Can a Mississippian be president?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If you typed “Mississippi” into a Google News search Tuesday, the top headline on the list was nothing of which to be proud.

“Judge tells Mississippi schools to stop segregating,” it read. And it wasn’t followed by a secondary headline saying “Looking back” or “Today in history.”

No, that court ruling happened Tuesday, in 2010, not in the 1960s, or even the 1980s as it did in Natchez.

The judge was talking to schools just down the road and to our east a bit, in Tylertown.

Apparently, the public school district in town has, for years, allowed white parents to transfer their students away from the mostly black school in their residential area and into a mostly white one 10 miles away, violating a desegregation order that governs the district.

Unfortunately, lifelong Mississippians have felt the cringe of seeing our state’s name tied to race in national headlines all too often. We’ve become comfortable as the butt of jokes, resigned to being ranked near the bottom.

But the unpublicized, but much rumored, aspirations of one “fat redneck” could make us famous for something else someday soon.

Gov. Haley Barbour poked fun at his own weight and Southern drawl recently during an interview with a CNN anchor.

The interview was just one of many public appearances some believe are the early stages of a presidential campaign.

The Republican governor has never outright said he plans to run for president. In fact, he’s quite good at avoiding the question altogether and did so with wonderful Southern charm and grace in our own newspaper conference room a few years back.

But the speculation continues to swirl.

Barbour is suave, as suave as a fat redneck can be anyway.

He’s certainly politically connected and is widely viewed as the Republican with the most influence among party members.

And he’s inspiring, as we learned after Hurricane Katrina when the collective state took Barbour’s guiding hand as we “hitched up our britches.”

But can Barbour win the presidency?

Or, shall we ask, can a Mississippian win the presidency?

Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana have a history of race problems. For that matter, so do Ohio, Michigan and every other northern state.

But no state carries the racial stigma of Mississippi.

And Barbour’s already leaving a trail of racially charged crumbs on which detractors will munch.

He dismissed, earlier this week, criticism of the Virginia governor who omitted any mention of slavery in a Confederate History Month proclamation.

A similar proclamation in Mississippi made news the next day.

Barbour and supporters must look no further than former Sen. Trent Lott to see what can happen to the political career of a Mississippian who doesn’t carefully watch his tongue when it comes to race.

But maybe the trail of crumbs is irrelevant. The Mississippi stereotypes may already be too strong in the rest of the country.

Could our nation go from a black president to a Mississippian?

No one knows who our next chief will be. But a Mississippian in the White House, well, that would be a Google News headline worth printing out.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.