White Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement
Civil Rights Throughout Reconstruction, southern whites felt constantly threatened by legislation providing rights for former slaves. The Civil Rights Bill of 1875 was the last rights bill passed by congress during reconstruction. It protected all Americans’ (including blacks) access to public accommodations such as trains. With the threat of complete equality constantly looming, violence toward former slaves gradually increased in the years following the Civil War. Beatings and murders were committed by organized groups like the Ku Klux Klan, out-of-control mobs, and individual white southern men.
During Reconstruction, white southerners had limited governmental power, so they resorted to violence in order to control African-Americans. Although it is true that some whites embraced the prospect of a new interracial landscape for America, many more reacted with hostility. They feared social and political change, and were very uncomfortable with the fact that their old way of life seemed gone for good. Although there were many forms of massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement and what it stood for, the impact of white resistance, both violent and nonviolent, on this period in America’s history is truly immeasurable.
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There are two scholarly works that not only trace the white resistance movement with historical accuracy, but also stress the plight that African Americans felt at this tumultuous time in history. The books that I am referring to are “Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement” by George Lewis, and “Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era” By Clive Webb. Although these works are both written about the same period in history, they depict much different points of view concerning white resistance and what brought it on.
The “southern way of life” encompassed very distinct mixtures of economic, cultural, and social practices. Because of this, integration of African Americans into everyday life did not come without resistance. In this paper I intend to interpret and compare these two scholarly books, while explaining the role of the states and the federal government as well as individual groups in the progression and eventual fragmentation of these white resistance movements. The first thing that can be observed upon glancing at George Lewis’s book “Massive resistance” is its cover image.
It is a photograph of elementary school children and women protesting against desegregation in New Orleans in 1960. The main focus of the picture depicts two women yelling loudly along a sidewalk. At their side, a young schoolboy holds a poster that reads: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school. ” Other women and children stand in the background. One person is holding a poster that refers to states’ rights, as others gaze toward the street. Two women are attending the event wearing handkerchiefs and curlers, indicating that they possibly had rushed out of their homes to partake in the morning’s activities.
Above the scene is the book’s title, Massive Resistance. To a reader who might be unfamiliar with the general topic of this book, the cover’s text and image might illustrate somewhat of a contradiction. What people fail to consider is that ‘massive resistance’ did not solely amount to what is visible in the photograph on the book’s cover. This does not depict all that stood in the way of African-Americans struggling to gain their civil rights. Women and children yelling from sidewalks with posters was one of many responses used by American Southerners in opposition to desegregation.
In his book, George Lewis reveals the many ways in which southerners went about these acts of massive resistance. Throughout the book, Lewis traces the historical evolution of the term ‘massive resistance’ and explores the variety of contexts in which it was carried out. In discussing the role of Senator Harry Flood of Virginia, as well as elements of the mass media, Lewis reveals the many causes and actors in the acts of massive resistance. At first, massive resistance was the response of different elements of white society in the South, in opposition to the federal government’s plans to desegregate southern society.
Lewis discharges many historical explanations that viewed massive resistance as simply being carried out by southern political elites. He also dismisses the idea that the resistance only occurred at the well-known sites of segregationist protests such as Little Rock, Ole Miss and Birmingham. The author also discusses activities occurring at the grassroots level, which reveals that the movement of southern white resistance was very diverse. In regards to the beginning of the movement, Lewis rejects the idea that the Supreme Court’s Brown decision was the only event that started massive resistance.
He states that citing Brown as the single catalyst shows that many scholars have misread the movement. He believes that the movement was more complex than that. As “an amorphous beast,” massive resistance must be viewed as a “phenomenon that was too sprawling, and simply not sufficiently obedient, to have been ushered into existence by a single landmark event” (24). Lewis divides the movement into three historical periods of resistance activity, and then examines different ways in which it was displayed. He explores each phase chapter by chapter.
By doing this, he covers many aspects such as the tactics used in various states, the role of the South’s political elite and Citizens’ Councils, the actions of state legislatures, the role of the mass media, and white justifications for their discriminatory policies (they call it a product of long-standing southern culture and tradition). The first period of focus covers the immediate years following the Brown decision of 1954 up until the signing of the Southern Manifesto, which signaled the start of the second period of resistance.
Finally, the third period included the first half of the sixties, which is when the movement gradually lost its strength at the political and social levels. Webb’s documentation of this historic period of time provides a stark contrast to Lewis. In “Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era,” Clive Webb describes the stories of five white extremists who conducted war against integration with intense hate. The purpose of Webb’s work is to “assess the causes, characteristics, and consequences of far-right activism in the South from the 1950s to the 1960s” (p. 2).
Webb argues that these men were not extreme abnormalities, but that they represented something “deeply rooted in the American political culture,” which is something seen in today’s resurgent far right (p. 214). Out of the five men Webb profiles, two focused their energies on fighting school desegregation and entered their target communities as outsiders (Bryant Bowles and John Kasper), two of them were former military men who attempted many unsuccessful campaigns for political office and encouraged violence as a necessary means to defend their homeland (John Crommelin and Edwin A.
Walker), and one was the “most violently fanatical racist spawned by massive resistance” who served as legal defense for offenders of anti-civil-rights violence, was suspected in bombings and murders, and also laid the foundation for contemporary white hate organizations (p. 153). To fuel violence, these self-proclaimed saviors of the white race also made whites fear black men preying on white women. Finally, although the men showed a lot of variation in their stories, they were similar in that they all developed anti-black stances, even though they had little knowledge of or interaction with blacks.
In this work, Webb shows how local political contexts shaped these men’s successes and failures. He also shows how these five men and the organizations that they were affiliated with affected the overall course of massive resistance. He gives evidence of the ways in which support of free speech created an unexpected connection between the far right and far left. He calls the men and the organizations and actions they were affiliated “terrorist,” creating a more contemporary view of the situation.
These five men were ostracized and repeatedly arrested during the civil rights era, but at the same time they were enabled by the support of white elites. While massive resisters continued to pursue their agenda throughout this broad period of time, forces that were involved in the struggle for civil rights and desegregation challenged the institutionalized system of racism that had forever been the norm in the South. Their efforts along with the commitment of the federal government led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result, segregation and political disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South were illegal.
The two works by Lewis and Webb give completely different depictions of massive resistance by southern whites during this era, while still conveying similar messages. After researching these two books, I have come away with a clearer understanding of the forces and dynamics that comprised the massive resistance movement. Sources: Lewis, G. (2006). Massive resistance: The white response to the civil rights movement. London, England: Bloomsbury, USA. Webb, C. (2010). Rabble rousers: The American far right in the civil rights era. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.