Race and Grace in the Magnolia State

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has been taking a lot of heat from his conservative colleagues for pardoning a cop-killer, but Radley Balko thinks Haley Barbour, the sitting governor of Mississippi, is the southern politician who needs to be called to account.

Here’s Balko’s summary of the Mississippi governor’s most controversial pardons:

  • Bobby Hays Clark, who in 1996 shot his ex-girlfriend in the neck and beat her boyfriend with a broom handle. Clark, who had a previous aggravated assault conviction, was sentenced to 38 years. Barbour pardoned him last year without notifying the family of Clark’s victim.
  • Michael David Graham, who in 1989 shot his ex-wife point-blank with a shotgun while she waited at a traffic light. Barbour suspended Graham’s life sentence, and he was released.
  • Clarence Jones, who stabbed his ex-girlfriend 22 times in 1992. She had previously filed multiple assault and trespassing charges against him. He was sentenced to life in prison. Barbour pardoned him last year.
  • Paul Joseph Warnock, who in 1989 shot his girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993. Barbour pardoned him last year.
  • William James Kimble, convicted and sentenced to life for robbing and murdering an elderly man in 1991.

Radley Balko finds these pardons particularly incongruous in light of some of the folks Barbour has refused to pardon. 

Until 2008, Barbour had been stingy with the pardon. In 2006, I wrote a story for Reason magazine about Cory Maye, a black man in Jefferson Davis County, Miss., convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for shooting and killing a white cop during a botched drug raid. My reporting spawned an outpouring of support for Maye, including from gun rights and home defense advocates on the right, who were outraged over a death sentence for a man who by all appearances thought he was defending his home from apparent intruders. In researching the story, I asked an aide to Barbour whether the governor would ever consider a pardon or clemency for Maye, given that gun rights advocates might support a show of mercy. The aide responded that last he’d heard, Barbour didn’t even read pardon petitions. A pardon in a case like Maye’s—the cop he killed was the son of the town police chief—was a nonstarter.

And then there is the case of Clyde Kennard, an African-American student and civil rights activist who, back in 1960, was crudely framed on charges of stealing chicken feed in order to block his entry into Mississippi Southern College (now known as the University of Southern Mississippi).  Barbour admitted that Kennard was clearly innocent of the charges filed against him but refused to grant a pardon because, as an aide explained to reporters, “The governor hasn’t pardoned anyone, be it alive or deceased. The governor isn’t going to issue a pardon here.”

Almost immediately, the pardons of wife and girlfriend murderers began. 

So why is a tough-on-crime governor like Haley Barbour getting soft-hearted in his old age? 

Here’s Balko’s take:

None of these men were pardoned because of concerns that they didn’t receive a fair trial or could be innocent. Instead, all five were enrolled in a prison trusty program that had them doing odd jobs around the Mississippi governor’s mansion. Responding to backlash when Barbour suspended Graham’s sentence, a spokesman for Barbour told the Free Press, “Historically, Governors have reviewed cases like that of Michael Graham, whose conduct as a prisoner earned him the right to work as a trusty at the Governor’s Mansion, where he has performed well and proven to be a diligent workman. The Governor is giving him a chance through an indefinite suspension of his sentence to start a new life away from Pascagoula and Jackson County, pending his future good behavior.”

Mississippi Pascagoula  Michael David Graham was convited of killing his ex-wife in Pascagoula in 1989Michael David Graham (pictured to the left) served as a Trusty in the governor’s mansion in Jackson for eight years before being pardoned by Haley Barbour.  Graham also won the affection of Barbour’s democratic predecessor, Ronnie Musgrove.
You may be wondering why Barbour hasn’t taken the kind of heat from the conservative right that Mike Huckabee has taken over the Maurice Clemmons affair.  Lydia Chassaniol, the Winona State Senator who has worked so hard to maximize the number of white folks on Curtis Flowers’ next jury, has emerged as Governor Barbour’s leading defender.  “I don’t have a problem with (the system) because the system has worked well for all these years,” Chassaniol told reporters.  “It is interesting what people start doing when they are looking ahead to the next election cycle.”

In 2006,  when the Graham case was a cause celebre in Mississippi, Chassaniol opposed legislation designed to limit a governor’s ability to parole inmates.  She was on the right side of the issue.  Having served on the state parole board from 1997 and 2000, the Winona politician realized that whenever the board made a compassionate decision “we made somebody mad.”

So how do we explain why Mississippi politicians like Barbour and Chassaniol can be compassionate in the case of a Michael Graham yet so callous when considering the plight of a Cory Maye or a civil rights era case like Clyde Kennard?

Balko doesn’t address that question, so let me take a shot. 

 Race is clearly a factor.  It wouldn’t surprise me if all the men Barbour pardoned are white.  (Perhaps my Mississippi readers can set the record straight on that score.)  Cory Maye and Clyde Kennard (pictured to the left), on the other hand are African-American.

But this isn’t a matter of simple racism; or, to flip the sentiment, race is never simple.  Compassion flows from identification.  It is conceivable that good white folks like Lydia Chassaniol, Haley Barbour and Ronnie Musgrove could pardon a black man if they knew him personally.  Race is only a factor to the extent that blackness creates a barrier to identification.

Cory Maye is a black man accused of shooting a white cop.  Like Skip Gates, Maye was in his own home when the police invaded his castle.  If white America couldn’t identify with the plight of Professor Gates  they are really going to have trouble caring about a low-status black man accused of killing a white authority figure. 

Haley Barbour pardoned Michael Graham because the two men had a face-to-face relationship.  Graham didn’t look like the monster who casually blew his ex-wife away with a shotgun while she was sitting in her car.  He looked like a nice guy, polite and deferential.  Graham may even have played the religion card.  Point is, Graham got up-close-and-personal with a man empowered to set him free.  Most inmates don’t get that chance (one of the reasons why the power of the pardon is arbitrary to the point of being capricious).

Governor Barbour couldn’t pardon Clyde Kennard without coming to terms with the horrors of Jim Crow Mississippi.  Only by feeling the gross injustice visited upon Kennard and thousands of other black men and women before and during the civil rights era could a white Mississippi governor do the right thing.  Barbour wasn’t ready to wrestle with history.  And even if the governor felt personally convicted that Kennard should be pardoned he knew the move would have been deeply unpopular with the white conservatives in his political base.

That doesn’t mean that Barbour can’t say nice things about Kennard in public.  March 30, 2006, was Clyde Kennard Day in Mississippi, and Governor Barbour urged Missippians to honor  Kennard’s “determination, the injustices he suffered, and his significant role in the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.”  But in the face of passionate appeals for a poshumous pardon the governor remained adamant. 

Radley Balko notes that a building honoring Clyde Kennard has been erected on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, the institution he was barred from entering fifty years ago.   This suggests that some white Mississippians are ready to honor the verdict of history.  Governor Barbour’s arbitrary and inconsistent use of his power to pardon, on the other hand, suggests that a whole passel of prominent Mississippi potentates are mired in deep state of denial.

8 thoughts on “Race and Grace in the Magnolia State

  1. What I noticed about the pardons were that they were for MEN who had killed or assaulted WOMEN. Is this also about keeping women in their place? Maybe they were uppity broads who didn’t know their place, so they needed killin’ or beatin’ up?

  2. If I were a Mississippian and had gubernatorial ambitions, I would be licking my chops over the possibilities in the women’s vote. Or are women allowed to vote in Mississippi?

  3. why don’t you get real with what’s going on, rather than just blogging or holding web site conferences that are antiquated in content”

  4. Is what is happening in Mississippi and elsewhere “antiquated in content”? And is what is happening currently completely isolated from the past?

  5. I am also really interested in whether all of the men pardoned by Barbour were white. Anyone know? I can’t see the picture of Graham, so I don’t know about him.

    I saw that Barbour also pardoned Douglas Hodgkin, who was convicted of raping and murdering a college student, and Hodgkin was white.

  6. When I researched this question, using information provided by Radley Balko, I got the distinct impression that all, or almost all of these people were white. But the big factor, I think, is that Barbour and his predecessors in the governor’s mansion, got to know these guys on a personal level and formed an emotional bond.

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