Defiance and Compliance
In the years 1963-68, civil rights activists and hard-line segregationists battled like never before. Militancy in both camps increased in the mid-1960s. After the Ole’ Miss crisis, the unity of white segregationists began to crumble. Moderate whites were shocked by the violence at Ole’ Miss and began to abandon the Citizens’ Council. But white hard-liners began to feel that the Citizens’ Council was no longer doing enough to fend off integration. Beginning in 1963, much of the violence directed at African Americans (and their white allies) in Mississippi was organized by the Ku Klux Klan.
The racial terrorism ranged from cross-burnings and church-bombings to beatings and murder. In the summer of 1964 alone, Mississippi journalist Jerry Mitchell reports, “Klansmen had killed six [people], shot 35 others and beaten another 80. The homes, businesses and churches of 68 Mississippians associated with the civil rights movement were firebombed.”
Despite these horrific figures, the civil rights movement scored important victories in the mid- and late-1960s. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, which, over time, increased the political power of African Americans in Mississippi. However virulent white opposition was, whites could not defy anti-segregation laws forever. Some accommodation was required. But the road to that accommodation in Mississippi was filled with blood.
Since the end of the 1920s, the Klan had been largely inactive in Mississippi. Historians say the Klan simply wasn’t needed to maintain white supremacy. But as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the state, a man named Edward L. McDaniel was recruited to revive the Klan. McDaniel was born and raised in Natchez, Mississippi, near the border of Louisiana. He grew up in Depression-era poverty and dropped out of high school to help earn money for his family. He was mobilized to fight civil rights activists by the Ole’ Miss crisis. McDaniel was especially embittered toward the federal government. “We had witnessed what happened in Little Rock under the Eisenhower administration,” McDaniel said in an oral history interview. “And then this happen[ed] here at home. It really upset me and it upset a lot of other people. But it seemed like every way you'd go your hands were tied.”
In 1963 McDaniel was working as a truck driver and made frequent deliveries in Louisiana. One day when he was discussing the Ole’ Miss crisis with a friend in Louisiana the man invited him to a meeting. “We sat there and talked a while, and then about that time a guy come out and he was robed out [wearing a Klan robe],” McDaniel said.
“He went through the process of wanting to know if I wanted to join the Klan and how I felt about the situation with the Klan,” McDaniel continued. “I made a decision that evening. I went in, was sworn in the Klan, and I guess thirty or forty guys that was robed out and everything. It was a real experience. And when they took the robes off, I knew half of them or more.”
McDaniel worked relentlessly to build up the Klan in Mississippi. Within six months, he had organized chapters in 76 counties in the state. In 1964, McDaniel became Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America (UKA). Like the Citizens’ Council, the UKA disavowed violence, while secretly condoning it. But a rival Klan emerged in Mississippi at the same time, the White Knights of the KKK. They were more secretive than the UKA, but more deadly. According to sociologist David Cunningham: “ The White Knights were responsible for most of the highly visible acts of violence in MS throughout ‘60s,” including at least ten murders.
But as the Klan intensified its reign of terror, civil rights activists pumped up the pressure for change in Mississippi. These activists included the white Methodist minister Ed King, chaplain at Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Jackson. In 1963 King began challenging segregation at whites-only churches in Jackson. He would bring groups of Tougaloo students to the steps of white churches and ask to be let in. The black students were almost always refused.
“The idea was to appeal nonviolently to the best of the white community,” King says. “Underneath it all were the theories of the American dilemma, that if you can show the contrast between the reality and the American dream then you have a resource in all the American people for change.” The church-visit campaign did not bring immediate change. Instead, religious historian Charles Marsh writes it had, “all the makings of a theater of the absurd, wherein the myriad religious and racial contradictions of the closed society became evidenced and pantomimed.” Nevertheless, King says, the church visits spawned important inter-racial dialogue, especially in the fall of 1963 after the massive March on Washington.
“On the steps of churches, many denominations, blacks and whites would talk for fifteen or twenty minutes,” King recalled. “The doors [of the church] would be closed and then people would say, ‘What would Jesus do? What’s your religious teaching for this?’ For six or eight weeks there were whites who would tell the ushers, ‘I don’t think I can worship here today,’ and go home.”
The Jackson Citizens’ Council moved to crush the church-visit campaign. In October 1963, Jackson police began arresting blacks and whites involved in the “pray-ins.” Still, the campaign continued into the following spring and early summer. Then on June 16, 1964 the White Knights of the KKK killed three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. After that, Ed King says he lost faith in trying to appeal to the white community. In the eulogy he delivered at the memorial service for James Chaney, King condemned white moderates for not just tolerating, but helping to foster, flagrant racial injustice.
“These people are just as guilty as the ‘sick white Mississippians’ who carried out the brutal murder, and more damned in their souls because they know it’s wrong,’” King said.
Looking back, King blames Mississippi whites for moral failure. He includes those who fought to preserve segregation and those who remained passive. But King says he understands why, in the churches, so many whites were timid. “They had to worry about losing their resources. It became self-defense very quickly,” he said. King remembers a rabbi whose home was bombed in Jackson because so many Jewish students were involved in the civil rights movement. He says such events had a chilling effect on the rest of the white community.
Throughout the years that E. L. McDaniel and Ed King were fighting on opposite sides of the Mississippi civil rights movement, a politician named William Winter was trying to find some middle way. It was difficult to do. Winter served in the Mississippi legislature from 1948 to 1956, and in other political positions through the 1960s. By the time he ran for Governor in 1967, Winter was known as a moderate and had many black supporters. His opponent, hard-line segregationist John Bell Williams, attacked Winter as a liberal whose election would “insure Negro domination.” Winter went before a Citizens’ Council forum to dispel concerns about his racial views. He told the group: “As a fifth generation Mississippian whose grandfather rode with [Nathan Bedford] Forrest, I was born a segregationist and raised a segregationist. I have always defended this position. I defend it now.”
Winter lost the election to Williams. In retrospect, Winter has great misgivings about his capitulation to Williams’ attack. And other things, too. “I regret that we ever had a system of segregation,” Winter says.
“But it is one I inherited,” Winter says. “I did not create it. I was brought up to believe that was the way people - at least in this part of the country – ought to live. I never questioned it until I had…experiences…that began to change my mind. As I began that process of changing, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable verbally affirming that I’m a segregationist. But in the course of maintaining any sort of eligibility to be elected to public office, one didn’t disavow that. That’s what I regret the most.”
William Winter was elected Governor of Mississippi in 1980. He was later appointed to serve on President Clinton’s national advisory commission on race.
The period between 1963 and 1968 in Mississippi was a time of direct, intense racial confrontation, widespread Klan terrorism, crucial civil rights victories, and the beginnings of tepid accommodation to a changing racial order. How whites adapted to this change helped shape Mississippi politics for the rest of the century. Indeed, the mid-to-late 1960s saw a crucial evolution in Mississippi’s political relationship to the rest of the United States.
In the 1964 presidential election, white Mississippi voters were profoundly out of step with the rest of country. They voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater when Democrat Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide. But within a few years -- as racial violence broke out in urban areas in the North and West -- it became clear that Mississippi was not quite as different from the rest of the country as people outside the state wanted to believe. As Joseph Crespino writes, “By decade’s end…Mississippi racism seemed less like a blight on America’s character than a metaphor for all that was wrong with the nation…Mississippi was not a closed society; it was America writ small.”
In fact, many changes occurred during the long civil rights struggle in Mississippi that wrought tidal changes in American politics. “In a variety of complicated ways,” writes Crespino, “white Mississippians accommodated themselves to changes demanded by black Mississippians and the federal government. By doing so, they contributed to a broad, popular reaction against modern liberalism that reshaped American politics in the closing decades of the twentieth century.”
Heard one way, stories of the Mississippi civil rights movement culminate in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation brought the fall of Jim Crow segregation and the rise of black political participation in the state. But a watershed moment does not immediately re-channel the flow of history. The story of racial change in Mississippi shows the halting progress of social transformation as it trails—with sometimes excruciating slowness—the pace of legal change.
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