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Gary Younge
Selling History Short in Mississippi

A spokeswoman responsible for promoting the town of Dachau and marketing its most famous installation once complained that it was difficult to separate visitors from their money once they’d seen the crematoriums. “No one is really in the mood to bite into a sandwich after visiting,” she said. Who’d have thought it?

Cashing in on historical trauma is a tricky business. To convert painful memories into hard money, it is usually necessary to sanitize their reality, rebrand their import and distort their legacy. And that means extricating the very people who made the history you are trying to tell from the history you are trying to sell.

Meet Haley Barbour, former chair of the Republican National Committee, present governor of Mississippi and undeclared 2012 presidential hopeful. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this is the man who wants to reinvent Mississippi as a civil rights tourist attraction. “This is the year to get this [civil rights] museum going,” said Barbour in his January State of the State speech, referring to a plan to build the facility in downtown Jackson. “People from around the world would flock to see the museum and learn about the movement.” Barbour plans to host a reception honoring the Freedom Riders.

There are three main reasons Barbour is so eager.

The first is money. Just how much profit there is in civil rights history is not clear, but some believe it’s there. Jim Prince, owner of the

, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, once told me, “I tell people, if they can’t be behind the call for justice because it’s the right thing to do—and that’s first and foremost—then they need to do it ‘cause it’s good for business.”

The second is Mississippi. In the national and global psyche the state’s image is a sepia-toned nightmare of burning crosses and black men hanging from trees. Marketing it as a venue for civil rights tourism could turn those weaknesses into strengths, showcasing resistance rather than bigotry. Some cities, like Birmingham, Alabama, have been somewhat successful in this regard.

The third is Barbour, whose appeal to moderate Republicans hinges on portraying himself as a man who rose through the racial squalor of Mississippi politics and somehow emerged untainted.

The three are linked. Rebranding the state is essential to both making money and burnishing Barbour’s presidential ambitions.

This is not entirely fair. The rest of the country has been too comfortable using the South to deflect criticism of its own racist shortcomings. None of the nation’s five most segregated cities are in the former Confederacy, and black people are more likely to live in poverty in Indiana than in Mississippi. While Mississippi’s particular history is extreme, it is hardly aberrant.

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