In the decade after World War II, African Americans in Mississippi achieved some small measure of success in their fight for civil rights. Thousands of African Americans, especially in the state’s urban areas, registered to vote. Mississippi also initiated a school equalization program in 1946, in part the result of black complaints; the program did not eliminate the gap between white and black schools but did improve black school facilities and black teacher salaries. This era of slow, piecemeal change, however, came to an abrupt end following the US Supreme Court’s Brown decision, issued on 17 May 1954, and the Brown implementation decree, issued on 31 May 1955. Indeed, white opposition to incipient black strivings for civil rights became more intense and firmly institutionalized following the landmark decision, which declared that separate schools were inherently unequal and, by extension, challenged the entire Jim Crow structure that governed social relations in the South. The court’s mandate for school desegregation “with all deliberate speed” created a vague timetable that ultimately encouraged white delay and resistance.
Mississippi whites’ response to Brown included outrage and defiance as well as some efforts to get black Mississippians to disavow the ruling. US representative John Bell Williams called the day the decision was announced “Black Monday,” and US senator James O. Eastland claimed that the South would not obey the court order and urged resistance to the decree. Mississippi governor Hugh White and other state officials met with black leaders in July 1954 and offered to expand the existing equalization program—to make separate black schools truly equal to white ones—in exchange for a pledge that the members of the black delegation would not press for an end to racial segregation. African American leaders rejected this deal, instead offering solid support for Brown. Gov. White then joined the rising chorus of white Mississippians who resolved to resist the federal assault on segregation through any means necessary.
Over the ensuing months, the state legislature adopted an official policy of “massive resistance” to all attacks on the racial status quo. After the failed meeting with black leaders, the governor called the Mississippi legislature into special session to pass a constitutional amendment allowing the state to abolish the public schools in any district where segregated schooling was threatened. Voters ratified the amendment in December 1954. In an effort to halt voter registration attempts, the legislature passed and voters approved another constitutional amendment that required all registrants not only to be able to read the state constitution but also to be able to offer a “reasonable” interpretation of a part of the document, a vague standard that individual registrars could use to avoid allowing African Americans to register. At the same time, many Mississippi counties conducted re-registration campaigns to purge the voter rolls and force blacks to reapply under the new, tougher standards. In 1956 the state legislature also passed a resolution promising to “interpose” the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi between any federal court decree requiring school integration and any local school district subject to such an order. That year the state also created the Sovereignty Commission, initially funded with a $250,000 appropriation, to enforce segregation and disfranchisement through a network of spies and informers.
In addition to official state government actions, individual white Mississippians joined the effort to resist the Brown decision. Sunflower County plantation owner Robert B. Patterson spearheaded the creation of the White Citizens’ Councils, which soon spread throughout the state and the region. The groups comprised white elites who utilized their prestige and financial power to intimidate black supporters of civil rights through such strategies as firing black employees known to be members of civil rights groups, refusing to make loans to black business officials or farmers who supported civil rights activity, and evicting black renters involved in the freedom struggle. The Council claimed that it did not advocate violence and tried to distance itself from the Ku Klux Klan, but the Council’s activities ultimately created an atmosphere in which Klan-style racial violence could thrive. In 1955 three outspoken black leaders were murdered in Mississippi: Rev. George Lee, Gus Courts, and Lamar Smith. That same bloody year, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago youth visiting his Mississippi relatives, was murdered by Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who were later acquitted by an all-white, male jury. A handful of whites—among them newspaper journalists Hodding Carter of Greenville, Bill Minor of Jackson, and Oliver Emmerich of McComb—publicly opposed the Citizens’ Council, but most other white moderates were effectively silenced by a climate that demanded absolute conformity to white supremacy.
Black Mississippians tried to exercise their rights under the Brown decision, but their efforts were swiftly and absolutely rebuffed. Early efforts to expand voter registration and desegregate the state’s public schools met the full force of white massive resistance. For example, after the Walthall County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People submitted a school desegregation petition in August 1954, local authorities responded by closing the county’s black schools for two weeks and firing school employees thought to be involved in the effort. African Americans made similar attempts to desegregate schools in the summer of 1955 in Vicksburg, Jackson, Natchez, Clarksdale, and Yazoo City. In all these locales, whites responded by publishing the names of the signers in the local paper, an action that subjected the black activists to economic pressure and verbal intimidation. With the power of the state government and the ire of mobilized white citizens arrayed against them, and with white moderates providing only token dissent from the white party line, Mississippi’s African Americans were forced to mute their struggle for black civil rights until the early 1960s. Those who did not faced violence and even death.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 US 483 (1954), 347 US 294 (1955)
- Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870–1980 (2005)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964 (1971)