Examining White Resistance and The Citizens’ Council

Readers may be familiar with the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War, wherein white southerners methodically mythologized the Civil War as a virtuous stand against federal interference into the southern way of life. We marvel today at the persistence of Civil War memorialization in the form of monuments, street names, and university legacies. White resistance to the civil rights movement followed a similar path in the aftermath of a lost war. Rather than preserving what Lost Cause proponents saw as a uniquely southern way of life, however, segregationists beat a drum of national white unity as they defended legally-sanctioned forms of white supremacy. That emphasis—one that insisted that the South was not provincial or racist, but conservative—partnered seamlessly with groundswells of conservatism across the country.

My new book, Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989, offers a new look at one of the most recognizable white resistance organizations—the Citizens’ Council—as a way to explore the partnerships and alliances this Mississippi movement pursued to win broader support for the defense of segregation. In it, I ask readers to consider the contexts within which the Council did its work—local, regional, national, and global. The varied environments within which these segregationists did their work ranged from state agencies like the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to white minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Council leaders worked closely with funders of scientific racism in New York, and they organized chapters in California with the help of a burgeoning Radical Right movement in that state. The Citizens’ Council was, in short, not provincial in its aspirations.

The phenomenon of white resistance has long been a popular topic among historians and has helped contextualize the brilliance and persistence of civil rights activism. Any scholar of resistance, southern politics, or conservatism is likely to have a well-worn copy of Numan V. Bartley’s Rise of Massive Resistance, first published in 1969 and re-released by LSU in 1999. Bartley’s contribution has withstood decades of new scholarship on the topic and effectively maps the ideological strands of white resistance from its reliance on states’ rights to its exploration of post-World War II conservatism. Other scholars have plumbed longer trends of defiance. Kari Frederickson’s work on the 1948 Dixiecrat movement and its aftermath, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), tracks the political history of white resistance in the South. Others have taken a more focused comparative approach. George Lewis, in Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomsbury, 2006) tracks the variety of environments, across the South, that nurtured organized resistance. While Virginia managed to shut down its schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, its state officials carefully quelled impulses for grassroots organizing. In Mississippi and Louisiana, however, grassroots organizing directly influenced legislative actions and state elections. In those states, openly racist rhetoric was a reflection of deeply-rooted strands of defiance.

For Mississippi, grassroots activism and political influence merged under the leadership of the Citizens’ Council. Born in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta, the organization worked under rapidly changing circumstances. Readers will note that Resisting Equality covers nearly three decades of Council activism—from the announcement of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 through Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy to president. While most scholars have focused on the civil rights years, I argue that, by  1964, the Council’s anti-civil rights campaigns had become diluted by the various partnerships the organization’s leaders were pursuing with conservatives, Radical Right groups, and foreign governments. It is those partnerships that defined most of the Council’s active years. Recognizing that fact opens up new questions for us about just how critical segregationist organizing was to the sharp right turn conservative politics began to take by 1966. It also shifts our attention to a national white supremacist ideology that, while it took a number of forms—some more overt than others—was hardly a uniquely southern phenomenon. The Council found no shortage of funders and supporters, even if its membership lists in Mississippi diminished after James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

For over four decades, Neil McMillen’s work has stood as the standard for understanding the Council. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction (University of Illinois Press, 1971 and 1994, 2nd ed.) was published at a time when the Council was still active. In fact, McMillen completed much of his research in Council offices. Scholars ofistance and civil rights in Mississippi have leaned heavily on his work to shape their own understandings of white power and—one of its more fascinating qualities—its resilience. Joseph Crespino’s In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton, 2007), a more recent and focused look at Mississippi’s resistance movement, maps this resilience. For Crespino, Mississippi’s road from the Solid South to the GOP rests firmly in the relationships it built as it attempted to stave off equality.

All of this scholarship has magnified white resistance as the context within which the civil rights movement triumphed. But many of these organizations worked broadly, across multiple platforms and issues. They were not, for the most part, converted to progressive racial ideologies after their defense of segregation failed. Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (LSU, 1995) illustrates the potential of defiance on a national political stage. In his mapping of George Wallace’s career, Carter offers a sobering look at the path segregationist figures could follow into populism. Wallace’s runs for president in 1964, 1968, and 1972 relied heavily on Deep South resistance organizations like the Citizens’ Council. More importantly, however, that relationship connected the Council to Radical Right movements in southern California, Missouri, and Illinois. Those Radical Right partners were critical to the sharp turn that the Republican Party began to take in 1966 in states like California where incidents like the Watts riots and the Berkeley protests in 1965 ignited white conservatives’ outrage toward antipoverty legislation, scrutiny of law enforcement, and demands to end an escalating war in Vietnam.

As historians move outside of the South in their investigations of white resistance, it is critical to explore the unlikely bedfellows that defiance has made. The “big tent” coalition of conservative politics was seeded in the soil of segregation. Unlike their Lost Cause forebears, white southerners sought broader alliances of resistance that could ensure their survival long after segregation’s mandates disintegrated. The South, in the estimation of organizations like the Citizens’ Council, was an unadulterated model of the American psyche—conservative, skeptical of federal authority, and white. With those qualities in tow, sympathetic partners across the country could practice defiance behind a screen of ideological purity that was more invested in preserving long-held principles than in effecting progress. Resisting Equality asks readers to consider how “failed” movements adapt to new contexts and transform mainstream ideologies, politics, and culture—even if we would rather declare a clear end to their influence.

Stephanie R. Rolph, associate professor of history at Millsaps College, earned her Ph.D. in 2009 from Mississippi State University, where she specialized in the history of the American South.

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