The Citizens’ Council
When the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1954 desegregation ruling, segregationists in Mississippi moved fast. A prominent planter and World War II veteran in the Delta, Robert “Tut” Patterson, had already begun organizing whites just prior to the ruling. A racist tract written by Mississippi Judge Tom Brady shortly after the decision outlined a platform opposing racial integration. With Brady for inspiration, Patterson got busy. On July 11, 1954 Patterson convened a group of prominent leaders in Indianola. Later that month they held a town meeting. Roughly 100 people came. They created the first Citizens’ Council, an organization that would grow to be the most powerful opponent of civil rights activism in Mississippi.
By 1956, the Citizens’ Council had chapters in a majority of Mississippi counties and had attracted some 80,000 members. The movement also spread quickly across the South. Membership tended to be highest in counties where the population was more than 50 percent black. Headed by the most prominent local businessmen, professionals and governing officials, the goal of the Citizens’ Council was to use every possible means to lawfully resist desegregation.
William Simmons founded a chapter in the state capitol, Jackson. Simmons was the son of a prosperous Mississippi banker and at one time studied French literature at the Sorbonne. He found his life’s work, however, in defending segregation. The strategy of the Citizens’ Council, Simmons said, was “to delay, to delay, to delay” any advance toward desegregation in Mississippi. That meant thwarting NAACP school desegregation lawsuits by targeting black petitioners, mobilizing public action against desegregation, and coercing white conformity to the orthodoxy of white supremacy. According to Simmons, this was the least Mississippi whites could do to defend themselves against what they claimed was a gross infringement of federal power. Simmons told an interviewer, “Why use the power of government to compel people to mix socially for the sole reason that they were of different races? There’s nothing, there’s no historical precedent that anyone has brought to my mind that explains this. There’s no prior experience of mankind. There’s plenty of the opposite, of separation, but none of this compulsion to integrate.”
Simmons and his peers knew that the Brown ruling resulted from years of careful work and organization among integrationists. Now it was time for whites to organize. “White folks got to stick together,” Horace Harned recalls thinking when he joined the Citizens’ Council in 1954. Harned was a state senator at the time. “Most people prominent in [Mississippi] politics were members of the Citizens’ Council. We were all stunned by the ’54 decision and knew we had to preserve our culture and control our education system,” Harned says. According to Harned, Citizens’ Council members would boycott the businesses of black “agitators” and fire employees who were suspected activists.
Horace Harned learned about the Citizens’ Council from his friend, Tut Patterson, and immediately joined. Oscar Carr, Jr., a fifth-generation plantation owner, also learned of the Citizens’ Council from Patterson. But he had a different reaction. “I went to the first meeting of the White Citizens’ Council in this country,” Carr recalled in a 1969 taped interview. “I was appalled at the mass hysteria.” Carr described Tut Patterson as a lifelong friend of his and “a fine, moral individual.” But when it came to a discussion of black and white, Carr said, “It always degenerates as far as Patterson is concerned to a mongrelization of the races. He’s a total separatist. And he says that he will devote his life to seeing that the races stay separate in the state of Mississippi and in the South so long as he’s able to prevail.”
Tut Patterson’s view seemed odd and irrational to Oscar Carr, who campaigned for presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968. Carr made his views plain to his peers. He was one of the few who could get away with it. “Of course, one reason for this is that I am part of the Establishment. I cannot be economically coerced. I’m a fifth-generation Mississippian. I’m a Delta plantation owner. I’m a chairman of a bank,” Carr said.
Oscar Carr was in a tiny minority, however, both as a white person challenging segregation and as someone protected by his status from the Council’s retribution.
Ed King was raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was the son of white middle-class Methodists. After gradually awakening to the entrenched inequalities of the segregated South, King chose to study theology at Boston University, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1960, Ed King joined civil rights activists in Alabama as a pastoral liaison between student activists and church leaders. Before long, Ed King was arrested during a police raid of a black-owned café. The experience sealed King’s commitment to the civil rights movement -- with unintended consequences. Back in Mississippi, rumors about Ed King’s supposed ties to Communists began whipping around his home-town, thanks to the local Citizens’ Council. King’s father was a civil engineer for the federal government so the Council couldn’t get him fired. But, religious historian Charles Marsh writes:
The Council had other ways of informing mothers and fathers that they had failed in their duties as guardians of the closed society. With help from the Sovereignty Commission, the Citizens’ Council put direct pressure on the King family…through carefully placed innuendos and hints. “Look at the parents of Ed King…Imagine the kind of people whose son becomes a communist sympathizer and champion of black revolutionary activity. These parents must not be the patriots and good Americans we thought.”
King’s parents felt no choice but to leave the state. “People stopped speaking to my mother, at church, at PTA,” King says. “People pushed their carts away from the aisle where she was shopping.” Their banishment was all the more absurd to Ed King because his parents were segregationists. “One of my uncles was sheriff. My mother’s father had been sheriff and on the school board. There was a bust of Robert E. Lee in the living room,” he says. These were hardly the signs of racial liberals. But the Citizens’ Council ignored subtlety when time came to destroy an alleged traitor to the white race.
Most victims of the Citizens’ Council were African American. The Council routinely used the economic “squeeze” to punish black agitators. For instance, when African Americans signed a petition to desegregate schools in Yazoo County in 1955, the Citizens’ Council moved quickly. It paid for a local newspaper ad listing the names of the petitioners. The Council then coordinated reprisals against the signers. Charles Bolton writes:
The president of one local bank called all his customers on the list “and told them to come down and get their money out, that the bank did not want to do business with them any longer.” James Wright, a plumber with primarily white customers, not only lost his patrons but also was refused plumbing supplies by a wholesale house, and notified by his grocer that a loaf of bread would cost him a dollar. He soon left for Detroit.
Nearly all of the 53 signers took their names off the petition. The Yazoo City NAACP branch, which had boasted 200 members before the petition was signed, disintegrated.
For all its economic and social force, the Citizens’ Council denied having any hand in violence against African Americans. Indeed, the Council explicitly rejected any association with the Ku Klux Klan. The Council dismissed Klan members as low-class troublemakers who would tarnish Mississippi’s reputation. According to Neil McMillen, Judge Tom Brady warned, “Unless we keep and pitch our battle on a high plane, and unless we keep our ranks free from the demagogue, the renegade, the lawless and the violent, we will be branded, as we should be branded, a fearful, underground, lawless organization.”
Nevertheless, historian John Dittmer observes, “Through its unrelenting attack on human rights in Mississippi, the Citizens’ Council fostered and legitimized violent actions by individuals not overly concerned with questions of legality and image.” McMillen says this was one reason, at least, that the KKK did not organize extensively in Mississippi until the early 1960s. The Klan wasn’t needed -- yet. The Citizens’ Council provided adequate cover for white vigilantes.
The Council spread its message through mass mailings, speeches, a widely heard radio program and even a weekly television broadcast, the Citizens’ Council Forum (paid for with state funds). In one 1964 television spot, the executive director of the Citizens’ Council of America, Lewis Hollis, claimed that the Council grew out of traditional town meetings, “To maintain peace and order of the community,” Hollis said. To prevent “racial demonstrations” from unduly influencing politicians, Hollis implored “the majority” to pull together. “An unorganized majority can do little. If the majority is organized into a council, they can have a proper effect,” he said.
Central to the Council’s message was the widely-held conviction that the civil rights movement was run by communists. Mississippi politicians like Senator James O. Eastland and Congressman John Bell Williams used the monthly newsletter, The Citizen, to warn Mississippians - already in the grips of a communist phobia – of the danger. A June 1961 issue carried a warning from Eastland. “CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] is known as the war department of the U.S. integration movement. Since its inception, its creed has been lawlessness and its tactics have followed the pattern set by communist agitators the world over,” Eastland said.
Red-baiting and anti-communism framed much of the white opposition to the civil rights movement, including the reaction to the freedom riders who came through Mississippi in 1961. Historian Raymond Arsenault says the intensity of white resistance, “Had a lot to do with the widespread perception that [the freedom riders] were ‘outside agitators’ in the truest sense of the term, that they represented forces hostile and alien to American values.” Convinced that Marxism was at the core of the civil rights movement, Council propaganda capitalized on white fears of communism to inflame antipathy toward the activists.
With few exceptions, Mississippi newspapers were willing cogs in the Citizens’ Council propaganda machine. Chief among them were the Jackson Daily News, and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Bill Minor covered Mississippi politics for the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune from 1947 to 1976. The Clarion-Ledger was, “an instrument of segregation, run by the Hederman family,” Minor says. The extremely conservative Hedermans, “never wrote a line themselves, but would hire people who were racists to write the editorials,” he says. Furthermore, the investigative reports of the Citizens’ Council and the Sovereignty Commission got sent directly to the Clarion-Ledger editor, who passed them on to certain reporters. “So when the civil rights people came in here,” Minor says, “they were painted as subversives. The [Hedermans] tried to impose in the public mind the idea that civil rights was ‘communism’.”
Dick Molpus was Secretary of State in Mississippi from 1984 to 1996. He grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi in the 1950s and ‘60s and vividly recalls anti-civil rights propaganda. “I remember seeing billboards in 1964: ‘Dr. King is a Communist!’” he says.
The few white people in Molpus’ community who called segregation immoral were also dismissed as communists. “It was social pressure,” he says, “because no one wants to be ostracized.”
“In 1964 you could have put all the communists in Mississippi in one car. It was just a ridiculous argument,” Molpus says.
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