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Baltimore needs Haley Barbour

Our high-school history teacher, Barbara Harris, used to ask, “Do people make history, or does history make people?”

That is a very important question to ponder as we study events happening in the world around us, and especially as we look at the events in Baltimore in the last week.

The buzz around Washington is, what could have been done? What should be done now? As many of us pondered the questions, I thought of the one person I know who could make a difference in Baltimore right now, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour being suggested as the one who could make a difference in Baltimore? The same Haley Barbour who is identified with supporting the Confederate flag symbol is the man for the job. Why?

Had you asked the African-American community on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi before Hurricane Katrina about the leadership of Gov. Barbour, you would not have received a positive response. After Hurricane Katrina, there were amazing praises of his work and the work of first lady Marsha Barbour.

Gov. Barbour used his influence in Washington to raise recovery money after the storm. That was expected. He had been a Washington insider. What he did that was unexpected was to make sure that all of the Gulf Coast residents who had been harmed by the storm kept their dignity and were part of the recovery. Gov. Barbour could have used his influence to get money for the people of Mississippi and stopped there. Instead, he used his influence and leaned on community colleges to begin programs to teach local residents real skills.

These skills taught residents on the Gulf Coast how to hang drywall and other necessary skills for construction. Residents now had skills, and they could proudly rebuild their own communities. Barbour worked with his wife, Marsha, and found out the needs of the local community. Waiting in line for FEMA? Barbour made sure he provided child care.

It was providential that just two weeks ago, I read the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” an African-American with cancer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951. It happened in Baltimore. The book traces Henrietta, her fast dividing cells and her family as they have troubles after her death and some members of her family were so troubled they became incarcerated. What becomes clear as you read the book is that Baltimore’s troubles are far from recent. There has been a lack of training and jobs for African-Americans for decades. There has been marginalization of these Baltimore residents too by the educated and white dominate citizens. Without jobs and training, there is no hope. The causes of any stereotyping and brutalization by police are not new, and they are related to the vast disparities that exist in the city.

That is why Baltimore needs Haley Barbour. After Hurricane Katrina, Barbour did not care about the race of people who had survived the storm. He was the governor of all the people in Mississippi, and that is where he focused. Barbour spent money on education, both in K-12 and also higher education. The famous quote (revised here), “Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day; teach a person to fish, and they eat for a lifetime,” is what he based his interventions on. Because of the governor’s leadership, Mississippi bounced back quickly. The best part is that the citizens of Mississippi were able to recover from Hurricane Katrina with dignity and self-respect.

Barbour could move Baltimore ahead and through this by putting programs in place to bring lasting change and business development. Like the Gulf Coast, Baltimore is a port. Gov. Barbour knows about ports and how to increase jobs and commerce. He could help do the same right now with Baltimore’s port. He could put programs in to teach skills to residents who have been unemployed or underemployed.

Would we ever have known what Gov. Barbour was capable of had there never been a devastating Hurricane Katrina? Most likely not. History made Gov. Barbour, but he also had the character to step up to the plate. The unfortunate events of this last week are calling for leadership. That is why we need someone with the fiber and vision of former Gov. Haley Barbour. Baltimore needs him now.

Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact [email protected].