Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary. As the civil rights movement spread across the American South, no state fought as hard or effectively to preserve segregation as Mississippi. Extraordinary tactics were used against black activists and moderate whites.
Hodding Carter: They were simply going to see to it that no one deviated from total conformity to what was called "our way of life."
Jerry Miller: …drive-by shootings, there were beatings, there were church burnings, every night.
I'm Stephen Smith. Stay with us over the coming hour for "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement," from American RadioWorks. First this news.
[Sound of walking outside]
Horace Harned: Alright, this is my place for the next mile down that way…
Horace Harned lives in rural Mississippi…near the town of Starkville.
Harned: I used to own that - that's the big old house over there; that's Meadow Woods Plantation, going back to 1839…
This plantation land has been in Harned's family since before the Civil War.
Harned: Cotton was the main thing. And food crops. But mainly cotton was the cash crop…
It was a big plantation requiring a lot of labor in the cotton fields. Harned says his family once owned more than 200 slaves.
Harned: The slaves were high. They were the highest price thing - they were the biggest investment. Good slave was $1200, where a good horse was a hundred, and a cow maybe $20 and a pig a couple of dollars, and so there was a price structure then.
At ninety years old, Horace Harned is deeply proud of Mississippi and of his heritage in the white, plantation aristocracy. When he looks over his meadows and woods, Harned sees a landscape where slaves were well treated and were fortunate.
Harned: Most of the black citizens of this country owe a debt of gratitude to the southern planter for bringing them here. Otherwise they'd be in South America or in Africa.
What Horace Harned says today is what many white people in Mississippi believed about African Americans half a century ago. Harned was a prominent state lawmaker back then and he fought the federal government to preserve segregation. Harned still believes southern blacks were content with their lot before Yankees stirred up trouble.
Harned: we looked on them more or less as children. And they were part of our home. When I grew up we always had blacks in the house to cook and clean up and that sort of thing. It wasn't any friction between the blacks and the whites until the civil rights movement came along.
The South Horace Harned remembers fondly was rigidly segregated - from restaurants to train cars to school rooms. But in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal. Harned knew the whole system of Jim Crow segregation was under attack. What he remembers thinking is:
Harned: White folks got to stick together. We got to stick together. And we all had to do something to preserve our culture and then control our educational system.
In response, Harned and thousands of other white Mississippians created a powerful network of citizens groups and state agencies to defend segregation. Their goal was to keep blacks in their place - at the bottom of society.
The Mississippi fight against integration and the civil rights movement was the most organized, the most defiant, and the most violent anywhere in the country
Archival News Tape 1: The town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompanied the registration of the first Negro in the university's 118-year history…
Archival News Tape 2: We just heard the Hattiesburg Police Department telling about three dozen white ministers picketing the county courthouse to move out immediately or they'll be subject to arrest…
Woman: And he hit him again. He said, "You'd better say something." I said, "He can't say nothing - he's unconscious." And I just fell on my knees right there in the road and began to put up a petition to God to spare my husband's life.
Archival News Tape 3: In Washington, President Kennedy was described as appalled by the barbarity of the slaying of Medgar Evers…
Archival News Tape 4: Mississippi Whites burned with resentment. And police routed the marchers with a barrage of tear gas…
Men's voices: …go home, Nigger! Go home, Nigger!
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement." I'm Stephen Smith.
If you know a little bit about the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, you know that activists were involved in a very dangerous battle. There are famous photos of white policemen beating protestors with batons, and hooded Klansmen burning enormous wooden crosses. But what's less well known is just how well organized Mississippi whites were in the fight against civil rights. Behind the iconic images of racist sheriffs and frightening Klansmen were thousands of ordinary white citizens who established powerful grassroots organizations to preserve their racial supremacy. This is the story of how white people in Mississippi led the rest of the Deep South in an extraordinary battle to maintain segregation.
Over the coming hour, we'll explore why the battle was so fierce and, for a time, so effective. A warning to listeners: there is racially offensive language in this program. Here is American RadioWorks producer Kate Ellis.
Kate Ellis: Life for Mississippi whites in the 1950s was built on generations of black labor - first slavery, then sharecropping and low-paying jobs as maids and janitors. White children were raised by black nannies; white clothes cleaned by black maids. Mississippi had the largest percentage of African Americans in the country - roughly 40 percent of the state population. But even the poorest Caucasian could feel superior to his Negro neighbor. Mississippi historian Neil McMillen says the state represented the extremes of the South.
Neil McMillen: It lagged behind. It's the deepest of the Deep South states. It was the most rural and the state that was the most agricultural. The state that was the most backward. It's always been on the wrong end of every list. It's the South at its most intense. At its most traditional.
Within months of the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling - known as Brown v. Board of Education - Mississippi whites gathered to defend their traditions. In July of 1954, prominent farmers, businessmen and public officials formed what they called the Citizens Council. Horace Harned - the man we met at the beginning of the program - became one of the leaders.
Harned: Most of the people prominent in politics in those days were members of the Citizens Council. And we all were stunned by the Supreme Court decision of '54.
Another chief strategist for the Citizens Council was William Simmons. He was the son of a prosperous Mississippi banker and at one time studied French literature in Paris. But Simmons found his life's work in defending segregation.
William Simmons: During the period of 1954 to 1965, Mississippi was generally regarded as being in the forefront of resistance to forced integration. And was in the forefront of the fight to preserve racial integrity.
In an interview in the 1980s, Simmons says many of the people who joined the local chapter of the Citizens Council were parents whose children attended public schools. Simmons says the Brown decision stirred these white parents to action.
Simmons: There was concern about inter-racial dating, to be perfectly frank. There was concern about the difficulty of maintaining discipline would be exacerbated by this decision. It just changed the whole basis. It took the control of the schools away from local school boards; placed the control of schools in hands of federal courts.
James Eastland: The Supreme Court is not composed of elected representatives of the South or any other segment of this nation. Its present tyranny will not only be resisted, but overcome. [Applause]
In the 1950s and '60s Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland was one of the most powerful members of Congress. He and other southern congressmen urged the Citizens Council to fight desegregation. Eastland spoke at one of the many council rallies held across the south.
Eastland: And when I say we're going to resist 'em, I say that our position is sound under the law, and that the drive for racial amalgamation is both illegal, immoral and a disgrace. [Applause]
Southern politicians across the south called for massive resistance to the Supreme Court's desegregation order. And by 1956 the Mississippi Citizens Council had expanded to every corner of the state. The Council didn't keep careful count of its members, but there were local chapters in nearly every county. These chapters were made up of community leaders - bankers, lawyers, doctors, mayors - along with farmers and plantation owners.
Hodding Carter: They were simply going to see to it that no one deviated from total conformity to what was called "our way of life."
Journalist Hodding Carter III is a Mississippi native. His parents ran a newspaper in Greenville. Carter's father was among a handful of whites who resisted the Citizens Council from the beginning. In response the Council led a boycott against the family's newspaper from 1955 to 1968. Carter's parents actually supported segregation, but they opposed the Citizens Council because of its menacing tactics. Carter recalls how the Citizen Council pressured people to join.
Carter: One way was simply to make it be seen as another necessary club for inclusion in the white family. That if you were going to be considered a responsible leader in your community you had to join it. Another was by suggesting that those who were outside it - if you weren't with us, were against us. That a moderate was someone who would only "let a little sewage under the door," as they said. That those who weren't ready to stand up and be organized were ready to lie down and let the integrationists take over.
Archival Tape: [Music: Dixie] This is Citizens Council Forum, America's number one public affairs program.
Central to the Citizens Council influence was a humming propaganda machine.
Archival Tape: Citizens Council Forum is dedicated to the preservation of our American tradition of freedom.
Robby Luckett: They had a weekly television show that was 15 minutes long, and it was just like the nightly news and it ran right after the nightly news on television stations in Jackson.
Mississippi historian Robby Luckett.
Luckett: They had an anchor named Dick Morphew who was the anchor and who led stories about the maintenance of Jim Crow.
Archival Tape: We're very fortunate to have as our guest today Senator James O. Eastland, senior senator from the state of Mississippi…
Luckett: Their message was always one of white supremacy. It was to maintain white power and maintain black disfranchisement and segregation.
Archival Tape: There are valid racial differences between groups of white and Negro children which would make it advantageous to provide separate educations for these groups of children.
The Citizens Council TV show aired in Mississippi and in some other southern states, and always ended with this call to action.
Archival Tape: If you agree that individual liberty and constitutional government must be preserved, if you want to do something positive and worthwhile to help protect our freedom, then we want to hear from you. Just write to Citizens Council, Jackson, Mississippi. We'll be happy to send you, without obligation, literature showing how you can help…
But the Citizens Council's TV program was just one of its activities. Historians Laura Walton and Neil McMillen have also studied the Citizens' Council.
McMillen: It had a manual for school children, elementary school children, in which it explained how blacks were different and how their difference rendered them, made them inferior…
Laura Walton: They produced hundreds of brochures, and they had posters, and they had publications…
McMillen: They sponsored essay contests for high school students on the virtues of white supremacy, and why the state of Mississippi should defy the U.S. Supreme Court…
Walton: And in a lot of their publications on the back it'll say, "Read and pass along." Or "Reader share with a friend." They wanted you to use your social groups to recruit new membership and to get more people kind of to see the importance of what they felt they were doing.
The Citizens' Council used social networks to fight the civil rights movement through intimidation, economic pressure and violence. If African Americans tried to challenge Jim Crow, leading white farmers and businessmen on the council would fire them, or throw them out of their homes. The Council also attacked whites who showed any sympathy or support for civil rights.
Rev. Ed King: Boycotts would be brought against white merchants - small people. Boycotts were brought against a few white newspapers who questioned moderately.
Reverend Ed King is a retired professor and Methodist minister in Jackson, Mississippi. He says anyone who professed even moderate racial views could be targeted by the Citizens Council. The 1950s were the red-baiting years of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Mississippi clergymen who reached across racial lines were branded communists.
King: In every mainline religious group - rabbis, Protestant clergy - in every mainline group someone was driven out of the state. Sometimes, lost their jobs; other times, would leave after taking a stand and going through such hell.
As a young white minister, Ed King came under fire for participating in the civil rights movement. He was forced to leave his congregation and he eventually got arrested. But King says the real toll fell on his parents. The white community shunned them, even though his mother and father were staunch segregationists.
King: People stopped speaking to my mother. At church. At P.T.A. The local leader in the Methodist Church tried to comfort my parents and told them I that might not be a communist but all of my teachers were. And he was leading a drive to purge the communists out of the Methodist church. So he was taking sympathy with them. But there was no question I was a dupe of the communists. It was hell for my mother. She never recovered from it. They had to leave the state.
The Council publicly rejected any association with violence or vigilante groups. But that was a lie. Hollis Watkins was the son of sharecroppers in Lincoln County, Mississippi. As a young civil rights activist he traveled the state organizing black communities.
Hollis Watkins: We saw the Citizens Council folks as getting you fired; not being able to get a loan that you may have once gotten; not being able to have credit. And then, if necessary, have you picked off while you in some isolated place. And shoot you.
McMillen: What the Council did was to create an atmosphere in which violence could be winked at.
Historian Neil McMillen says that contrary to what people may think today, the violence in Mississippi was not the work of the Ku Klux Klan. Not yet. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Klan didn't operate in Mississippi. Murders and lynchings were committed by local whites, with law enforcement either helping out or looking the other way.
McMillen: The highway patrol, the local sheriff, the constable at the local level, the whole constabulary; those folks effectively preempted the need for a Ku Klux Klan because to them there was no law except the law of supremacy, and they arrogated the power to enforce white supremacy at every opportunity.
The Citizens Council in Mississippi was supposedly a private organization. But it got support and funding from state government. In 1956, the legislature created an official segregation agency. It was called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. It started out as a publicity department with a speaker's bureau and a film-making effort to explain the virtues of segregation to the rest of the country.
Archival Film Tape: [Happy Music] In Forrest, as in every community in Mississippi, there is segregation of the races. Drinking fountains are segregated. Restrooms are segregated. The local theater is segregated. Negroes sit in the balcony. Out of the statewide pattern of segregation, of mutual respect and cooperation among the races, has arisen a productive law-abiding way of life…
In addition to making propaganda, the State Sovereignty Commission was a spy agency. It kept extensive files on anyone suspected of civil rights involvement. Historian Robby Luckett:
Luckett: They had their hands in every single major event that had anything to do with civil rights in MS, in terms of investigating it; in terms of undermining it. And the Sovereignty Commission would even hire black informants. And they paid money to black Mississippians to infiltrate the civil rights movement and meetings of civil-rights activists.
The Sovereignty Commission collaborated with the Citizens Councils, with law enforcement and state politicians to crackdown on anyone who opposed segregation. The commission sent its investigative findings to newspapers, and ran smear campaigns against racial moderates. I showed Hollis Watkins, the civil rights activist, his Sovereignty Commission file from a half-century ago - he'd never seen it before. One of the surveillance reports tracked him and two of his colleagues.
Watkins: Let's see… "All these three Negroes are known radical agitators, believed to be trained by Robert Moses for work in the field of agitation." [Sound of rustling papers] Don't let me read no more right now.
It's been nearly 50 years since the report was written, but Watkins was agitated when he read the lies in his file. Watkins and the others were not communists. But that didn't matter.
Watkins: Once they got people afraid of us, not believing in us and not wanting to have anything to do with us, they could come in and kill us and nobody'd care.
Stephen Smith: In the early 1960s, civil-rights activists intensified pressure across the South for integrated schools and equal rights. Historian Neil McMillen says the atmosphere in Mississippi grew all the more menacing.
McMillen: There's a kind of collective madness that emerged in the hysteria caused by the prospect of change. As the wagons were circled, black people were monitored as never before.
White supremacy seemed to be winning in Mississippi. But in 1962, a crisis at a place called Ole Miss would test the power of the white regime. The strategy of the Citizens Council would be forced to change as Mississippi whites began to question whether the Council was going too far in the fight to preserve white supremacy - or not far enough.
This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American Radioworks documentary, "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement." Coming up:
Medgar Evers: We had a number of threatening calls, people calling me saying that they were going to kill me, saying that they were going to blow my home up, and saying that I only had a few hours to live. I said, "Well, whenever my time comes, I'm ready."
You can find out more about the backlash against civil rights in Mississippi at our web site. We have links to the Sovereignty Commission's intelligence files, and stories about whites who tried to speak out against racial segregation and oppression. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you're there, you can comment on this program, subscribe to our podcast, and download our many other documentaries about race and American history. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Support for this program is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
State of Siege continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: from American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "State of Siege - Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement." I'm Stephen Smith.
In May of 1961, the Mississippi Citizens Council held a big anniversary rally. William Simmons, the lead strategist for the Council, reminded members that it had been seven years since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racially separate schools.
William Simmons: But, seven years later we are 100 percent segregated, and 70 times seven years will find us still segregated - [applause] - and more resolute than ever to withstand the pressures put upon us.
Pressure against segregationists was building in Mississippi and across the South.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The most potent weapon available to oppressed people, [Yes, sir!] as they struggle for freedom and justice, is the weapon of nonviolence. [Yeah, amen]
Archival News Tape: For the past several months a new strategy to end racial segregation has been spreading through the South. It takes the form of sit-in demonstrations by Negro students against segregation in public eating places. It is part of a broader campaign of non-violent resistance led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., who is our guest today.
In the early 1960s, Mississippi whites felt besieged by Dr. King and by an expanding army of civil-rights activists. Freedom movement organizers saw Mississippi as the ultimate testing ground for democracy. The machinery of white supremacy was under threat - the Citizens Council, the Sovereignty Commission, local law enforcement. The fight for racial equality was coming to them. And white Mississippi battled back like no other state. The first big flashpoint came when a black man in Mississippi tried to go to college. Producer Kate Ellis continues the story. But first, a reminder: there is racially-offensive language in this program.
James Meredith: The future of the South, the future of Mississippi, and the future of the Negro rests on the decision of whether or not the Negro citizen is to be allowed to receive an education in his own state.
Kate Ellis: James Meredith spent nine years in the Air Force before applying to college in his home state of Mississippi. Meredith was African American, and he could have gone to an all-black school. But in 1961 he challenged segregation at the most prestigious and tradition-bound school in the state: the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss.
Meredith: If a state is permitted to arbitrarily deny any right that is so basic to the American way of life, to any citizen, then democracy is a failure.
With help from the NAACP, Meredith sued the university when it rejected his application. A federal appeals court ordered Ole Miss to reverse its decision and allow Meredith in. Governor Ross Barnett had been elected in 1960 and was a close ally of the Citizens Council. He vowed to keep Meredith out.
Gov. Ross Barnett: I have said in every county in Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor… We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government, or stand up like men and tell them, and say to them plainly: Never.
President John F. Kennedy tried to negotiate with the governor to get Meredith into the university, but Barnett would not back down. So on Sunday, September 30th, federal marshals escorted James Meredith on to the Ole Miss campus. Angry white students surrounded the Lyceum, the campus building where they expected Meredith to register.
Chuck Allen: This is Chuck Allen reporting for WJUX/WLBT from the University Avenue entrance to the University of Mississippi campus here in Oxford. Forrest Cox was just on the campus. Forrest, I wonder if you'd describe the activity for us please.
Forrest Cox: Chuck, I was on the campus a couple of times. Right after Meredith landed, they brought him on the campus and we managed to get in then. These students are getting in a, in a mighty bad frame of mind.
An Ole Miss student covering the crisis for the school newspaper said the crowd was agitated by the presence of federal marshals on their campus, and especially by the truck drivers transporting the marshals.
Student: Although the marshals themselves were white, almost all of the drivers of the trucks that I saw were Negroes and they were in uniforms. And this set quite a few people off. It upset quite a few folks that I saw and heard.
A wave of whites to poured onto campus from across Mississippi and other states. The federal marshals stood shoulder to shoulder around the lyceum. The crowd turned its anger against them. Edward Bartholemew was one of the marshals.
Edward Bartholemew: They say, "Go home nigger lovers. We don't want you down here…"
Governor Barnett's state highway patrolmen were also on campus, allegedly to keep order. But some of them encouraged the protesters, and one patrolman threatened Bartholemew.
Bartholemew: He stated that "You people should not have come here." Says, "If y'all hurt one of these students, I'm gonna take this Magnum I have and kill every goddamn one of you."
A government truck driver watched as rioters started getting violent.
Driver: About seven o'clock, the crowd really got bad. They start throwing stones, and they throwin' bottles with gas in them, spittin' at me, calling us every name in the book.
Female Student: The whole tone of the crowd was most ugly. The faces of the people that I'd seen before but you wouldn't even recognize them. People just absolutely changed.
Bartholemew: I was hit with a brick on my right leg … very bloody. I stood my ground.
At eight p.m., marshals shot tear gas into the crowd, while President Kennedy went on national television and pleaded for law and order. As the night unfolded, the rioting got worse.
Archival News Tape: The crowd is overturning a vehicle. I'm not sure whether it's a National Guard unit or not. There is a great deal of violence here at the moment… It is quite possible that the majority of the crowd is not composed of students only…
The mob at Ole Miss fought the marshals for the rest of the night. Hundreds of people were injured. Two were killed. In the end, President Kennedy called in the Army. And the next morning, James Meredith registered for classes. Down in Jackson, William Simmons - the head of the Citizens Council - monitored the crisis through news reports that ran all night. Simmons recalled his bitterness the next morning.
Simmons: It was a beautiful fall day, bright sunshine, blue skies. I looked out the office window … my wife was standing there beside me. We looked at people walking down the street, normally going about their every day affairs. And I said, "These people have just been deprived of the power of self government and they don't know it." And from then on, things would never be the same.
William Simmons was right. Mississippi never was the same. The Ole Miss crisis became a dividing line between moderate and hard-line segregationists. Moderate whites were shocked by the violence at Ole Miss and began to abandon the Citizens Council. According to historian Joseph Crespino, this included moderate state lawmakers who said:
Joseph Crespino: Enough is enough. We've gone too far in letting these forces kind of dictate our state policy, because this is just giving our state a black eye across the country. And across the world.
Mississippi legislators stripped state funding from the Citizens Council, and local chapters of the Council began to fold. But hard-line segregationists had a completely different response to Ole Miss. To them, the fact that a black man had been allowed into the college, escorted by federal intruders, was a sign the Councils were weak, and timid.
Crespino: And there begins to develop among working-class white Mississippians - and middle class folk as well - a kind of a sense that the councils aren't doing enough. And that they weren't able to stop desegregation as it was being played out at the local levels in their local communities.
These whites decided it was time to use even greater force against civil-rights activists, whether or not it was condoned by the Citizens Council. After Ole Miss, white racial violence in Mississippi got even worse, and a man named Medgar Evers was one of the first victims. Evers was field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi and the father of three children. In May of 1963, Medgar Evers led a boycott of white-owned businesses in downtown Jackson.
Medgar Evers: Don't shop for anything on Capitol Street. Let's let the merchants down on Capitol Street feel the economic pinch.
Evers was protesting discrimination against African Americans in hiring, and the poor treatment blacks usually got from white store owners.
Evers: I had one merchant to call me and he said, "I want you to know that I talked to my national office today and they want me to tell you that we don't need nigger business."
As Evers and the local NAACP turned up the pressure in Jackson, the city's mayor went on a local, pro-segregation TV channel - WLBT - to attack Evers and his movement. Evers requested equal time reply to the mayor, and he got it. The Federal Communications Commission in Washington ordered WLBT to give Evers 17 minutes of air time - the exact amount of time the mayor had been on the week before. So on a spring evening in 1963, Evers appeared on television and told Mississippians in a calm voice that it was time for change in Mississippi. "What does the Negro want?" he said. "He wants to get rid of racial segregation in the state because he knows it has not been good for him, nor the state." No recording of Evers' broadcast seems to have survived, but WLBT did record phone calls that were made to the station while Evers was on the air.
Phone Screener: WLBT?
Woman: Uh, is "The Price is Right" not gonna be on?
Screener: It'll be joined about 17 minutes after the hour.
Woman: Well, heck, you gonna put that nigger on then.
Screener: Yes, ma'am.
Woman: Well, good evening.
Screener: Thank you… WLBT?
Screener: Why don't y'all get that damn nigger of the television?
Man: Uh, we are required by FCC to make time available for this broadcast tonight…
John Dittmer: When Evers was on television, why, this was unprecedented.
Historian John Dittmer has studied the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
Dittmer: Because they had not seen what the rest of the country had seen: prominent black activists who had a point of view and who were not deferential.
The program manager at WLBT was a leading member of the Citizens Council. He routinely blacked out network news coverage of civil rights issues. Sometimes, in the middle of a program, the screen would suddenly read: "Technical Difficulties."
Dittmer: It had to be quite a shock because they had never seen anything like this.
Phone Screener: WLBT?
Woman: Uh, we'd like you to take the tape off of that nigger, please?
Screener: Uh, ma'am, we are required to run this under our license commitments with FCC.
Woman: What are you people of Mississippi gonna do, just stand by and let the niggers take over?
Man: You know this black son-of-a-bitch that's on television?
Screener: Yes, uh huh.
Man: He's been on more than goddamn 17 minutes. They'd better get his black ass off or I'm gonna come up there and take it off.
Screener: Well, sir, we're required to do this...
Man: Oh, hell no. This is in the South. This is below the Mason-Dixon Line. You don't have to put these black jungle bunnies on TV…
It's doubtful Medgar Evers heard the calls that came in to WLBT, but he knew he was a marked man.
Medgar: I've had a number of threatening calls. People calling me saying that they were going to kill me, saying that they were going to blow my home up and saying that I only had a few hours to live. I said, "Well, whenever my time comes I'm ready…"
Evers' time came just three weeks after appearing on Mississippi television. On June 11, 1963, Medgar Evers went to a voting-rights rally in Jackson. His wife, Myrlie, stayed home and watched President Kennedy on national TV. The President had submitted landmark civil-rights legislation to Congress sparked, in part, by violence against blacks in the South. As Medgar Evers steered his car into the driveway, Myrlie and the three children were waiting inside their home.
Myrlie Evers: We heard him get out of the car and the car door slam. And in that same instance we heard the loud gunfire.
An assassin hiding in a honeysuckle bush shot Evers in the back with a high-powered rifle.
Myrlie Evers: The children fell to the floor as he had taught them to do. I made a run for the door; turned on the light, and there he was.
Evers was lying face down, bleeding heavily. Neighbors sped him to the hospital but he died on the way. Medgar Evers was 37 years old. A member of the Mississippi Citizens Council, Byron de la Beckwith, was charged with the murder. The Council set up a defense fund for de la Beckwith. Governor Ross Barnett made a trip to court to shake his hand. De la Beckwith was tried twice, and both times the all-white jury deadlocked, provoking a mistrial. De La Beckwith's fingerprints were on the murder weapon, and he still went free. Some 30 years later, Byron de la Beckwith was tried again, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2001 at the age of 90.
Hollis Watkins: First I'd just to everybody in the audience that have been down and attempted to register, to raise your hand.
Audience Member: Don't fool us now! [Laughter]
Watkins: There's a number of hands…
The murder of Medgar Evers was a blow to the Jackson civil rights movement, but activists like Hollis Watkins continued to recruit members in other parts of the state.
Watkins: You should take a part in this. Join hands with us. Walk down to the courthouse and let the people know that you want to become first-class citizens! And you're tired of being second-class citizens. [Yes!]
As Watkins was organizing the black community, a white man named Eddie McDaniel was doing grassroots work of his own: reviving the long-dormant Ku Klux Klan.
Eddie McDaniel: The thing that really aroused me was the fact that the federal government was trying to force something down our throats.
Eddie McDaniel worked as a truck driver in southwest Mississippi. He resented the national press for lying about the climate of race relations in his state.
McDaniel: I felt that we were already integrated. We had maids. Where did the maids use the restroom? They used the restroom in our homes.
In late 1963, members of the KKK in Louisiana invited McDaniel to a secret meeting. Dressed in white hoods and robes, they asked him to organize the Klan in Mississippi. There had been no significant Klan activity in the state since the 1920s, and they wanted him to bring it back. McDaniel vowed he would. In a matter of months, he set up Klan chapters in 76 Mississippi counties. McDaniel's Klan then joined up with a national group called the United Klans of America - the UKA. Their purpose was to terrorize civil rights activists through cross-burnings and violence, but their public gatherings had the feel of a county fair. Sociologist David Cunningham is an expert on Klan activity during the civil-rights era.
David Cunningham: The UKA's primary kind of public outlet would be rallies that they would host, either in cow pastures or racetracks or things like that around the state. And this was a prime recruiting vehicle for the UKA.
[Music: "Stand up and be counted, show the world that you're a man. Stand up and be counted, go with the Ku Klux Klan…]
Cunningham: Literally hundreds of carloads of people would be coming to these rallies.
Klan Speaker: I thought we had some real rebels out there. That wasn't no rebel yell. Let's stand back and yell one time. [Crowd yells]
[Music: "…and proudly wear our robes of white, protecting liberty. Stand up…"]
Cunningham: There'd be places where you could by food, you could by drinks; you could buy Klan paraphernalia.
Klan Speaker: Now we have some tags in the back. If you want to be a proud rebel, come back here and get one. I'm gonna ask the minister to come forward if he will, and he's gonna dismiss us.
Cunningham: The rally would always be started and ended by a preacher, so it would have a strong Christian component to it.
Klan Preacher: Heavenly father at this hour we're grateful. Grateful that we're white people.
Cunningham: And the centerpiece of the rally, of course, would be the burning of the cross. And these crosses would be anywhere from, say, 30 to sixty or seventy feet high.
[Music: "…our Christian land. Stand up and be counted, show the world that you're a man. Stand up and be counted, go with the Ku Klux Klan. Stand up…"]
Like the Mississippi Citizens Council, the United Klans of America 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, and more deadly.
Jerry Mitchell: The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were responsible for at least 10 murders that we know of in Mississippi back in the '60s.
Jerry Mitchell is a reporter at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He investigates unsolved killings from the civil-rights era, and has helped win convictions against former Klan Members.
Mitchell: There were drive-by shootings, there were beatings, there were church burnings, there home burnings, there were whippings; I mean there were all sorts of horrible things like that, that took place all across Mississippi. And it was especially in like '64 and so. It's like every night.
Cunningham: Perhaps the best-known act of violence committed by the White Knights of the KKK was in June of 1964 - this was at the outset of the Freedom Summer campaign, initiated by a coalition of civil rights organizations… And they recruited around 1,000 students - mostly from the North, mostly from elite schools; predominantly white and affluent students. They came down to Mississippi in summer of 1964 to engage in civil rights work.
The Klan went after them. On the night of June 16, 1964 the KKK burnt down Mt. Zion Methodist Church - a black church just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. The plan was to lure a young, white activist named Michael Schwerner to investigate the fire. Schwerner had been at the church a few weeks earlier urging black people to register to vote, so the Klan plotted to kill him. As expected, Schwerner drove to Neshoba County to see about the church burning. He was accompanied by two other young organizers. Andrew Goodman was also a white New Yorker; James Chaney was an African American from Mississippi.
Cunningham: And as the three civil rights workers were leaving town, their car was pulled over by a local sheriff's deputy, and they were taken to jail and they were booked.
After dark, the three men were released and drove off in their blue station wagon. Out in the countryside, a deputy pulled them over again. Other Klansmen were waiting. The three men were shot to death and buried in an earthen dam. News of their disappearance spread quickly - especially since two of the people missing were white. Historian John Dittmer:
Dittmer: It also meant that the story of what was going on in Mississippi would be carried throughout the world, and that the federal government would have to do something.
President Lyndon Johnson ordered the FBI to launch a massive hunt for the Mississippi civil rights workers. And on July 2,1964, he signed into law sweeping civil-rights legislation designed to halt discrimination. By then, the three civil rights workers had been missing for two weeks.
Dick Molpus :When Misters Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman came up missing everyone said, "Well, they're off in New York, this is a communist plot," you know, "This is, they're making fun of us…." I knew they were dead.
Dick Molpus was a 14-year-old boy from a prominent white family in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Molpus: The fear that was running through the community that summer was something you could almost feel and smell and taste. I mean, well this wasn't a spirited debate. They were burning homes down; they were castrating people; they were breaking jaws; these folks were killing people.
On Aug 4th, 1964, the bodies of the three young men were found. From the look of his corpse, it appeared James Chaney, the African-American activist, had been brutally tortured. An investigation connected 21 people to the murders, but the state of Mississippi did not press charges. Forty years later, the case was reopened. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, a former Mississippi Klan member, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
By the end of the 1964 Freedom Summer, the Ku Klux Klan had committed at least three more murders, and dozens of shootings and assaults. They firebombed at least 65 homes and churches. The campaign of terror was intense and destructive, but David Cunningham says it ultimately strengthened support for the very people the KKK was trying to destroy.
Cunningham: The Klan's willingness to perpetrate terrible violence really helped to mobilize national attention and national efforts to promote civil rights activities and to promote things like the Civil Rights Act.
Cunningham says the backlash against Klan organizations meant their reign in Mississippi, while brutal, was relatively short - about five years. President Johnson himself put the Klan on notice.
President Lyndon Johnson: If Klansmen hear my voice today, let it be both an appeal and a warning to get out of the Ku Klux Klan now and return to a decent society before it is too late.
Under Johnson's orders, the FBI recruited hundreds of informants to infiltrate the Klan in Mississippi and eventually hobble the organization.
At the end of summer in 1964, resistance to integration in Mississippi was still strong. And schools remained a major battleground. As a result of several lawsuits, a federal court ordered three Mississippi school districts to desegregate in the fall of 1964. Hard line-segregationist lawmakers threatened to shut down the state's public schools. This time, a group of moderate white women spoke out. They called themselves Mississippians for Public Education, or M.P.E., and Winifred Green was one of the organizers.
Winifred Green: Well we decided not to have large meetings. We decided to have coffees; find a woman who would invite anywhere from five to ten of her friends to her house to discuss what they could do.
What M.P.E. urged women to do was talk sense to their husbands.
Green: You need to talk to your husband about violence is not the answer. That this country is committed to the Constitution and to obeying the law.
The goal of M.P.E. was simple: keep Mississippi public schools open.
Green: And we had billboards all over Jackson that said, "Their tomorrow depends on you today: send your child to public school."
Militant segregationists, including members of the Citizen Council, attacked M.P.E., calling its members a group of neurotic, out-of-touch women. But this was a battle the Council lost. In the September, 1964, school integration occurred in three Mississippi districts, and without any violence. The climate in Mississippi had shifted just enough by then for M.P.E.'s message of moderation to gain traction. The ugly turmoil of Freedom Summer and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prompted Mississippi's business community to speak up, too.
Archival Chamber of Commerce Tape: As concerned Mississippians, aware of monumental problems facing our state, we advance with pride, the fact that Mississippi is not an island to itself, but is an integral and responsible part of the United States.
In early 1965, Mississippi's chamber of commerce issued a statement opposing any further resistance to federal law.
Chamber of Commerce Tape: We recognize that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been enacted by Congress as law. It cannot be ignored and should not be unlawfully denied.
Business leaders could see that Mississippi's poisonous racial climate was hurting the state's economic climate. Historian John Dittmer:
Dittmer: The state of Mississippi was getting a very bad name - not only nationally, but internationally. You had a great fear that if the resistance continued, that the economy of the state would be in ruins.
In the mid to late 1960s in Mississippi, the Citizens Councils still existed. But segregationists were forced to accept a shifting racial order. In the summer of 1965, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act, which outlawed barriers to African-American voting. Before the Voting Rights Act, seven percent of the Mississippi blacks were registered to vote. By 1969, that number had risen to more than 65 percent.
Still, it was not until 1970 - following another Supreme Court ruling - that Mississippi finally desegregated all of its public schools. And by then, the Citizens Council had made a savvy decision: they built their own schools. Horace Harned, the Citizens Council leader we met at the start of the program, helped create them.
Harned: 'Course we tried to preserve the segregated status of our universities and colleges, but that didn't work. So we took the lead then in organizing private academies. We put up private schools all around.
Crespino: They form a collection of schools, mostly in the Jackson area.
Historian Joseph Crespino has studied racial politics in Mississippi.
Crespino: But they also become a kind of clearinghouse of information for other communities in Mississippi and across the South, in how to form private schools.
The Council began this effort in 1964, once the Civil Rights Act was passed. But when the Court ordered Mississippi to immediately integrate its schools in 1970, private white academies popped up overnight, especially in areas where the majority of the student population was black.
Charles Bolton: I mean, in the Delta, what you saw was whites completely leave the school system and establish a system of private schools, many of which were not very good.
Historian Charles Bolton has studied school desegregation in Mississippi.
Bolton: And I think many white parents were convinced that there was no way that you could have quality education with, you know, 90 percent black and 10 percent white in schools. And they'd rather be in unaccredited schools if they didn't have to be with black students.
Joseph Crespino says Mississippi's dual-school systems are one of the main legacies of the Citizens Council.
Crespino: You saw rise of these segregation academies in the 1960s that continue on, and many of them continue on to the present day, which creates situations in small Mississippi towns in which you have all-white segregation academy and an all black public school, because all the whites fled the public system.
Molpus: And that moment in time, I mean, that was something we're still trying to recover from now.
Dick Molpus is a former secretary of state in Mississippi.
Molpus: Because unfortunately here in 2010, we have academies that still are all white or virtually all white, and they're set up so that white children don't have to go to school with black children.
Molpus runs a forest-management company and strongly supports public schools. Despite the existence of the white academies, Molpus says the vast majority of kids in Mississippi go to public school. And in some towns, he says, desegregation has worked really well. But the communities that created divided schools are dying slow deaths. They don't have the money to support two systems. The schools suffer, and so do the towns.
Molpus: And you drive down streets and there are empty store fronts, and empty factories. And it's just a matter of time before they all go away. So there - some communities now are realizing that they accidentally have killed themselves [laughs] or are committing slow-motion suicide, and are becoming advocates for the public schools.
Over time, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the Citizens Council disbanded. For his part, Horace Harned is proud of what they achieved. And the longer school segregation lasts, he says, the better.
Harned: We spent most of our efforts in organizing the private schools and after they were organized, we had done our job. The Citizens Council, after the private schools got organized, we had done our job.
Challenging segregation in Mississippi was exceptionally dangerous. That led the state to produce its share of powerful civil-rights leaders: James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hollis Watkins, and scores of others. These seemingly ordinary people were propelled by the conviction that racial oppression had to end. But the civil rights battle in Mississippi also produced its share of white warriors - seemingly ordinary people devoted to preserving segregation at almost any cost. Historian Robby Luckett says some stereotypical images from the civil-rights era obscure the breadth and depth of white opposition to racial equality.
Luckett: The mythology surrounding white supremacists in Mississippi centers on this image of the fat, potbellied sheriff who kind of walks around with a gun, and chews tobacco, and throws the N-word around everywhere he goes. There are real representations of this kind of mythology; but the idea that all white supremacists were this easy to define does a disservice to what the civil rights movement was up against. Segregationists came in all shapes and forms, and were quite savvy. And when you understand that those are the people that the civil rights movement was up against, you understand the kind of challenge they had.
It is sometimes said that civil-rights activists accomplished more in Mississippi than in any other southern state, because white resistance there was so incredibly fierce, and the road to freedom so very long.
Stephen Smith: You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement."
The program was produced and narrated by Kate Ellis and me, Stephen Smith. It was edited by Peter Clowney. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Craig Thorson, Judy McAlpine and Suzanne Pekow. We also had help from Marc Sanchez, Misha Quill, Hale Sargent, Scott Silver and Enrique Olivarez. Special thanks to historian Charles Bolton, the Henry Hampton Collection at Washington University, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi, and musicians Chris Brokaw and Jeff Farina.
To find out more about the battle to preserve segregation in Mississippi, you can go to our web site, Americanradioworks.org. There you will find a link to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files, and you can learn more about white moderates who tried to speak up. While you're there, you can tell us what you thought of this program, check out our many other documentaries about race and American history, and subscribe to our podcast. That's at Americanradioworks.org.
Support for this program was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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