Thoughts and Perspectives

“Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement” – Book Review Series #2

Historians of the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s naturally tend to focus on the movement’s activism and the variety of forms it took. White segregationists receive much less attention, and when they are covered, they sometimes become monolithic historical actors. Although somewhat natural perhaps because history does tend to focus on winners and victims and studying people who truly were vicious can get depressing, this is problematic for two reasons. Primarily, as I have said for a few years now, every one is part of a movement even if by nonparticipation; therefore, to fully understand the struggles and accomplishments of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, we need to also give those who are either in opposition to or nonchalant about the movement’s goals serious attention. By not giving these other men and women serious attention we have also denied them agency and have missed elements of the Modern Civil Rights Movement’s richness.

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George Lewis’s (a Lecturer in American History at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom) primarily synthetic Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (2006) provides a provocative look that aims to correct this historiographical void. Lewis scrutinizes the term “massive resistance” and argues that massive resistance was a complex, changing movement that varied by person, social class, time, and place.

The term “massive resistance” emerged in 1956. While it never came to have a single, static meaning, it came to define an era and a collective philosophy. As Lewis puts it, “massive resistance, in other words, was more of an umbrella term than a clearly defined counter-revolutionary programme [sic]” (9). Taken collectively, however, participants who engaged in en masse massive resistance were both those who were truly opposed to increasing minority rights (for reasons including that they believed Black individuals could not handle more freedom, and it would destroy the “White race”) and those who were simply afraid of change, those who did not want the world as they had always known it to change. Those in opposition to basic civil and human rights for Black individuals were primarily working class individuals and then politicians responding to the pressure from these constituents. In the New [Old] South, tradition and conformity were top priorities.

While his study is generally situated geographically/culturally in the South, Lewis divides the era of massive resistance chronologically into five periods. The first two periods, Brown and its Aftermath, 1954-1956 and Resistance Rampant, 1956-1960, were initially characterized by a wide variety of responses to Brown. At the beginning, massive resistance was not inevitable. For example, directly prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Alabama began efforts to equalize pay between White and Black teachers, and South Carolina began to equalize funding provided to the “separate but equal” schools. After the ruling, individuals and institutions had a variety of responses. As time moved on, these first periods were also characterized by figuring out how to persuade others to oppose civil rights, further state-based codification of anti-civil rights measures, and full-on attacks (primarily spoken or written) on anyone supporting any measures of change or civil rights, and escalating violence. For example, state-based elected officials gave the governors in Louisiana and Georgia dictatorial powers to respond to the school situation as needed. Additionally, Louisiana passed 136 measures opposing Brown and supporting segregation from 1954-1957. (Does that remind you of all the votes taken to overturn Obamacare?)

The next period, Responsive Resistance, 1960-1965, was an era ripe with vicious violence and politicians fully committed to preserving a culture of segregation. The final period, Confederate Chameleon, while not necessarily connected to massive resistance per se, describes the rise of conservatism as a political party rooted in opposition to Black individuals. This period has also been characterized by the rise of private clubs to maintain all-White groups. For example, the number of private schools in Mississippi increased from 17 to 150 within one year after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

Therefore, as I see it, the South very quickly transformed from a “society with resistance” to a “resistance society” (borrowing Ira Berlin’s framework of “societies with slaves” and “slave societies”).

Throughout the life of massive resistance southerners voiced their belief through publications, speeches, organizations (e.g., the Citizens’ Council had 90 chapters with 250,000 members and many “fellow travelers”), and mob activities. Published literature, propaganda really, sought to blackmail the NAACP and label civil rights protesters as foreigners who were actually communists seeking to destroy the United States, for example. All age groups were included in this widespread campaign to indoctrinate White individuals. For example, an 8-page cartoon was produced to teach children the “right” way to live and think.

One limitation of Lewis’s book for experts is that the majority of his examples of massive resistance are already well known. Lewis discusses, in significant detail, the mob violence that occurred in Little Rock, with the Sit-in Movement, with the Freedom Riders, and throughout a variety of university segregation/desegregation events. The difference to other account being that the emphasis is on the counter protestors.

Lewis’s book sometimes reads a bit too much like a textbook. (I even double-checked half way through to see if I actually was reading a textbook.) Collectively, Massive Resistance is a collection of a whole variety of names, dates, and events and has little analysis. In a number of places, interesting assertions are made without specifics – the lack of analysis makes for some awkward assertions. For example, Lewis says, “By May 1924, there were legal standards for ‘whiteness’ in the Old Dominion” but never describes or analyzes them (15). “Kilpatrick was able to demonstrate before a nation-wide audience that being an avid segregationists was not necessarily incommensurate with displaying a quick wit, possessing fiery intelligence, and appearing both personable and eminently reasonable” (111). Toward the end he discusses lesser-known limitations of the Voting Rights Act saying that Mississippi passed 30 voter restriction bills, but he does not provide any details or examples. In other places throughout the book, Lewis seems to suggest that the South could have won and successfully resisted segregation if it would have prepared and organized a unified response to Brown.

Nonetheless, this monograph deserves praise for reminding readers that while there have been very real similarities throughout the South then and now (today the South has the very lowest rankings in funding for education, number of people with college degrees, number of people with health insurance, the highest ratings for diabetes, etc), the South is not one place. Additionally, massive resistance was a complex phenomena.

Future scholars can further enhance the line of inquiry explored by Lewis by both looking at regions outside of the South and by doing a close analysis of everyday life. For example, how did sermons, school curriculum, and newspapers “frame” events and how did all of these connect to a culture desperately hoping to perpetuate the culture of segregation? A cultural studies analysis of such material would be very interesting.

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