The March Backward
For many whites…a time of agonizing decision was at hand, a time to stand up and speak out for the principles of equality – or else be counted in the ranks of the reactionaries. To choose the former would not be easy, because virtually no white leaders were actively and openly pledged to the democratic and constitutional ideal. By appealing to the basest emotions of greed and hatred and fear, they had built a majority…willing to be led to march backward. - John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day, 1994
The depth and power of the opposition to the Brown ruling should not have been surprising. Public opinion polls in the mid-1950s showed whites in Mississippi (and other Deep South states) overwhelmingly opposed to integration. But before and immediately after the 1954 decision, some voices of white moderation were heard in Mississippi. There was the occasional church leader, teacher or newspaper editor who urged white Mississippians to observe the law of the land and to desegregate gradually. But within a year of the ruling two things happened. Many whites willing to take a measured stance toward integration were radicalized by the fervent climate of opposition. And those whites who retained a moderate or even liberal perspective were targeted by extremists. Some were forced to leave the state; others remained, but under constant threat.
Reverend Duncan Gray, Jr., a young Episcopal minister at the time, recalls the rapid transition. Just weeks after the Brown ruling, Gray says two prominent school officials he knew in Cleveland, Mississippi were conducting rational conversations about how integration would occur. One was the chairman of the school board, the other a high school principal. “By November of 1954, they were screaming and yelling from Citizens’ Council platforms: Never integrate! Segregation forever!” Gray says. Whatever hopes Gray had for white Mississippians to take a thoughtful approach to the Brown ruling were quickly dashed. After all, Gray says, “[Mississippi] Senator Jim Eastland said on the floor of the Senate, saying ‘you don’t have to obey the Supreme Court’s ruling,’ and no one reprimanded him. President Eisenhower didn’t say a word.”
The absence of support for the Brown ruling from the White House and Congress made Southern opposition to the decision a wide open road. “It was an easy political sale,” recalls former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a young politician at the time. “The fear was that black people would take over and destroy the [Southern] way of life. And the politicians jumped on it. ‘Elect me and we will maintain segregation.’ That’s all you had to say to get elected.”
While there were some white moderates in Mississippi, the frenzied climate of opposition to Brown made it increasingly difficult for their voices to be heard. Historian J. Todd Moye writes:
If the window of opportunity for…moderates had ever really opened, the formation of the Citizens’ Council slammed it shut…With the emergence of organized opposition to desegregation, the possibility of gradual acceptance of the Supreme Court’s decision became all but impossible. Eliminating the middle ground between acceptance of integration and massive resistance became the council’s primary objective, and in that the Council succeeded from the outset.
Ed King, who was a white minister and civil rights activist, recalls the period when racial extremism took hold in Mississippi. “No one thought real change [in race relations] would come any time soon,” King says. But his teachers, especially in the Methodist church, “felt free to talk about it in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.” By the middle 1950s, King says, “anybody in the white community who raised questions [about segregation] was accused of being a communist. Ministers who could have raised the questions with me in 1948 or ’50 -- by 1955 or 1956 were losing their pulpits and being driven out of the state.” Indeed, white churches in Mississippi played a major role in defending segregation. Soon after Brown, some of the largest and most conservative church organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and most other Protestant denominations, endorsed the ruling. The 1954 report of the Southern Baptist Convention described the Supreme Court’s decision as being “in harmony with the constitutional guarantee of equal freedom to all citizens, and with the Christian principles of equal justice and love for all men.”
Neil McMillen writes: “The Convention called upon political and religious leaders of the South to act responsibly in order that ‘this crisis in our national history shall not be made the occasion for new and bitter prejudices, but a movement toward a united nation’.” If this was a common response in church hierarchies, it did not dictate the practices of Mississippi churches. “With few exceptions,” John Dittmer writes, “the white churches opposed black demands for equality and offered virtually no leadership during the critical years of the 1960s…Most white clergy…either supported segregation, made their peace with white supremacists in their congregations and kept quiet, or left the state.”
One exception was Duncan Gray, Jr., the son of the Episcopal bishop of Mississippi. As a young minister in the Mississippi Delta, Gray wrote a pamphlet urging support for the Brown ruling. The Episcopal Church distributed the pamphlet nationwide. Speaking at Mississippi State College during Religious Emphasis Week, Gray sparked a controversy by declaring that, “segregation is incompatible with the Christian faith.” When a reporter picked up the story, Gray was personally condemned by the Mississippi state legislature. The Jackson Daily News and other newspapers called him a communist. Local police began following Gray when he traveled into black neighborhoods, where he would visit civil rights activists like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers. In an interview, Gray was quick to say that in spite of all the threats he faced from white segregationists he was often buoyed by quiet encouragement from other whites. “A lot of folks would have never supported integration,” he says, “but they knew it was right.” A prominent white physician and member of Gray’s church, Jack Russell, was one of them. “The police told Jack he had to get rid of his preacher,” Gray recalls. “Jack cussed them out and said it was none of their business. He told them to stop following me. They didn’t, but I’ll never forget that support.”
Such support encouraged Gray during the long years he struggled as a quiet force for desegregation. Nevertheless, the attack on Mississippi moderates led to the silence or departure of many reasoned people. The McCarthy era hastened this process, as Ed King explains:
The national hysteria of the McCarthy period, a fear of reds, and then by extension fear of anyone who was different, came into the South with a vengeance. And the right-wing people were able to organize around it. The good white moderates did almost nothing. They were willing to accept the change [and integrate], but they offered no leadership. And they were quickly silenced. They were afraid, once the criticism of communism came in, to step forward. And they were just displaced.
Black people who stood up to segregationists always faced violence. Many were forced to flee Mississippi. Now, the few white moderates of the state either clammed up or also became refugees.
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