial animus can cut both ways.
Haley Barbour was governor of Mississippi from 2004 until 2012. He was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 and White House political director during President Reagan's second term.
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