Yerger's Revisionist ‘Lily White' History

The Mississippi Republican party is holding events today honoring the party's founding chairman, 79-year-old Wirt Yerger, Jr., and last Sunday, Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter interviewed Yerger. Just a few questions into the interview was this exchange:

(Salter) For our younger readers, explain the conflicts between the "Lily Whites" and "Black-and-tan" factions of the GOP back in the 1960s.

(Yerger) In the first place, we weren't the "Lily Whites." I came into it after a lot of those battles had been fought. In 1956, it was all over and the "Black-and-Tans" had in large part faded away. Essentially, Mississippi had a puppet party controlled by interests in Washington, D.C., with no discernable [sic] purpose in helping advance policies in Mississippi. I understand a lot of people wanted to make race a defining issue for their own political purposes, but to me, principles have always been more important than race. I have always advocated a colorblind society. We need that badly still.

A JFP Reader did a double take. He wrote:

There's at least three serious flaws here. First, the factual misrepresentation. Yerger says he wasn't in the "Lily Whites." Yet an article--preserved by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission--says otherwise. Entitled "'Lily White' Group Claiming Victory: GOP Leader Says Negroes Dealt Party Defeat," with the GOP Leader being Yerger, the article details how he successfully maneuvered to shut African-Americans out the nascent Republican Party--at that time a haven for folks from the self-affirmed racist Southern Democratic Party.

Secondly, Yerger says that the battle was mostly over by 1956—yet this article was printed on the eve of 1960 (Dec. 16, 1959). Last, race is absolutely the pervasive and toxic theme of this article, all modern-day claims of color-blindness aside.

The Clarion-Ledger column on Sunday sounded nice, and is a great colorblind spin on Mississippi history. There just don't seem to be any facts to back up that whitewashing. Sid Salter is on furlough this week, as are a great many other Ledge reporters, to stave off Gannett's current financial woes. I have placed a phone call to David Hampton to ask him about factual misrepresentation.

A little more digging led us to this excerpt from the book "In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution," by Joseph Crespino (Princeton University Press, 2007) (bold emphasis mine):

One person who had no regrets over Goldwater's 1964 campaign was Wirt Yerger. "Southern Republicans have never made a racial appeal," Yerger maintained in his characteristically blunt manner. In a June 1965 interview, he predicted the emergence of two-party politics in Mississippi based along racial lines. "I think that these folks, the Negroes, are wearing the collar of the National Democratic Party, and they know it, and you'll see it more and more, I think, as these elections take place," Yerger said. "You'll see more and more of the conservative, if I may use that word, Mississippi Democrats switching over the to the Republican Party. It's inevitable." After 1964, Yerger continued to figure in national Republican Party politics, but his hard-line conservative positions increasingly alienated him from a national party leadership carving out a more moderate stance on civil rights. [b[In 1965, he made a bid to become the national head of the organization of state Republican Party chairmen, a campaign that was undermined by his steadfast opposition to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yerger also had an altercation with Charles Percy, a moderate Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois who accepted an invitation to speak before the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a biracial group sponsored by the Southern Regional Council. In February 1966, Yerger branded the Council on Human Relations a "Democratic front" and worked with Illinois Republicans to have the speech scuttled. National reporters Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were amazed at the actions of Yerger and his Illinois accomplices. "White backlash politics is dead, replaced by growing competition for the Negro vote," they wrote. The incident showed "how tightly the 'white men only' sign is still nailed the the Republican Party in the Deep South."

For Yerger, it was Percy and the other Republican moderates who were practicing outdated politics. Yerger's earliest opponent in Mississippi Republican politics had been Perry Howard, the longtime Black and Tan Republican leader who doled out patronage in Mississippi even though he lived hear-round in Washington, D.C. Yerger believed that national leaders had supported Howard in Mississippi so that they could trot him out in election years to remind black voters in northern cities that Republicans were opposed to racist, one party rule in the South. For Yerger, Charles Percy's trip to Mississippi was the same old strategy. Percy could prove his civil rights bona fides to black voters on Chicago's South Side by speaking out for civil rights in Mississippi. Yerger saw this as a lose-lose proposition. Black voters in Chicago were going to vote increasingly for the Democratic Party, and white voters in Mississippi would do the same for the Republicans--but only if Yerger could distance the Mississippi GOP from moderate Republicans such as Percy.

Yerger was not the only one who felt misunderstood by national party leadership in these years. "Personally, I am getting fed up with the seeming concern of practically all of our natinal leaders ... about this so-called 'racism' question," Roscoe Pickett, Georgia's representative on the Republican National Committee, wrote a Mississippi Republican in May 1966. "I remember the time when my father and I were both referred to as 'nigger lovers' just because we stood up for civil rights of Negroes and advanced the cause of the Negro in the Republican Party." Pickett's recollections could have resonated with Yerger's own memories of southern Republicanism in the 1950s, an era or extraordinary racial paranoia with the political nonconformity of young Republicans was seen as treasonous to the politics of white supremacy. Yerger might have recalled the harassment he and his wife received as Republicans in 1957 during the Little Rock crisis. In a 1978 oral history interview, Yerger recalled his earliest associations with the party, when it was "political suicide" to be a Republican. Family friends warned him that he would "ruin the family and certainly cost your father all of his business and everything if you identify yourself as a Republican.'"

Certainly southern conservatives who had risen to the ranks of the GOP leadership suffered their share of local resentment for challenging one-party rule in the South. But in Mississippi, Republican opposition to the segregationist Democratic organization had hardly meant that they were opposed to segregation. These Republicans were hard-line conservatives who rejected the civil rights movement as a Communist-influenced threat to southern traditions and individual liberty. Their disagreement with conservative Democrats was not over civil or voting rights for southern blacks, but over the future of southern conservative politics. Mississippi Republicans believed the future lay with a state party that could work with rather than run from the national party. By the mid-1960s, these southern Republicans had achieved no small success in taking over state Republican operations from the old Black and Tan Republicans. Their goal was not only to win Democratic converts to the GOP but also to make the national party a more receptive environment for the southern conservatives they were trying to convert.

And then there's this, from "Lily white and hard right": the Mississippi Republican Party and black voting, 1965-1980.:

Wirt A. Yerger Jr., a Jackson insurance salesman who served as the Mississippi party chairman until 1966, exemplified the new breed of southern Republicans. He played a key role in overthrowing the Black and Tans and winning recognition from the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.

The white Mississippi Republicans in the early 1960s sounded virtually identical to their Democratic counterparts when it came to the rights of black Mississippians. Segregationists harassed Yerger when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock in 1957, but the experience did not give the Mississippi politician much sympathy for civil rights. In 1961, after President John E Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders in Alabama, Yerger ignored the white violence and criticized Kennedy for violating states' rights.

So much for Yerger's having "always advocated a colorblind society." Revisionists just don't have such an easy time in the Internet age.

Previous Comments

ID
147288
Comment

When Yerger figures out what the "internet" is and how much it costs to purchase an "internet", he will certainly post a rebuttal. Be prepared.

Author
jbreland
Date
2009-05-13T09:00:15-06:00
ID
147301
Comment

It would be one thing to say: "I was a racist once, but I've seen the error of my says." It's quite different to flat-out lie about it as Yerger seems to have done in the Salter interview. And it's a real black eye for The Clarion-Ledger, whose editors should know better than to simply print anything that any Mississippi politician from that era says without fact checking.

Author
Ronni_Mott
Date
2009-05-13T10:15:11-06:00
ID
147303
Comment

"...principals have always been more important than race." Give me a break! Yerger could not possibly have his head buried in the sand these many years post "Lillie White and Black and Tan." My father was the first registered black voter in Vicksburg, MS. Later would come a few other blacks who were registered with the Republican Party. The NAACP was working hard in the community to get others registered and to expand membership in that organization. Many people joined the NAACP under an alias for fear of reprisals, i.e., losing your job or being killed. It was not a popular position at all for whites in this State to support blacks or their issues with civil rights. Those who did were called "nigger lovers" and they too were threatened with violence. The only way that we can heal the past is to make sure that we do not allow our history to reflect our myths and our desires to have said or done something different. I watched with much disgust the MYTH building of melton on yesterday. Whites aren't the only people guilty of this wrong. Only the truth "shall set you free."

Author
justjess
Date
2009-05-13T10:22:37-06:00
ID
147306
Comment

Baquan, None of us can speak to what's in a person's heart. I believe that people can and do change all the time. But the only thing that makes change convincing is action. A person can say publicly that they've changed, while privately holding on to the same evil they've always believed. Change--transformation--is real when shared and put into action. If those people you speak about treat blacks with respect, dignity and equality, then they've changed. If their sons and daughters can love freely, then they've changed. The truth might set you free, as JustJess says, but "truth" alone, without responsibility, compassion, generosity, love, friendship and happiness is pretty useless. We're a mythologizing species, frequently making people into angels or demons. The "truth" is that all of us are both and neither ... we all contain multiple shades of gray. Finding a way to accept our own and others' ambiguities will go a long way toward reconciliation.

Author
Ronni_Mott
Date
2009-05-13T11:15:27-06:00
ID
147308
Comment

I agree with your expansion of what real truth is all about, Ronni M; however, I was responding to it as it relates to Yerger's claim. My G-Ma always stressed the importance of telling the truth: It can be repeated. A lie will have to be remembered by the teller and others, who know the truth, will take us to task.

Author
justjess
Date
2009-05-13T11:44:49-06:00
ID
147310
Comment

I agree, JustJess. When you start with a lie, you're just kinda stuck with it, aren't you. My daddy told me pretty much the same thing.

Author
Ronni_Mott
Date
2009-05-13T12:25:51-06:00
ID
147311
Comment

Your dad and my g-ma were told us something that we have discovered to be a real TRUTH.

Author
justjess
Date
2009-05-13T12:34:14-06:00
ID
147322
Comment

Ronni, the work you did here in fleshing out the disparity between what was said and what actually happened is truly impressive. And JBreland made me laugh out loud again, just like the column on the debate!

Author
David McCarty
Date
2009-05-13T16:23:53-06:00
ID
147568
Comment

Great reporting, Ronni! Way to go. You keep this up and they'll all be yearning for the days when radio was what the internet is today!

Author
Kacy
Date
2009-05-17T22:04:12-06:00

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