In July 1954, following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, a small grassroots organization formed in Indianola, Mississippi, to mount organized resistance against integration. Representing the first of the Citizens’ Councils, the Indianola branch, under the leadership of Delta planter Robert “Tut” Patterson, was the first in a wave of chapters throughout Mississippi that sought to maintain states’ rights and racial integrity. The Citizens’ Councils (also known as the White Citizens’ Councils) soon became one of the South’s most recognizable and active white resistance organizations. By October 1954 the rapid growth of individual chapters led to the formation of an umbrella organization, the Association of Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi (ACC), providing access to a broader base of funding and opportunities for more diverse activities. Similar state organizations formed throughout the South, leading to the 1956 formation of the Citizens’ Councils of America, a loosely organized network of white resistance groups that included the Georgia States’ Rights Council, the North Carolina Patriots, the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, and the Virginia Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. Nevertheless, the ACC remained the most closely connected and effective organization of its kind.
The Citizens’ Council primarily mobilized white business and civic leaders to commit to maintaining racial segregation in their communities through economic pressure. White employers could exercise their economic power over black employees, for example, as a way to discourage them from working for integration or voting rights. Council leaders throughout Mississippi emphasized this method over violent or illegal means, distinguishing their methods and members from those of the Ku Klux Klan and other more brutal organizations. Despite this distinction, however, the Council gained a reputation among civil rights groups for using members’ economic and political positions to stifle Mississippi’s civil rights movement. This reputation led many Council opponents to label the organization “the uptown Klan.” Its supporters included Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, Sen. James O. Eastland, Jackson mayor Allen Thompson, and Reps. John Bell Williams and William Colmer.
The core of Council ideology encompassed firm notions of white supremacy, as evidenced by the organization’s publications. Citizens’ Council leaders remained fully dedicated to the preservation of segregation and denial of equal political rights for black Mississippians. Exploiting long-standing fears of a growing federal government and of communist subversion, the Council’s leaders connected the organization’s objectives to national concerns, concealing racist attitudes within a more complex web of conservative values. This tactic left a thriving conservative legacy in the white South long after the Council movement dissipated.
In 1956 the ACC began the Educational Fund of the Citizens’ Council, receiving an official charter of incorporation from Mississippi’s secretary of state on 15 December. The Educational Fund, headquartered in Greenwood, represented a fundamental function of the Citizens’ Council that extended beyond local concerns, working to promote open discussion throughout the United States about “pertinent” national issues, to disseminate “facts” to all Americans, and to “improve” the US educational system. The fund advanced these objectives primarily by issuing publications and using radio and television to “tell the South’s story” to the rest of the nation. ACC leaders also traveled extensively throughout the country to spread the Council’s message and to connect its fight for segregation to conservative perspectives on national issues.
As part of the Educational Fund’s public relations effort and under the editorship of William J. Simmons, perhaps the best known of Council spokesmen, a monthly newsletter, the Citizens’ Council, began publication in October 1955. The newsletter evolved into a monthly magazine in October 1961 and continued publication until 1989 under the title The Citizen. Some chapters of the Citizens’ Councils published newsletters as well. The Jackson Citizens’ Council, for example, published a monthly newsletter, Aspect, that contained local news related to civil rights activity and to the status of the Jackson Council.
The Citizens’ Council also funded Forum, a weekly television and radio program that aired between 1957 and 1966. Most of the episodes were recorded in Washington, D.C., and they frequently featured members of Congress, lending them legitimacy as public affairs programming and concealing their function as an arm of segregationist propaganda. Topics rarely dealt directly with race or segregation, focusing instead on issues such as foreign policy, the federal deficit, and the threat of communism. By April 1961 the Citizens’ Council boasted that 383 television and radio stations aired Forum. The Citizens’ Council’s commitment to Forum revealed the diversity of the organization’s activities and its vision of reaching out to an American rather than regional audience.
Perhaps the Council’s most lasting legacy in Mississippi was its campaign to establish a series of Council schools for white children as an alternative to an integrated public school system. Dr. Medford Evans, a former professor and frequent Council spokesman, led an effort to create a “how-to” guide for starting a private school. In 1964 the Citizens’ Council officially opened Council School No. 1 in a North Jackson home. By 1967, Nos. 2 and 3 had been established. The Jackson academies served as models for similar schools throughout the state, although the Council itself was not directly affiliated with most of the private academies that arose throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
While the Citizens’ Council movement throughout the South began to weaken by the early 1960s, it remained effective in Mississippi until the end of the decade. White southerners’ acceptance of integration as inevitable, coupled with shifting national priorities, contributed to a severe decline in membership. Ironically, the Council’s tactic of subverting race to more nationally potent issues in its various public relations campaigns led to a less cohesive message that was easily absorbed by the national conservative wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- The Jackson Citizen (1961–89)
- Jackson Citizens’ Council (1955–61); Citizens’ Council Forum (1957–66), Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University, and Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Neil R. McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64 (1971)
- Stephanie Rolph, Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954–1989 (2018)