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Barbour's freeing of Mississippi women, any political implications?

Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor mulling a 2012 Republican presidential run, will issue the early release of two sisters serving life sentences in his state for armed robbery.

The move came after the NAACP mounted a national campaign to free the women, who are black. About $11 was stolen off the man robbed, according to the Washington Post and the women have served 16 years each of those life sentences so far. Three men also involved served just three years of an eight-year sentence, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, told MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports this afternoon.

The Washington Post noted: “Barbour, who is weighing a run for president, announced his decision a week after he ran afoul of civil rights advocates. Last week, Barbour backtracked on comments he made about the civil rights era in Mississippi.”

So was his move politically motivated? That’s not necessarily the case. Barbour and his administration have been considering the commutation for months -- something Jealous, who praised Barbour for his handling of the cases, confirmed on air as well.

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But when O’Donnell asked Jealous about the racial flap (detailed below) that bubbled up last week, Jealous said, in part, “The timing certainly can be impacted by external events.”

Last week, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard reported the following:

Both Mr. Mott and Mr. Kelly had told me that Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

Barbour, however, later responded to the magazine this way:

“When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns’ integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership wouldn’t tolerate it and helped prevent violence there. My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the "Citizens Council," is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

Race is always a tinderbox in American politics. And you can bet it would be a closely covered subject in a campaign pitting the first black president against, as Barbour said himself, a Southern white conservative.

When asked about controversies surrounding Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele -- and whether he’s judged differently because he’s African American -- Barbour said on CNN, "When you're a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine you can say, 'Well they're gonna hold me to a higher standard.”

Whether or not the timing of the commutations is related to politics, it’s never a bad thing for a potential candidate to have the NAACP saying good things about them, when they were being branded by political opponents a week earlier as racist.