Throughout the history of the African American pursuit for civil rights there has been active resistance displayed predominantly by the American white community. During the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in particular, resistance towards the movement was well organised and widespread within white society. This was especially evident within the Southern American states. This essay will identify and analyse this resistance in its various forms. This encompasses resistance by white society in general, the actions of particular groups and organisations, and the resistance exhibited by political institutions. These core aspects are fundamental to consider when analysing the resistance to the civil rights movement. This paper will also investigate the tactics and strategies of which those who opposed the civil rights movements implemented. These include the use of violence, passive resistance, government legislation and small and large-scale interference. Within this examination, the reasons as to why many sought to oppose the civil rights movement will also be scrutinised.

 

Throughout white American society nationwide, there were various forms of resistance against the aims of the civil rights movement. However, this resistance was most predominant in the South due in part to their innate conservatism and belief in the ‘Southern way of life.’[1] Historian Jason Sokol regards the racial aspects of the ‘Southern way of life’ to be, “…the region’s racial order — one in which whites wielded power and blacks accommodated”.[2] This belief of racial superiority was deeply entrenched in Southern political and social life following centuries of slavery and segregation. These attitudes were at risk following the end of the American Civil War and during the attempted transformation of the former Confederate states during the Reconstruction Era. However, many in white Southern society sought to maintain racial dominance over the recently freed African American slaves through various tactics of violence, intimidation and discrimination. This period was described by historian Rayford Logan in 1954 as the, “nadir of American race relations,” a period of widespread racism and discrimination against African Americans.[3] Within this period, policies of disenfranchisement and segregation were established in order to maintain the hierarchy of ‘Southern white men’ over ‘blacks,’ the way that it was during slavery.[4] This perceived requirement by white Southerners to protect ‘Southern honor,’ was deeply ingrained into Southern culture, and lasted well into the mid-twentieth century. To many Southerners, the reconstruction period and federal interference in Southern matters was an attack on the ‘Southern way of life.’[5] This belief is evident in an interview featuring J. W. Milam, one of the killers of the African-American teenager Emmett Till, that featured in Look Magazine in 1956, when he commented on the reasons as to why he murdered Till,

…I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.[6]

This demonstrates that at the societal level, there was significant opposition towards the civil rights movement in white society because of the movement’s push for desegregation.

 

The separation of whites and blacks in society was a paramount feature to the ‘Southern way of life,’ and any moves to change this were met with fierce resistance. An editorial piece in The Meridian Star in Mississippi for example stated in August 1964, “…we vow to fight integration… we fight to keep up our sacred obligation to…fight for our precious Southern way of life”. [7] In many examples, like the murder of Emmett Till, these changes were met with violence, and this was common at the individual level. Historian Elizabeth Jacoway stated in 1997 that the reason for this violent reaction to desegregation in the South related to the ‘protection of the Southern white woman from the negro.’ She wrote, “At the heart of the arrangement was the lady’s absolute protection against sexual advances by black men: as she is the guarantor of the purity of white bloodlines…”[8] This patriarchal obligation was acknowledged by President Eisenhower prior to the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, as he spoke to Chief Justice Earl Warren that,

These are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.[9]

Essentially, many of the white South considered the changes the civil movement advocated for as directly attacking their ‘way of life.’ Their fear of desegregation especially was prevalent throughout white Southern society. On the individual level, violence was commonly used as the primary form of resistance against the civil rights movement, and this remained the case throughout the 1950s and 60s and beyond.

 

Various groups and organisations also demonstrated significant resistance against the civil rights movement. Some groups frequently engaged with violence as a form of resistance, like the Ku Klux Klan. While others such as the White Citizens Councils employed other tactics designed to intimidate the civil rights movement, like economic boycotts and propaganda.

 

The Ku Klux Klan is a group that throughout US history has encouraged extremist reactionary movements against those who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans.[10] During the 1950s and 1960s, the third KKK movement emerged. They firmly focused on opposing the civil rights movement through supressing activists with tactics of violence and murder. [11] The original Klan was created in 1865 during the Reconstruction Era as a means to control the rapidly changing social dynamic of the former Confederate states. This was done through extrajudicial processes of maintaining and reinforcing white supremacy. Those who made up the first Klan ranged from a variety of backgrounds, as historian Elaine Parsons wrote in 2005,

Lifting the Klan mask revealed a chaotic multitude of antiblack vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands, displaced Democratic politicians…white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline… all they had in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, was that they called themselves…Klansmen.[12]

The third Ku Klux Klan movement came about following the Supreme Court’s striking down of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in public education. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s noted in its 2011 work about the similarities between the initial beginning of the Klan and its resurgence following the Second World War. They noted that the Supreme Court’s decision sparked similar “tensions and fears” concerning federal influence in Southern matters.[13] Therefore, the aim of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1950s and 1960s was to maintain white supremacy through resisting the civil rights movement and opposing desegregation and interracial integration.

 

Throughout its history, the Ku Klux Klan has used violence and terrorism as a form of resistance against its targets. This was particularly true during the civil rights movement, where violence and terrorism was conducted in order to debilitate and intimidate the movement. Members of the Klan would bomb African-American houses, businesses and churches, as well as assault and murder civil rights activists. For instance, during the 1960s in Birmingham, Alabama, bombings of black homes became so common that the town became to be known as “Bombingham”.[14] One of the more notorious attacks committed by the Klan in Birmingham was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. On the 15th of September, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted approximately fifteen sticks of dynamite, set to a timer at the base of the stairs of the church. The explosion killed four girls and injured 22 others. Following the attack Dr Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the murdered girls, “These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”.[15] Prior to the bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church was a popular rallying point for civil rights activists in 1963, and operated as a headquarters for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for its operations in Birmingham. The church also operated as a meeting place for many other civil rights leaders like, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and Ralph David Abernathy. In addition, the city of Birmingham in the years previous had become notorious for its fierce anti-desegregation stance. Dr King had labelled Birmingham, “…”probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”.[16] Hence, in a deeply segregated city, a meeting place for civil rights leaders made a significant target for the Ku Klux Klan. Violence and terrorism served as a major form of resistance against the civil rights movement by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Case studies like the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing are essential in analysing resistance against the movement.

 

Not all groups used violence as a means resist the civil rights movement; groups like the White Citizens’ Councils used non-violent forms of intimidation in enacting their opposition to the movement. The WCC operated as a network of white supremacist groups that were first formed in July 1954 out of Indianola, Mississippi.[17] They were founded following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. The councils fundamentally opposed the desegregation of schools and public facilities during the 1950s and 1960s.[18] Similar to the KKK and white Southern society in general, the WCC targeted anyone seen as a threat to the ‘Southern way of life.’ Historian Charles Payne stated that the councils functioned by, “unleashing a wave of economic reprisals against anyone, Black or white, seen as a threat to the status quo.”[19] Members of the WCCs used tactics designed to intimidate civil rights activists; these included: economic boycotts, propaganda and threatening civil rights supporters with their jobs. Unlike the revived Ku Klux Klan, the WCC were largely non-violent in their resistance against the civil rights movement. Mississippi newsman Hodding Carter II dubbed the Councils as the “…uptown Klan,” while author Charles Payne stated that the Counsils were, “pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club”.[20] As previously mentioned, the tactics were mostly economic in order to disturb the civil rights cause and further disenfranchise blacks in society. These included as historian John Dittmer noted in 1994, denying loans and business credit to African-Americans, pressuring employers to fire black employees, and boycotting black-owned businesses.[21] The main targets of the WCC in Mississippi were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, or RCNL.[22] In some cities, like in Yazoo City in Mississippi, the Councils would publish names of NAACP members in order to incite economic retaliation against them. In Yazoo City, the Council published “an authentic list of the purported signers…” of a NAACP desegregation petition.[23] As historian Neil R. McMillen noted, within weeks economic sanctions were imposed on those listed, while the “petitioners ranks were reduced to half a dozen”.[24] The work of the White Citizens’ Councils severely hampered the desegregation effort of the civil rights activists. The WCC also developed anti-integration propaganda targeted at schoolchildren. For example, in North Carolina the Councils produced children’s books that taught that Heaven is segregated.[25] By the beginning of the 1970s and following several federal laws and legislation enforcing voting and civil rights and integration, the relevance of the White Citizens’ Councils began to wane. This was because by the 1970s Southern attitudes towards desegregation in general improved. Analysis of the White Citizens’ Councils is essential as they represented the organised, non-violent resistance against the civil rights movement.

 

Resistance against the civil rights movement was also highly prevalent in some political circles, again especially in the South. Many politicians were involved in the White Citizens’ Councils, and some had discreet alliances with the Ku Klux Klan. Historian Numan Bartley noted in 1969, “In Louisiana the Citizens’ Council organization began as (and to a large extent remained) a projection of the Joint Legislative Committee to Maintain Segregation”.[26] In 1956, following as contemporary journalist Ben Bagdikian stated, “considerable pressure from the White Citizens’ Councils…” Louisiana governor Earl Long signed into law segregation legislation that applied into nearly every component of everyday life.[27] In addition with being involved with the Councils, some politicians were aligned with the Ku Klux Klan. Historian and author Diane McWhorter wrote in her 2001 text that members of the Klan offed formed alliances with Southern Police departments, and with government offices, like Governor George Wallace of Alabama.[28] McWhorter wrote of the Wallace’s emissary to the civil rights marches Ralph Roton, who was a member of the Klan, “It is understood that…the information that Roton gathered…effectively made the Ku Klux Klan a subsidiary of the state of Alabama.[29] An alliance with non-governmental groups and organisations was a significant way for many Southern politicians in order to subtly enact their resistance against the civil rights movement.

 

 

In 1954, 101 Southern politicians countered the Brown v Education decision with the ‘Southern Manifesto,’ effectively refuting any laws allowing racial integration in public places and schools.[30]  This was one of the symbolic efforts by Southern politicians in resisting the civil rights movement. One of the more prominent voices against desegregation was Governor of Alabama George Wallace. In his inaugural address as Governor in January 1963, Wallace stated,

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.[31]

Wallace, like many Southern governors, desperately wanted to maintain racial segregation throughout society. He especially disliked any federal pressure to rebuke this policy, as he stated of President Kennedy, “The President wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists who have instituted these demonstrations”.[32] Hence, Wallace had similar motives to many in the South, who saw the ‘Southern way of life’ as being threatened by the civil rights movement and federal interference. This refusal of federal interference in Southern matters was typified with the ‘Stand in the Schoolhouse Door’ incident. This occurred in June 1963 where Governor Wallace literally stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in order to prevent the entry of two African American students. This highly symbolic effort of Wallace confirmed his promise of “segregation forever,” and brought him into the national spotlight as the figurehead of anti-desegregation. It took the direct order of President Kennedy and the deployment of the Alabama National Guard for Wallace to eventually stand aside. He stated,

I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government… Among those powers so reserved and claimed is the right of state authority in the operation of the public schools, colleges and Universities.[33]

George Wallace best demonstrated the mostly symbolic efforts of Southern politicians and governors in resisting the civil rights movement. The resistance demonstrated by white government is essential in its overall analysis.

 

The resistance against the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s was prevalent throughout the Southern United States. There was substantial resistance demonstrated by those on the individual level and in general society through forms of violence and interruption. Various groups and organisations demonstrated a form of organised resistance against the civil rights activists. The most prominent groups operating in this period were the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils who employed violent and non-violent forms of resistance respectively. There was also vocal resistance against the movement by those in government, especially by Governor of Alabama George Wallace. Although the ways these sections of society enacted their forms of opposition to the movement, their motive was largely the same. That being the protection the ‘Southern way of life’ that had so well engrained into Southern American culture for hundreds of years. When this is analysed, it is clear why so many throughout society attempted to resist the civil rights movement.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

 

Primary Sources:

 

Articles, Reviews and Book Chapters:

 

Badger, Tony. “Southerners Who Refused to Sign the Southern Manifesto”. The Historical Journal Volume 42: Issue 2. (1999). 517–534.

 

Mortensen, Lori. ‘Segregation Forever.’ Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: A Primary Source Exploration of the Struggle for Racial Equality. Capstone. (2015) 24.

 

Wilson, Charles Reagan ‘Our Land, Our Country: Faulkner, the South, and the American Way of Life.’ Faulkner in America. Univ. Press of Mississippi. (2001): 158.

 

Books:

 

Ambrose. Stephen E. Eisenhower: Soldier and President.  (A Touchstone book: Simon and Schuster, 1991.) 367.

 

Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J. & Kovach, Bill. Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America: The University of Michigan, 2003.)  390–395.

 

McMillen. Neil R. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-64. (University of Illinois Press, 1971.) 211.

 

Newton. Michael, White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014.) 105.

 

Tyson, Timothy B. Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story. (New York: Random House, 2004). 182.

 

Woodhouse, Barbara Bennett. Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate. (Princeton University Press, 2010.) 135.

 

Internet Sources:

 

‘Governor George C. Wallace’s School House Door Speech. June 11, 1963’ Alabama Department of Archives and History. http://www.archives.state.al.us/govs_list/schooldoor.html

 

Huie, William Bradford. ‘The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi’. Look Magazine. (1956.) Retrieved from: PBS: The Murder of Emmett Till. ‘Killers’ Confession.’ (2010). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_look_confession.html

 

King, Jr. Martin Luther. “Letter From Birmingham City Jail (Excerpts: April 16, 1963.)” TeachingAmericanHistory.org : the Ashbrook Center,  Ashland University. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-from-birmingham-city-jail-excerpts/

 

Wallace, George. “Settin’ the Woods on Fire: Wallace Quotes”. The American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service. 2000. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wallace/sfeature/quotes.html

 

Secondary Sources:

 

Articles, Reviews and Book Chapters:

 

Donald, David. review of The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 by Rayford W. Logan. Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 70, No. 2. (1955): 300-302.

 

Eskew. Glenn T. ‘“Bombingham”: Black Protest in Postwar Birmingham, Alabama.”’ The Historian. Volume 59, Issue 2. (1997). 371–390.

 

Jacoway. Elizabeth. ‘Down from the Pedestal: Gender and Regional Culture in a Ladylike Assault on the Southern Way of Life.’ The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Vol. 56, No. 3, 40th Anniversary of the Little Rock School Crisis (1997). 349

 

‘Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence.’ The Klanwatch Project. Montgomery: Southern Poverty Law Center. 6th ed. (2011) 25.

 

Parsons, Elaine Frantz. ‘Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan.’ The Journal of American History. Vol. 92, No. 3. (2005). 816.

 

Sokol, Jason. “ White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement.” from Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement. U.S Department of State: Bureau of International Information Programs. (2008). 62.

 

Books:

 

Bartley, Numan V. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s. (Louisiana State University Press, 1969.) 86.

 

Coffey, Walter. The Reconstruction Years: The Tragic Aftermath of the War Between the States. (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014.) 120.

 

Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. (University of Illinois Press, 1994.) 45-48.

 

McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.) 490 & 514

 

Newton. Michael, White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014.) 105.

 

O’Donnell, Patrick. Ku Klux Klan America’s First Terrorists Exposed. (Idea Men Productions, 2006.) 210.

 

Payne. Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. (University of California Press. 2007) 34–35.

 

Perlmutter, Philip. Legacy of Hate: A Short History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America. (Armok: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.) 170.

 

Roberts, Gene & Klibanoff. Hank. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. (New York City: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.) 66.

 

Taslitz, Andrew E. Reconstructing the Fourth Amendment: A History of Search and Seizure, 1789-1868. (New York: NYU Press, 2009.) 96-100.

 

 

[1] Jason Sokol. “ White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement.” from Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement. U.S Department of State: Bureau of International Information Programs. (2008). 62.

[2] Ibid. 62

 

[3] David Donald, review of The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 by Rayford W. Logan. Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 70, No. 2. (1955): 300-302.

 

[4] Andrew E. Taslitz. Reconstructing the Fourth Amendment: A History of Search and Seizure, 1789-1868. (New York: NYU Press, 2009.) 96-100.

 

[5] Walter Coffey. The Reconstruction Years: The Tragic Aftermath of the War Between the States. (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014.) 120.

 

[6] William Bradford Huie. ‘The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi’. Look Magazine. (1956.) Retrieved from: PBS: The Murder of Emmett Till. ‘Killers’ Confession.’ (2010). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_look_confession.html

 

[7] Charles Reagan Wilson. ‘Our Land, Our Country: Faulkner, the South, and the American Way of Life.’ Faulkner in America. Univ. Press of Mississippi. (2001): 158.

[8] Elizabeth Jacoway. ‘Down from the Pedestal: Gender and Regional Culture in a Ladylike Assault on the Southern Way of Life.’ The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Vol. 56, No. 3, 40th Anniversary of the Little Rock School Crisis (1997). 349

 

[9] Stephen E. Ambrose. Eisenhower: Soldier and President.  (A Touchstone book: Simon and Schuster, 1991.) 367.

 

[10] Patrick O’Donnell. Ku Klux Klan America’s First Terrorists Exposed. (Idea Men Productions, 2006.) 210.

 

[11] Philip Perlmutter. Legacy of Hate: A Short History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America. (Armok: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.) 170.

 

[12] Elaine Frantz Parsons. ‘Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan.’ The Journal of American History. Vol. 92, No. 3. (2005). 816.

[13] ‘Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence.’ The Klanwatch Project. Montgomery: Sourthern Poverty Law Center. 6th ed. (2011) 25.

 

[14] Glenn T. Eskew. ‘“Bombingham”: Black Protest in Postwar Birmingham, Alabama.”’ The Historian. Volume 59, Issue 2. (1997). 371–390.

 

[15] Barbara Bennett Woodhouse. Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate. (Princeton University Press, 2010.) 135.

 

[16] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From Birmingham City Jail (Excerpts: April 16, 1963.)” TeachingAmericanHistory.org : the Ashbrook Center,  Ashland University. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-from-birmingham-city-jail-excerpts/

 

[17] Gene Roberts & Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. (New York City: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.) 66.

 

[18] Ibid 66.

 

[19] Charles M Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. (University of California Press. 2007) 34–35.

 

[20] Michael Newton. White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014.) 105.

 

[21] John Dittmer. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. (University of Illinois Press, 1994.) 45-48.

 

[22] Ibid, 46.

[23] Neil R. McMillen. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-64. (University of Illinois Press, 1971.) 211.

 

[24] Ibid, 211.

 

[25] Tyson, Timothy B. Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story. (New York: Random House, 2004). 182.

[26] Numan V. Bartley. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s. (Louisiana State University Press, 1969.) 86.

 

[27] Clayborne Carson; David J. Garrow, & Bill Kovach. Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America: The University of Michigan, 2003.)  390–395.

 

[28] Diane McWhorter. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.) 514

 

[29] Ibid ^ 490.

[30] Tony Badger. “Southerners Who Refused to Sign the Southern Manifesto”. The Historical Journal Volume 42: Issue 2. (1999). 517–534.

[31] George Wallace. “Settin’ the Woods on Fire: Wallace Quotes”. The American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service. 2000. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wallace/sfeature/quotes.html

 

[32] Lori Mortensen. ‘Segregation Forever.’ Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: A Primary Source Exploration of the Struggle for Racial Equality. Capstone. (2015) 24.

[33] ‘Governor George C. Wallace’s School House Door Speech. June 11, 1963’ Alabama Department of Archives and History. http://www.archives.state.al.us/govs_list/schooldoor.html

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