WASHINGTON — It's hard to believe that Haley Barbour and Verna Bailey attended the same University of Mississippi in 1965, and even sat next to each other in a class.
Barbour, who's now the governor of Mississippi and a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, recalls that time — when Ole Miss was being forced to integrate — as "a very pleasant experience."
Bailey does not. At times, she said, "I thought my life was going to end."
He's white. She was the first black female to attend.
Their seats were assigned alphabetically, and he said they developed a friendly rapport. She let him copy her notes when he skipped class.
"I still love her," he quipped.
He remembers her name almost as if it were yesterday, though he'd recalled her middle name as Lee. It's Ann.
She knows Barbour as a prominent politician who attended her alma mater. Until a reporter called, she said, she didn't realize they'd met.
Their vastly different impressions of that time expose the challenges that any Southern conservative faces when trying to recast the experience of the civil rights era. They could prove especially sensitive for this white Republican governor of the blackest state in the union if he mounts a challenge to the nation's first black president.
Barbour's decision about whether to run in 2012 is still months away. As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he says this November's congressional and gubernatorial contests are his priority. There are factors beyond race to consider. Who else will make up the GOP field? Will Barbour's long record as a Washington lobbyist hobble him? Do Republicans want to reinforce their stereotype as a regionally based party by rallying around a candidate from the Deep South?
Still, the story of race in Mississippi is an inescapable undercurrent in weighing Barbour's prospects. Nowhere was the civil rights era of Barbour's adolescence more violent than it was in Mississippi. When James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss in 1962, there were threats that he'd be lynched. U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent U.S. marshals to protect Meredith as he arrived on campus. Ensuing riots wounded more than 100 marshals and left two bystanders dead.
Barbour's a veteran political operative who worked on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, which designed a Republican path to power known as the "Southern strategy." As he recently began testing the presidential waters, Barbour, 62, has been contending that his generation of white, Southern Republicans has been characterized unfairly as anti-civil rights.
In an interview last month with the conservative magazine and website Human Events, Barbour said it was "my generation who went to integrated schools. I went to an integrated college, never thought twice about it."
It was the old Democrats who clung to segregation, he said. "By my time people realized that was the past, that was indefensible, wasn't going to be that way anymore." He said that "the people who really changed the South from Democrat to Republican (were) a different generation from those who fought integration."
That interview set off a backlash from black commentators, who accused Barbour of everything from being clueless to pushing revisionist history.
Barbour defended those comments Wednesday at a Washington reporters' breakfast.
"When I became a Republican in the late '60s, in my state and probably some other Southern states the hard right were all Democrats," he said. "They didn't want to have Republicans because, in their words, 'It split the white vote.' And young people were more likely to be Republicans than our grandparents."
That's when he brought up Bailey.
He said she was "a very nice girl" who "happened to be an African-American, and, God bless her, she let me copy her notes the whole time. And since I was not prone to go to class every day, I considered it a great — it was a great thing, it was just — there was nothing to it. If she remembers it, I would be surprised. She was just another student. I was the student next to her."
Bailey, reached by phone, reacted to Barbour's story with surprise that bordered on confusion.
"I don't remember him at all, no, because during that time that certainly wasn't a pleasant experience for me," she said. "My interactions with white people were very, very limited. Very, very few reached out at all."
Bailey is now the principal of an elementary school in Beaverton, Ore. While she may have seemed like just another student to Barbour, history hasn't viewed her that way. For her role in the civil rights movement, she was inducted into the Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Fame and has a scholarship named after her.
She's sometimes asked to speak to groups about her experience. Her recollections are filled with details of pain, humiliation, isolation and courage.
She left Mississippi at 24, following her brother to the more liberal Pacific Northwest. It seemed beautiful and welcoming. She worked in Seattle, and eventually was recruited to Oregon. She got a master's degree, began a doctoral program.
She'd go back to Mississippi to visit her parents. Her father was a prominent local civil rights leader who didn't share Barbour's view of Republicans as enlightened on the issue. Both her parents are deceased.
Barbour left Ole Miss before he finished his bachelor's degree to work for the Nixon campaign, then came back to earn his law degree. Bailey said she finished her undergraduate degree in three years, not because she was a great student, but because she wanted to get out of Oxford, Miss., as fast as she could.
She recalled dancing in Oxford Square once with another black student at a school celebration when a crowd of whites began pelting them with coins and beer. "It was just an awful experience. I just saw this mass of anger; anger and hostility. I thought my life was going to end."
A campus minister, one of the only whites she remembers showing her kindness, took her by the hand and led her to safety. She said the minister was ostracized.
During her undergraduate days, she was inundated with intimidating phone calls to her dorm from white men. "The calls were so constant," she said. "Vulgar, all sexual connotations, saying nigger bitches needed to go back to the cotton field and things of that nature." She'd complain, have the phone number changed. Then the calls would start again. Funeral wreaths with what appeared to be animal blood on them were found outside her dorm.
In one science class in a lecture hall, no one would sit near her. The only class in which she remembers alphabetized seating was a Spanish class where the teacher seemed empathetic to her. Bailey figured that was because the teacher was from South America, not Mississippi.
Barbour said they had a literature class together. Bailey remembers taking a literature class, but nothing about it. "It wouldn't surprise me if I allowed someone to copy my notes because that's just someone I am," she said. "I did that as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student."
In 2008, Bailey first leaned toward Hillary Clinton for president, but she switched her support to Obama. She said she expected she'd vote for his re-election in 2012.
One thing Bailey said she never considered a lot at Ole Miss was whether the hatred she perceived from whites on campus was coming from Democrats or Republicans.
She said she hadn't followed Barbour's career closely, though with challenges such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, "he certainly is an advocate for the state, certainly has advocated for resources to come into the state."
She said she couldn't speak to what was in his heart, but didn't discount his sincerity about his own feelings toward blacks.
As for the notion that Republicans were promoting a civil rights agenda during her college years, she said, "I guess I just don't see that." As for today, "I cannot see Republicans moving that agenda along."
Bailey would be interested in talking to her old seatmate.
"I would be curious in terms of where he is headed in terms of the future of civil rights," she said. "The here and now, rather than reliving the past. I think people do change. I wouldn't be in education if I didn't have that hope."
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