REBEKAH STAPLES: On Freedom Riders, Haley Barbour, and Growing the GOP

*First appeared in the July 9 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

On Monday, civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis tweeted the following: “53 yrs ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using ‘white’ restroom.” His tweet was accompanied by a black and white mug shot taken at the Jackson police department.

Lewis was part of the Freedom Riders who traveled the South to protest segregation. In 2011, Mississippi joined with the riders to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their Freedom Rides. At Gov. Barbour’s request, the state played a large role in coordinating many of the memorials and activities planned for that week. As the staff member responsible for this project, I gained new perspective on an age-old issue.

Seeing the Governor of Mississippi, on behalf of the state, welcome the Freedom Riders, apologize for their mistreatment in 1961, and thank them for the chance to atone and reconcile was powerful.

That’s just one of the many reasons I can’t stomach it when I read accusations that Haley Barbour is responsible for “race-baiting” in the recently concluded U.S. Senate campaign.

The narrative that Haley Barbour drummed up black votes in some desperate scheme to re-elect Thad Cochran is bogus. Indeed, he’s been trying to increase black participation in Republican politics for decades – not out of desperation, mind you, but out of a sincere desire to grow the conservative movement.

7/9/14