Laura Clark was leading former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour on a tour of Sacred Heart School in Southaven, Miss., in May 2003, when he surprised the Catholic school principal with a remark that dusted off a longtime favorite instrument for Mississippi politicians: the dog whistle.
"Head Start is a godsend in Mississippi," the Republican candidate for governor said, referring to the federally funded early childhood education program that prepares low-income children ages 5 and under to enter elementary schools like the one he was touring.
"Some of those kids in it would be better off sitting up on a piano bench at a whorehouse than where they are now," he said, taking a jab at what he imagined those children's home lives with their parents must be like.
Most politicians manage to avoid painting images of preschool age children working in brothels, but in a state where African American children accounted for more than 80 percent of the kids in Head Start, the future Mississippi governor's comment also evoked stereotypes about poor black Mississippi families.
That same week, then-Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole exorciated Barbour for the remark, accusing him of an "elitist attitude" that equated "poverty with wickedness."
"The families who put their children in the Head Start program do so voluntarily because they want their kids to have a better life," Cole told the Associated Press at the time. "But Haley Barbour is so stuck in his 19th century plantation paternalism that he can't see that."
The stir typified an undercurrent that permeated Mississippi's elections in 2003, as two black Democrats with impressive resumes made historic runs for statewide office. With President George W. Bush's party ascendant in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, incumbent Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, elected in 1999 as a Democrat, had switched to the