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Massive ResistanceSouthern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction$

Clive Webb

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195177862

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195177862.001.0001

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Brown and Backlash

Brown and Backlash

(p.39) Two Brown and Backlash
Massive Resistance

Tony Badger

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter asserts that conservative resistance to racial change was already entrenched before 1954. It claims that moderate southern politicians were too fearful of an electoral backlash to formulate a strategy to promote gradual racial reform once the Supreme Court had issued its ruling. It implies that massive resistance only became inevitable because of the timidity and fatalism of liberal leaders.

Keywords:   Brown, southern politicians, electoral backlash, racial reform, Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was under no illusions about the danger of a backlash to the Brown decision—which is why the justices took so much trouble in Brown II not to undercut southern moderates and opted for a gradualist solution that placed their faith, as did presidents before and after, in the role of moderates. Hugo Black forcefully warned the justices about the dangers of violence in the South, which he believed would eliminate southern moderate politicians like Lister Hill and John Sparkman, but he was rather fatalistic about the prospect. Felix Frankfurter was more proactive. Frankfurter believed that any implementation decree for Brown would “need to encourage moderate leadership,” responsible leaders who would take their communities forward into compliance with the law of the land—especially southern lawyers whom he himself had trained at Harvard Law School. Southern friends of Frankfurter and the other justices, notably their former colleague Jimmy Byrnes, the governor of South Carolina, encouraged this line of thinking. The justices’ law clerks listened to the warnings of moderate southern newspapermen like Harry Ashmore and Hodding Carter and were almost unanimous that the gradualist remedy outlined in the implementation decree was the right answer. Why were these hopes dashed? Why did a backlash lead to mob violence and school closings, not peaceful compliance? For a new generation of historians, the blame lies with the Brown decision itself.1

The lessening of the iconic status of Brown is partly the result of skepticism about the wisdom and success of school desegregation as public policy. There is, of course, a vigorous debate over whether desegregated schools improved educational achievement, whether the harm done to historic black colleges was offset by general educational and social gains, whether school desegregation (p.40) led to improved race relations, and whether desegregation itself should have a higher priority than quality education.2

But historians of the decision itself and its implementation have analyzed Browns more immediate relation to the dynamic of racial and political change in the South and have substantially lessened its significance. They argue that the decision itself was not as important as long-term social and economic developments: the growing prosperity, urbanization, and industrialization of the South. The decision itself yielded very little actual school desegregation: legislation and executive action in the 1960s had a much greater impact. Worse, the decision had negative consequences. It halted the “incipient amelioration of Jim Crow practices that had been occurring in much of the South in the late 1940s and early 1950s.” The white backlash to Brown destroyed the liberal and racially moderate politicians who had flourished in that period in the South. That backlash occurred because African American leaders chose the wrong target in their challenge to white supremacy. In singling out schools, they challenged the area the white South would defend most vigorously. It would have been better and less provocative if they had addressed voting rights or the economic goals of the class-based civil rights movement of the 1940s. The positive effect that the Brown decision had was indirect: the backlash and white violence eventually provoked the intervention by the federal government that ended Jim Crow in the 1960s.3 This essay examines the political dynamic and sequence of change in white southern politics that this interpretation of the backlash to Brown lays out.


Before Brown, according to Michael Klarman, “racial moderates generally controlled southern politics.” There was, indeed, “a new generation of southerners.” Liberal politicians were elected to state legislatures, state houses, and Congress who appealed to a crossrace alliance of lower-income whites, blacks, veterans, women, and labor. They saw themselves as “TVA liberals” who believed that federal government investment in infrastructure and in mass purchasing power would transform the region as the New Deal (in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA) had transformed the Tennessee Valley. They believed that the economic progress that New Deal-style policies could achieve would gradually eliminate racial tensions. They played down the race issue and espoused a policy of gradualism, rarely challenging segregation itself. Their racial caution was in part prudential—they did not want to alienate their lower-income white supporters—and in part ideological: they could rarely conceive of a nonsegregated society, and their faith in the ameliorative effects of economic progress was genuine.4

But these racial moderates did not control southern politics. Each state was a battleground between conservatives and moderates, and in most southern (p.41) states conservatives won. We should not underestimate the difficulties these southern liberal politicians faced in the postwar years. For every GI revolt that elected a racially moderate war hero, there were veterans’ campaigns in support of fellow veterans, like Strom Thurmond or Herman Talmadge, who came home determined to install progressive administrations but at the same time to defend the right to segregation as they had defended the right to liberty in the war. For every interracial church women’s group, there was an organization like the Mississippi Women for Constitutional Government. For every interracial union, there were white workers resolutely committed to defend the wages of whiteness. The disorganized nature of southern politics also hindered the liberal politicians. Lister Hill, John Sparkman, and Jim Folsom may have been the three leading elected politicians in Alabama, but they could not stop the state from going Dixiecrat in 1947 or from enacting the Boswell amendment to restrict black suffrage. Neither Kerr Scott in North Carolina in 1952 nor Earl Long in Louisiana in 1951 could hand over to a racially moderate successor. Sid McMath of Arkansas was defeated in 1952 attempting to win a third term in the governor’s mansion.5

How extensive was the gradual racial change these racial moderates espoused? How much “incipient amelioration of Jim Crow practices” occurred in the South before 1954? To Michael Klarman, the economic modernization of the South made racial change “a virtual inevitability.” The need to secure outside investment made some southern businessmen accept the need for racial change. In Birmingham, business leaders embarrassed by Bull Connor engineered his downfall. Scandals led him not to seek reelection in November 1953. Anxious to safeguard minor league baseball, the business leaders also revised the ordinance that banned interracial sporting contests. They did so before Brown. After Brown, Bull Connor was once more reelected and a referendum voted to retain sports segregation. In Baton Rouge before Brown, the city authorities settled an African American bus boycott after ten days by reinstating a first-come, first-served seating policy within segregation. In Montgomery, after Brown, the city rejected the same black demands for a first-come, first-served policy and defied the year-long bus boycott that followed. The Southern Regional Council carefully documented the appointment of African American policemen and other public officials that black voting in cities like Atlanta and Raleigh secured. African Americans served on southern juries and were admitted to the graduate and professional schools of southern universities. Minor League baseball teams were integrated. Blacks were elected to southern city councils and school boards.6

Segregation may have been softening at the edges before 1954, but its core remained intact. A public library in Austin, Catholic schools in St. Louis, some buses, and a hospital in Miami Beach—these institutions were very much at (p.42) the periphery of southern race relations. Journalists like Ralph McGill said that segregation was crumbling before Brown, but their statements were largely wishful thinking designed to reassure northern audiences that change was on its way and southern audiences that Brown did not involve a massive adjustment. Much of the evidence of southern businessmen coming to terms with the inevitability of desegregation comes from the 1960s. Most southern businessmen believed through the 1950s that there was no conflict between economic growth and traditional race relations. In some cases, like Atlanta, it was the lesson of Little Rock that made businessmen aware of the unacceptably high economic cost of maintaining segregation. In others, like Alabama, it was the assault on the Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961 that first raised doubts. In still others, like South Carolina, it was not until 1962 that textile leaders began to fear for the future, and it was the spectacle of the disastrous confrontation at the University of Mississippi in 1962 that persuaded the state’s leadership that resistance was futile.7

The Southern Regional Council carefully tabulated the appointment of black policemen and firemen as evidence of postwar progress, but more telling was the evidence the Council provided of the demise of biracial committees set up in towns like Greenville, South Carolina, in the immediate aftermath of war to improve services in black communities. By 1950, most of these committees had disappeared. Robert Corley showed starkly how that interracial dialogue broke down in Birmingham. Connor’s downfall in Birmingham before Brown had less to do with gradual racial change and more to do with citizen outrage at repeated revelations of corruption. Reform-minded businessmen may have tried to sanction interracial sporting contests in early 1954, but the ordinance banning such contests had only been introduced in 1951. In Baton Rouge, the 1953 compromise ensured that buses did not desegregate until 1962. The admission of African Americans to Louisiana State University graduate schools did not foreshadow either desegregation of the student experience on the campus or the admission of African American undergraduates, which did not take place until 1964. Neither parks nor golf courses in the city were desegregated. African Americans paid for the only black swimming pool in the city despite the fact that their taxpayers’ dollars supported white pools. The settlement of the boycott did not lead to segregation crumbling elsewhere in the city: if anything, it intensified the determination of white authorities to make no further concessions. In New Orleans, the trustees of elite, private Tulane University would not countenance desegregation, despite the wishes of the university president, Rufus Harris, and the faculty, and despite the threat of loss of accreditation and the cut-off of foundation grants.8

Even in southern cities that prided themselves on their progressive reputations, racial change was limited before Brown. In 1979, William Chafe dissected (p.43) the “progressive mystique” in Greensboro, North Carolina, to show the lack of significant racial progress in employment and public facilities there. John Kirk’s study of Little Rock after the war shows that the public libraries were quietly desegregated, as was the zoo on Thursdays. But when it came to building a park for blacks, the city did so, as Lucious Christopher (L. C.) Bates complained, “out of the city in an insect-infested mountain.” In Atlanta, where so many gains were meant to have taken place, Whitney Young’s A Second Look in i960 demonstrated the lack of black progress. “Atlanta,” observed Young, “was comparing itself to Mississippi and saying how enlightened it was.” “Nothing,” he continued, “was really integrated but the people were beginning to believe their own press clippings—even the Negroes.” Ron Cox’s forthcoming systematic examination of race relations in South Carolina—looking at schools, colleges, state parks, and cities—shows that in the Deep South, not even that degree of racial change was on the horizon in 1954.9

This lack of gradual racial change before Brown and the inability of racial moderates to engineer it were highlighted by the failure of the Arkansas Plan—a regional compromise on race designed to forestall the necessity for federal intervention. In the aftermath of the court-ordered admission of an African American to the University of Arkansas Law School, Harry Ash more, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, and the liberal Arkansas congressmen Brooks Hays and James Trimble, attempted to establish the ground rules for this compromise in 1949 with the encouragement of the state’s senator, William Fulbright. The South would make good its commitment to gradual racial change by eliminating lynching, by removing the obstacles to full political participation by African Americans, and by striving for genuine equality in the provision of black education. In return, the national government would be patient and back off counterproductive demands for immediate desegregation. The Arkansas Plan received little support in either the North or the South, and the congressional sponsors and Fulbright showed little inclination to revive it. What the failure of the Plan highlighted was that southern liberals may have espoused the necessity for gradual racial change, but they did little in the runup to the Brown decision to lay out a strategy for achieving that gradual change. Liberal governors did continue piecemeal to protect black votes, fight for increased appropriations for black institutions, and appoint some African Americans to government office and state Democratic Party positions, but they did not have a coherent policy to secure racial change. When white constituents later blamed Albert Gore, Sr., for failing to sign the Southern Manifesto, he later claimed they should not have been surprised, that he had always been “upfront” on the racial issue. But nothing in Gore’s public statements or his private correspondence before 1954 indicated that he envisaged anything less than the segregated status quo. The standard response of liberal politicians (p.44) was that segregated schooling was the best for both races and that, in any case, the Supreme Court had not ruled yet.10

As a result, the most coherent and powerful strategy was that of conservatives who mounted a massive drive genuinely to equalize school facilities in order to shape that Supreme Court ruling. David Robertson’s biography of James F. Byrnes shows that the tax-funded equalization drive in South Carolina was not a mere tactical device to deceive the Supreme Court but a genuine attempt by a committed segregationist to acknowledge and remedy the deficiencies of the segregated system in order to ensure its survival. Byrnes took the lead in masterminding the region’s resistance to racial change. First, Byrnes and the attorney Robert Figg conceded that the schools in Clarendon County, the subject of the Briggs v. Elliott case, were not equal. Then he put before the legislature a massive school equalization program and secured the passage of a three-cents sales tax to fund it. He was helped by the future governor Fritz Hollings, whose own survey had revealed the appalling conditions of the state’s schools. The aim was to render separate but equal genuinely equal and to forestall court-ordered desegregation. No other state mounted such a massive program. It was a remarkable achievement and had a short-term success in persuading the local federal court, over Judge J. Waites Waring’s passionate objection, to give the state time to make good its commitment to equalization. The second strand of Byrnes’s strategy was to take charge of the legal defense in the school desegregation cases: first, to persuade the legendary lawyer John W. Davis to take the case, then to lobby his old Supreme Court colleagues, Fred Vinson and Felix Frankfurter, then to persuade his political ally, Dwight Eisenhower, to prevent the Justice Department from filing an amicus curiae brief on the part of the plaintiffs; and finally to persuade the attorney general of Kansas, a state in which facilities were genuinely equal, to join the case. Equalization was a considered preemptive strategy that Byrnes expected to work and that contrasted with the absence of any public strategy before 1954 on the part of white southern liberals.11

Michael Klarman sees the white backlash after World War II in reaction to the increased assertiveness of African Americans as sporadic and of different and far lesser order than the backlash unleashed by Brown. He discounts the role of race-baiting in the defeat of ultraliberals like Senator Frank Graham of North Carolina in 1950. In any case, the white backlash in that election was, he pointed out, directed at the Supreme Court decisions that were handed down after the first primary. Similarly, other white violence and reaction was in response to the court-mandated ending of the white primary. I would simply note that politicians like Terry Sanford were in no doubt as to the centrality of race in Graham’s defeat. Sanford kept a notebook by his bed in which he jotted down ideas of how to handle racial smears—ideas he would put (p.45) into play as Kerr Scott’s campaign manager in 1954. It seems a little strange to divorce backlash to Supreme Court decisions from general racial backlash when those decisions concerned graduate education, voting, and transport—the very areas in which the gradual racial change he identified is taking place. Stephen Tuck’s recent study of Georgia compellingly describes the forces of the reaction led by Herman Talmadge in the state that destroyed the civil rights movement of the 1940s. Racial violence was, after 1948, “unrestrained and unchecked.” Violent white supremacy was precipitated by a “reaction to black protest during the Arnall years and the election of 1946.” “[T]he acerbic reaction to Brown was a predictable continuation of an existing uncompromising stand on segregation.”12

The extent of this pre-Brown white backlash casts doubt on the argument that a strategy that focused on voting rights and economics would have precipitated less backlash. The argument that the civil rights movement tackled the one area that would provoke the most intense white resistance is part of a wider argument that the civil rights movement moved in the wrong direction at the end of the 1940s and that Brown was part of that wrong move. Numan Bartley has argued that education was the wrong target: civil rights activists should have concentrated on voting rights. He also believed that national liberals substituted a moralistic concern for symbolic opportunity and the elimination of de jure segregation for the substance of a drive to tackle the problem of black and white disadvantage. Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein likewise lament opportunity lost for a class-based, union-oriented movement concentrating on economic issues.13

These arguments assume that tackling de jure segregation was somehow a goal that had nothing to do with the aspirations of southern blacks active in the voter registration and union organizing drive of the 1940s. Second, they assume that a concentration on extending the franchise would not have aroused the same powerful opposition that desegregating the schools provoked. The violent resistance to extending voting rights in Mississippi throughout this period rather belies that assumption. What Jeff Norrell showed in Alabama was that black-belt leaders like Sam Engelhardt feared black voting and black tax assessors far more than school desegregation. The unrestrained mob violence that finally provoked federal intervention in the 1960s was, of course, not about schools but about transport and public accommodations.11


What was the impact of Brown?. Certainly, after Brown, racially moderate politicians ran for cover, became closet moderates, or were sometimes defeated. Candidates were elected instead who most vigorously pronounced their loyalty (p.46) to segregation. A key factor was the intensity of commitment—conservatives were intensely committed to segregation, and moderates had nothing like the same commitment, indeed if any, to desegregation. The moderate cause was handicapped as long as it appeared that there was an alternative to compliance with the Supreme Court. Partly in order to protect southern white moderates, neither the Court nor the executive nor the legislature in the 1950s made it clear that the Court could not be defied. But I do not believe that Brown released an uncontrollable white backlash that inevitably swept the moderates aside. After all, Earl Long could get elected in 1955; Jim Folsom would have his greatest success with a state legislature in 1955. Tennessee managed to sustain moderate senators and a governor. Conservative success after 1954 owed as much, I would argue, to moderate failings as it did to the misconceived logic of Brown.

Both conservatives and moderates believed that public opinion was on the other side. Most liberal politicians believed that whites were so stirred up on the race issue that politicians had either to retreat and become “closet moderates” or adopt a stealth-like approach to racial change. Conservative leaders, by contrast, feared that public opinion was insufficiently aroused on the race issue and that most southerners were too likely to accept the inevitability of compliance with the Supreme Court. The difference was that conservatives, passionately committed to segregation, in the 1950s were prepared to mount a righteous crusade to convince white southerners that desegregation was not inevitable, that white supremacy could be protected. I do not wish to underestimate the popular white backlash to Brown, but massive resistance was not a knee-jerk response by white leaders in the South to overwhelming mass white racism. As Numan V. Bartley demonstrated over thirty years ago, it was a top-down policy shaped by black-belt elites and conservative economic leaders, whether in the state legislatures or at the local level in the Citizens’ Councils. In Virginia it was not the need to placate Southside mass white sentiment that drove Harry Byrd to drive forward mandatory school closing legislation and to sponsor the Southern Manifesto; it was his personal opposition to even the token integration that the segregationist Gray Commission was prepared to tolerate. In South Carolina, the conservative journalist W. D. Workman bemoaned a “blight of submissiveness,” the “cry of surrender.” The Citizens’ Council leader Farley Smith complained of “the apathy of the average white citizen.” Alice Spearman described the Committee of 52—leading clergy, businessmen, and professionals who called for maintaining segregation and interposition—as a “revolt in high places.” When the South Carolina Association of Citizens’ Councils gathered to hear Senator James Eastland of Mississippi in early 1956, the entire political leadership of the state was on the platform. When Strom Thurmond drafted the Southern Manifesto, his aim was not to assuage popular racism but to stir up popular segregationist feeling by con vincing (p.47) wavering politicians and their constituents that the Supreme Court could, and should, he defied. Even in North Carolina, as Anders Walker has recently shown, Luther Hodges and the Pearsall Commission modeled their pupil placement legislation directly on the Mississippi model. What distinguished segregationist leaders was, on the one hand, how much they perceived that white violence might harm their cause, in terms both of provoking federal intervention or frightening outside investors and of the tactical question of whether some token integration had to be accepted in progressive urban areas in order to preserve segregation for the overwhelming majority of white students. “Masked” or “sly” resistance was arguably more effective than massive resistance.15

Liberal and moderate politicians, personally much less passionate about the issue of desegregation, were not prepared to put their position to the people. In a battle between politicians prepared to take their case for massive resistance to the people and politicians who were reluctant to campaign for gradualism, there could only be one winner. The moderates never campaigned or offered a coherent strategy for effective gradual change. For example, in Arkansas, Sid McMath recalled that “there were people, intelligent and educated people, and people in positions of leadership that knew it [desegregation] was inevitable.” He blamed Governor Orval Faubus for undercutting the Blossom Plan for school desegregation in 1957. Yet those “intelligent and educated people” had devised a plan that enabled their own children to go to a new segregated school and put the burden of school desegregation at Central High on white working-class families. They helped Blossom win over elite opinion in Little Rock; they made no effort to prepare or win over working-class parents at Central High for token compliance. McMath himself admits that he and Winthrop Rockefeller, powerful community and business leaders, ignored the looming crisis, and by the time they went to plead with Faubus to support the school board, it was too late. McMath’s most notable contribution to the crisis was to plead belatedly with Vice-President Richard Nixon to send marshals, not the troops that Eisenhower planned to deploy, to enforce the court order. Faubus had no reason to bail out a Little Rock community leadership that had failed to build up the political support that would have enabled him to avoid confrontation with the courts. Not that the former McMath protege was without his own responsibility. He might claim that he was the victim of popular segregationist sentiment. Yet he himself had helped create that segregationist sentiment. In 1956 he persuaded the reluctant Arkansas congressmen James Trimble and Brooks Hays to sign the Southern Manifesto in order to defuse segregationist protest. Then he claimed that the signing of the Manifesto by two known moderates illustrated just how powerful that segregationist sentiment was and how he had no alternative but to go along with it.16

(p.48) In Alabama, Jim Folsom in 1956 realized that interposition resolutions being passed by the legislature were futile, that Montgomery black leaders should push for the ending of segregation on the buses, rather than the first-come, first-served solution they had initially demanded, and that black plaintiff Autherine Lucy would have to be admitted by the University of Alabama. Yet he persisted publicly in claiming that it was possible to maintain segregation and uphold the Supreme Court decision. As a result, the legislature passed a barrage of antidesegregation measures, white leaders refused to negotiate meaningfully with the Montgomery Improvement Association during the city’s bus boycott, and university leaders caved in to the mob at Tuscaloosa while Folsom was incommunicado on a drunken fishing expedition. At the local level, governors like Folsom and moderate community leaders in Little Rock seemed to believe that a stealth-like approach might bring token desegregation without alerting or alarming ordinary whites. Similarly in Congress, moderates like Lyndon Johnson, Albert Gore, and Estes Kefauver upheld the Court but argued that it was best to leave matters to local communities rather than hamstring them with massive resistance state legislation or provocative Senate manifestos. But they made no effort to indicate what would happen if local white men and women of goodwill would not agree to desegregate, because the liberals had also set their face firmly against what they called “forced integration.”17

Did moderate politicians who were so cautious and moderate politicians who ran for cover need to be so fatalistic and supine? I have argued at length elsewhere that, while it is easy to second-guess courageous white politicians like congressmen Frank E. Smith of Mississippi or Carl Elliott of Arkansas, who made reluctant decisions that constituency sentiment allowed them no leeway on the desegregation issue, there was nevertheless more room for maneuver than they acknowledged. In particular, William Fulbright, Lister Hill, and John Sparkman in the U.S. Senate operated from virtually impregnable positions in their states in the mid 1950s. They had a proven electoral base, they had secured powerful financial support, and they faced only token opposition. Their willingness to sign the Southern Manifesto or support the 1957 Civil Rights Act or intervene in their states’ racial crises strongly suggests a reluctance personally to envisage the end of segregation and what, in the long run, turned out to be a misguided attempt to preserve their political influence on nonracial matters. In the 1950s they had room to maneuver that had disappeared by the 1960s.18


One consequence of this moderate paralysis was that conventional biracial politics failed to deliver substantive racial change for African Americans. Since 1945, black politicians at the local level had been able to lever some concessions from (p.49) white politicians in return for the support of the small, but increasing, black electorate, an electorate that was worth cultivating by white factions in cities like Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and Atlanta. The politics of local negotiation and occasional legal challenge were the dominant political mode of most African Americans during the 1950s. But increasingly this system of biracial politics failed to deliver the changes that a younger generation of African Americans expected. As a result, they turned to direct action from 1960 onward.

One reason why southern moderates were so resigned was they were much more attuned to the passions of their white constituents than to the impatience of their black supporters. Traditionally, relationships between white moderates and black leaders in the South were conducted through an elaborate ritual of condescension and deference. That pattern continued for many in the 1950s. We do not yet know enough about how politicians secured black support in the politics of the 1940s and 1950s, but we know they rarely campaigned directly for black support. Instead, they approached local leaders in the black community who delivered their community’s vote as a bloc. It might be a local funeral director, a university janitor, or the governor’s chauffeur. When one of the most liberal southern congressmen, Charles Deane of North Carolina, faced a tough primary battle after refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto, he did not have any close black contacts in his constituency; he had to write to a professor at North Carolina Central outside his constituency to find the names of local African Americans he should contact. Despite Deane’s racial moderation, the black vote was delivered to his segregationist opponent by the sheriff’s local contacts. Dante Fascell recalled this old style of securing black support. When he first ran for the Florida state legislature in Miami, he approached the former sheriff, who said he had little chance of winning but that he could do something for Fascell with the black vote. The former sheriff drove Fascell out to a black church in the country after dark to meet local black leaders, but Fascell could not offer them any money. When he ran for Congress in 1954, he recalled that he was the first candidate in Miami to campaign for the black vote “in daylight” alongside a local black high school principal. Such a direct appeal was a rarity. There is little evidence, for example, that Albert Gore, Sr., despite his racial moderation and despite his overwhelming African American support, ever campaigned directly for the black vote, aside from a few meetings in black churches in his later campaigns.19

Prudent black leaders, described by Numan Bartley as racial diplomats, often told white politicians what they thought the white politicians wanted to hear. They often made allowances for the need of politicians they regarded as sympathetic to cater to white constituents. I. S. McLinton in Arkansas assured Fulbright that the black community recognized that the senator had no alternative but to sign the Southern Manifesto. They also supported candidates whom (p.50) they believed to be racial moderates, perhaps despite their public posture, in opposition to vocal segregationists. I. DeQuincy Newman in South Carolina supported Olin Johnston against Strom Thurmond in 1950 and Fritz Hollings against Donald Russell in 1966, despite the absence of civil rights rhetoric on the part of Johnston and Hollings. In 1966, Hollings’s supporters were racebaited, distributing among textile mill workers photographs of Russell shaking hands with the black civil rights leader Newman at his integrated inaugural. But the Hollings supporters had the photograph because the black leader Newman himself had given it to them, anxious to help Hollings win.20

Most white politicians were shielded from the growing sense of grievance in the black community: they did not have the same personal feel for the humiliations and impatience of the black community that they had for the fears of the white community. As a result, this first postwar system of biracial politics simply could not satisfy the demands of black voters. As J. Mills Thornton clearly demonstrated, Montgomery provided an early example of how politics and traditional negotiations with the city commission for better treatment on the buses failed to yield results and pushed African Americans into direct action. The boycott started out as simply a modest, temporary stepping-up of the bargaining process that had bought Montgomery blacks a modicum of change before 1955. The refusal of the city commission and the bus company to negotiate pushed the black leaders to demand the end of segregation and mount a different kind of year-long boycott. By contrast, in Mobile the white politician Joseph Langan actively solicited black support in his race for the state legislature in 1946 and worked closely with the NAACP leader John LeFlore, protected black voters, and worked to equalize teachers’ salaries. In 1953, Langan was elected to the city commission with black support, which he publicly welcomed. In office he worked with LeFlore and the Non-Partisan Voters’ League to secure urban renewal and to desegregate public accommodations, schools, and the University of South Alabama. Because the system was responsive, African Americans in Mobile eschewed direct-action protest.21

But in many southern cities, white leaders had all too easily patronized the older generation of racial diplomats. Younger, more assertive leaders grew impatient with the lack of change. In Atlanta, where black voters provided onethird of the overall total voting population, T. M. Alexander recalled that the system allowed “a minority of the white voters to dictate to all of the black voters, a subtle kind of racial ‘whitemail’ that worked for more than 25 years.” In 1960, the students of Atlanta University would make it clear that the cautious, deferential alliance of the Auburn Avenue business elite with the white power structure simply had not delivered the changes to de jure segregation that they (p.51) wanted, and started direct action protests. Similarly, in Baton Rouge, the city made few concessions, and the black leader T. J. Jemison made few demands, in the years after the 1953 boycott. In 1960–61, World War II activists like Johnnie Jones, who had been opposed to what they considered to be Jemison’s premature settlement of the boycott within the parameters of segregation, supported students and activists from the Congress of Racial Equality who sat in in downtown Baton Rouge in defiance of the president of Southern University, Felton Clark. Clark closed the campus and expelled students. Jemison remained silent throughout the confrontation.22

In community after community, biracial politics of the 1950s variant increasingly could not deliver the changes in segregation that black community leaders and their supporters wanted. Rising black expectations came up against white intransigence. Direct action, rather than electoral politics and negotiation, and demands for the immediate, rather than gradual, end of segregation increasingly became the tactics of the black community.

It was these direct action protests of the 1960s that provoked violent white repression—against the Freedom Rides, against schoolchildren at Birmingham, and against peaceful marchers at Selma. In turn, this well-publicized violence produced the civil rights legislation that brought institutionalized white supremacy to an end in the South. As Anders Walker has recently observed, the civil rights protesters between 1960 and 1965 successfully waged “cultural wars.” Studious, middle-class, peaceful black protesters reversed the elaborate segregationist portrayal of the 1950s of blacks as culturally stunted, illegitimate, and criminal.23

Why was the white backlash in the 1960s so much more intense and violent than the reaction to black assertiveness after World War II? It was not because the Brown decision affected schools, the institutions white southerners most wanted to defend. The protests of the 1960s had little to do with schools. What whites reacted so violently against was the notion of African Americans dictating the timetable of racial change, and what they perceived as black aggressive intrusion into white-controlled public space.


Brown and the backlash to it neither halted gradual racial change in the South nor destroyed racial moderation. Liberal fatalism, rather than the Brown decision, caused the downfall of racial moderation in southern politics. The fatalism and the lack of sensitivity to the urgency of black demands meant that conventional electoral politics after the Brown decision failed to deliver the racial changes that African Americans wanted. Their shift to direct action protest, rather than the Brown decision and the backlash to it, caused the well-publicized (p.52) white violence of the 1960s and the federal intervention that brought down segregation.

As the fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of so many of the great civil rights struggles come thick and fast, southerners and historians naturally remark on the immense changes that have taken place in what was not so long ago the poorest region in the country and the bastion of white supremacy. There is a tendency to assert a “self-exculpatory” model of massive resistance. The responsibility for massive resistance in this interpretation lies with everybody except the white political leaders of the South. The blame is placed on racist white workers, the misplaced strategy of the NAACP, the insensitive decisions of the Supreme Court, and northern liberals. The fact that the South after a decade eventually complied with school desegregation and, despite the dire warnings of the 1950s, did so largely peacefully is an occasion for “self-congratulation.”

But massive resistance to Brown was not a restrained response by a white leadership anxious to channel white supremacist sentiment into safe channels until an accommodation with inevitable change could be worked out. If there were politicians who saw the writing on the wall and saw inevitable racial change, they were silent. Southern leaders had the opportunity to go in another direction, but instead they worked to convince white southerners that the Supreme Court could be defied. White southerners, like their leaders, saw no reason voluntarily to give up the privileges of whiteness, even if they had doubts about segregation, if they did not have to, and the South’s leaders were telling them they did not have to.

Racial change came eventually. Southern leaders marched their followers to the brink. It is to their credit that, having got to the brink, they looked into the abyss and turned back. But how much congratulation is due to a white leadership for eventually and belatedly complying with the law of the land? How much credit is due to that leadership for averting the threat of violence, a threat that the leadership had unleashed in the first place?

It is right to question the glib celebrations of the Brown decision, but there is a danger in downplaying the significance of Brown. Racial change did not come about in the South as the inevitable result of long-term economic and demographic changes. It did not come about simply as a result of economic modernization. Racial change did not come about because southern white leaders voluntarily came to terms with issues of morality and justices. Racial change was imposed on the South as a result of pressure from within, from the civil rights movement of African Americans, and from without, from the federal government. In creating that pincer movement on the white South, the Brown decision, for all its limitations and for all its misplaced confidence in white southern liberals, was crucial.

(p.53) Notes




(1.) Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 315–16.

(2.) For a vigorous, hostile analysis of the way school desegregation was implemented from 1970 onward, see David Armor, Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). For a judicious summing–up of the successes and failures of school desegregation see James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 170–223.

(3.) Michael J. Klarman, “Brown, Racial Change and the Civil Rights Movement,” Virginia Law Review 80 (1994): 7–150; Michael J. Klarman, “How Brown Changed Race Relations: The Backlash Thesis,” Journal of American History 80 (1994): 81–118, Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, 290–442; Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945–1980: The Story of the South’s Modernization (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1995), 70, 73; Numan V. Bartley, comment, fortieth anniversary of Little Rock conference, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Sept. 27, 1997; Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75 (1988): 786–811.

(4.) Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, 385; Tony Badger, “Whatever Happened to Roosevelt’s New Generation of Southerners?” in The Roosevelt Years: New Essays on the United States, 1933–1945, ed. Robert A. Garson Stuart Kidd (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 122–38.

(5.) James C. Cobb, “World War II and the Mind of the Modern South,” in Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South, ed. Neil R. McMillen (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997) 6–9; Jennifer Brooks, “From Fighting Nazism to Fighting Bossism: Southern World War II Veterans and the Assault on Southern Political Tradition,” unpublished paper in my possession; Bryant Simon, A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 221; Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001) xix–xliv; Bruce Nelson, “Organized Labor and the Struggle for Black Equality in Mobile During World War II,” Journal of American History 80 (1993): 952–88; Tony Badger, “Fatalism Not Gradualism: Race and the Crisis of Southern Liberalism, 1945–1965,” in The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Brian Ward Tony Badger (London: Macmillan, 1996).

(6.) Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, 189–90, 371–72.

(7.) Ralph McGill, The South and the Southerner (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963); lames C. Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 122–50; Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997) 153–79; Maxie Myron Cox, Jr., “1963: The Year of Decision: Desegregation in South Carolina” (Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1996), 1–71.

(8.) Robert Gaines Corley, “The Quest for Racial Harmony: Race Relations in Birmingham, Alabama, 1947–1963” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1979); Eskew, But for Birmingham, 91–106; Mary Jacqueline Herbert, “Beyond Black and White: The Civil Rights Movement in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1945–1972” (Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1999), 42–45, 52–70, 97. Herbert noted that, while African Americans in Baton Rouge remembered the boycott as a landmark, white leaders in the city considered it of little import. Tulane trustees were not even prepared to consider merit–based admission in the 1950s: rather than attract nationally talented students, they preferred to retain the university as the preserve of their uptown offspring.

(9.) William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); John A. Kirk, Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock Arkansas, 1940–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2002) 63–68; Stephen G. N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940–1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 94; Cox, “1963.”

(10.) Brooks Hays, interview, Columbia Oral History Program, Lawrence Brooks Hays Papers, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville; J. William Fulbright to Mrs. Walter Bell, Aug. 31, 1948, Papers of J. William Fulbright, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville; Randall B. Woods, Fulbright: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 114–19, 152; Albert Gore, Sr., and Mrs. Pauline Gore, interview with the author, Dec. 1, 1990; Tony Badger, “Southerners Who Refused to Sign the Southern Manifesto,” Historical Journal 42 (1999): 525–26.

(11.) David W. Robertson, Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes (New York: Norton, 1994), 507–10; Marcia G. Synott, “Federalism Vindicated: University Desegregation in South Carolina and Alabama, 1962–63,” Journal of Policy History 1 (1989): 299.

(12.) Klarman, “How Brown Changed Race Relations,” 92, 94–97; Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, 186, 260–61; Terry Sanford, interview, May 14, 1976, Southern Oral History Program, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 101.

(13.) Bartley, New South, 69–73; Korstad and Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found,” 786–811.

(15.) Numan V. Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Tony Badger, “The Southern Manifesto” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, Orlando, Florida, November 1993, copy in my possession; Howard Quint, Profile in Black and White (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1958), 35, 46; Marcia G. Synnott, “Alice Norwood Spearman: Civil Rights Apostle to South Carolinians,” in Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women s History, ed. Janet L. Coryell, Martha H. Swain, Sandra Gioia Treadway, Elizabeth Flayes Turner (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 184; Anders Walker, “The Ghost of Jim Crow: Law, Culture and the Subversion of Civil Rights, 1954–1965” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2004).

(16.) Sidney McMath, interview by John Egerton, Sept. 8, 1990, Southern Oral History Program; Jim Lester, A Man for Arkansas: Sid McMath and the Southern Reform Tradition (Little Rock: Rose, 1976); 233–35; Sidney S. McMath, Promises Kept: A Memoir (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003), 301–6; Tony Badger, “The Forerunner of Our Opposition: Arkansas and the Southern Manifesto of 1956,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 56 (1997): 353–60; Tony Badger, “The White Reaction to Brown: Arkansas, the Southern Manifesto and Massive Resistance,” in Understanding the Little Rock Crisis, ed. Elizabeth Jacoway and C.Fred Williams (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999) 83–97.

(17.) George Sims, The Little Man’s Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946–58 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 175–88; Badger, “Southerners Who Refused to Sign” 517–34.

(18.) Badger, “Fatalism Not Gradualism’; Tony Badger, “‘Closet Moderates’: Why White Liberals Failed, 1940–1970,” in The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South, ed. Ted Ownby (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 103–5; Tony Badger, Race and War: Lyndon Johnson and William Fulbright (Reading, England: University of Reading Press, 2000).

(19.) Dante Fascell, interview with the author, Feb. 27, 1997; James Sasser, interview with the author, Dec. 11, 2003.

(20.) Bartley, New South, 174; Woods, Fulbright, 211; John Carl West, interview by Herbert J. Hartsook, 1997, Modern Political Collections: Oral History Project, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia. I am extremely grateful to Governor West for allowing me to consult this interview.

(21) J. Mills Thornton, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 21–88; Nahfiza Ahmed, “Race, Class and Citizenship: The Civil Rights Struggle in Mobile, Alabama, 1925–1985” (Ph.D. diss., University of Leicester, 1999), chapters 4 to 5.

(22.) Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 93; Herbert, “Beyond Black and White,” 170–221.

(23.) Walker, “Ghost of Jim Crow,” 275, 361.