His eyes fixed on the White House, Gov. Jindal addressed conservatives at a gathering last year in Maryland. Credit: Gage Skidmore

If you had to pick Bobby Jindal’s worst political blunder, what would it be? Surely a top contender would be the time Jindal, as an up-and-coming Republican governor, delivered his party’s response to President Barack Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress, back in 2009.

In a word, it was awful. The stilted choreography, the cheesy slo-mo delivery — it seemed like our governor was caught in a gravitas-removal machine. Worst of all, he mocked “something called ‘volcano monitoring’ ” as an example of outlandish federal waste. The top man in Louisiana — a state rocked repeatedly by disaster and desperately dependent on federal dollars — made fun of investments in disaster-warning systems that protect mountain communities. (A few weeks later, Alaska’s Mount Redoubt erupted.)

The performance was widely panned. Now, even Jindal makes fun of it. But that wasn’t Jindal’s worst political gaffe. Not in my book, anyway. That had happened a year and a half earlier, and I bet you’ve never heard about it.

On Sept. 20, 2007, then-gubernatorial candidate Jindal was campaigning in Shreveport. After a speech to LSU students, he was asked about a massive civil rights march that took place in Jena that day. Jindal’s reply: “We don’t need anybody to divide us. We certainly don’t need outside agitators to cause problems.”

Let’s put that statement in context. The Jena march was formed to protest racial injustice after  excessive charges — attempted murder, no less — were filed against five black teenagers who beat up a white student at Jena High School. There had been reports of racial tensions at the school in prior weeks — nooses, for example, had been hung from the “white tree” where white students congregated for lunch.

As the story gained attention, civil rights leaders claimed the black students got a disproportionately heavy charge because of their race and that their treatment was the symptom of a larger problem.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson got involved and offered this explanation for the march: 

“Just as Selma was about the right to vote, and Little Rock was about the right to first-class schools, this is about fairness in criminal justice, which is increasingly unfair. Criminal justice has become an industry … as in Angola.”

Considering the international attention that Louisiana’s incarceration “industry” has (finally) received in recent years, one might admire Jackson’s prescience.

Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice King were among the estimated 15,000 who marched in Jena. They spoke about the need for both justice and reconciliation, and urged citizens to tell elected officials that “selective justice” will not be tolerated.

So, while predominantly black crowds marched peacefully, Jindal opted to warn North Louisianans about “outside agitators” who might “cause problems.”

“Outside agitator” is, of course, coded language — a loaded term. It was a key rhetorical tool used by Southern segregationists who were committed to preserving racist Jim Crow laws. The “outside agitator” myth reinforced the notion that everything would be fine (and separate and unequal) in the South if people from outside the state would mind their own business. Segregationists blamed outsiders for stirring up trouble that wasn’t really there. The argument was used for decades. It’s a line of thinking that sat well with racists such as the contemptible state Rep. Wellborn Jack, D-Shreveport, among many others.

The Jindal gubernatorial campaign in 2007 was a finely-honed effort that didn’t stray off message. So it’s interesting that Jindal made such a horrendously stupid public utterance. The least charitable interpretation is that he employed race-baiting code words on purpose to scare up votes in North Louisiana. Or, perhaps he is alarmingly ignorant of 20th-century American history.

My theory is that Jindal made a ham-handed attempt to expropriate the deft dismissal of the “outside agitator” slur embodied in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter from Birmingham jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

My hunch is that Jindal or someone on his communications team plucked the phrase from King’s speech without bothering to read the context and supporting argument. Conservatives regularly use King’s words to make policy arguments King would have rejected. For example, in 2003 Jindal told the Times-Picayune he was against affirmative action measures — “quotas,” as he called them — and invoked King’s maxim about judging others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. (King supported policies similar to affirmative action.)

Plucking the “outside agitators” meme from King’s Birmingham letter and carelessly or intentionally using it in a way exactly opposite what King intended is intellectually repulsive, of course. But how else to explain Jindal’s choice of rhetorical code words, his decrying of anyone who might divide “us,”  even as King’s daughter and son trod Louisiana soils in a march for justice!

This is much worse than the volcano-monitoring blunder of 2009. It’s unlikely Jindal even wrote that speech. He was over-coached and worried about talking too fast.

But the “outside agitators” statement — that was all him. A 21st-century governor responded to a query about Jena using a term tinged with racism from the Jim Crow era.

Suppose Jindal made that kind of statement during one of his fundraising trips to Florida during the Trayvon Martin furor. Imagine him warning Panhandle residents about the divisiveness of “outside agitators?” National media would have grilled Jindal and eaten him for lunch — and rightfully so. As he spluttered apologies, his hopes for a place on the 2016 presidential ticket would have gone up in smoke.

But Jindal never had to explain himself in 2007, because Louisiana media never made much of the blunder. Some Louisiana bloggers, including me, were appalled, but the only mainstream media attention was a Shreveport Times opinion piece by Tannie Lewis Bradley.

See, back then Jindal was the golden-boy reformer, the dragon-slaying whiz kid, the uncorrupted wonk with contagious “geek appeal.” Nowadays, media criticism of Jindal is in vogue.

During his time in office, his poll numbers have drooped, he has endured political setbacks and controversy, and to many Louisianans, his naked yearning for the White House has become obnoxious, especially given the many messes right here at home.

As Jindal gets ready to pursue his White House dream in earnest, he can heave a sigh of relief: His biggest political blunder is in the rear-view mirror, and not that many people even noticed when it happened.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...