“Where the men faltered, the women have led out for constitutional government. They have been far ahead.” Writing just before the 1964 presidential election, Florence Sillers Ogden confidently predicted that the white women of her native state, Mississippi, would raise their voices and cast their ballots for a “Conservative president of the United States,” Barry Goldwater. She ticked off reasons why Mississippi’s women should support the Republican candidate: spiraling taxes, federal infringements on free enterprise, creeping socialism in America’s churches and schools, and most importantly for Ogden, civil rights. A triumphant rise of the Right did not materialize in 1964, but Ogden’s prognostication for her home state proved on target. She was certainly well positioned to judge. Beginning in the late 1940s, Ogden’s political organizing placed her at the hub of the Deep South’s metamorphosis from Democratic to Republican stronghold. Through her weekly newspaper column, her leadership in women’s clubs, and her position as a member of one of Mississippi’s most elite families, Ogden promoted conservative principles and tried to prod like-minded white women to political action.
Ogden’s involvement with politics grew naturally out of her family background. The granddaughter of slaveholders, Florence Sillers was born on 2 October 1891 to Walter Sillers Sr. and Florence Warfield Sillers. The wealthy Sillers family embodied the archetypical image of Delta planter-aristocrats, relying on African American tenant labor to operate immense cotton plantations in the small Bolivar County town of Rosedale. Ever leery of threats to their economic and political power, the members of the Sillers family wielded their substantial influence in state government to shore up Mississippi’s repressive racial hierarchy. Walter Sillers Sr. helped engineer the legal disfranchisement of African Americans in the 1890s, and Florence Warfield Sillers was an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution who authored a history of Bolivar County that valorized the Confederate-era South. Their only son, longtime Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives Walter Sillers Jr., relentlessly worked to hobble the forces of organized labor and civil rights reform. On 29 June 1911 Florence Sillers married Harry Cline Ogden.
Aside from the prominence she enjoyed from her family name, Florence Sillers Ogden built her own statewide reputation through her regular newspaper column, “Dis an’ Dat.” Her writings appeared in the Delta Democrat-Times in the late 1930s and subsequently in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger as well. Her weekly feature ran the gamut from lighthearted reports on local social gatherings to scathing denunciations of liberal politicians. Ogden also built networks through her work in women’s organizations. Like her mother, Ogden served as a leader in the Daughters of the American Revolution and collaborated with other white women to celebrate and preserve Mississippi’s Confederate past. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the right-wing Congress of Freedom also counted Ogden among their dedicated members.
Although she and her husband had no children, Ogden frequently invoked the responsibilities of motherhood and womanhood in her political writings and speeches. In 1948 she stood before eight hundred women who had gathered to support the third-party Dixiecrat movement and told her audience, “We, the women, have a big stake in these issues.” Four years later, Ogden expressed her bitter disappointment at Mississippi’s male leaders, who had consented to liberal Adlai Stevenson as the Democrats’ 1952 presidential nominee. Disgusted, Ogden formed a chapter of Democrats for Eisenhower in Bolivar County and declared, “Now I’ve got to elect Ike all by myself—with the help of the women.”
Ogden insisted that her conservative principles involved more than the politics of race, yet the flashpoints of her activism coincided with key moments in the civil rights struggle, and she unabashedly and unswervingly defended white supremacy. Ogden decried the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision as “the most outrageous seizure of power in all the history of our country, worthy of Stalin and Russia.” Along with her vigorous support for the segregationist Citizens’ Councils, Ogden was a founding member of the Women for Constitutional Government, an organization born in the wake of the fall 1962 integration crisis at the University of Mississippi. Nearly two thousand women flocked to Jackson for the group’s inaugural meeting, where they heard Ogden, one of the keynote speakers, call for a return to constitutional and judicial conservatism. Anti-civil-rights activism dominated the organization’s agenda, although it also fiercely opposed US participation in the United Nations and later the Equal Rights Amendment.
Christianity, patriotism, and conservatism mingled together in Ogden’s political philosophies. Her address to the Women for Constitutional Government opened by asking God to guide the organization “as He guided the Founders of this Nation.” She despised the liberal drift of the National Council of Churches and accused many southern churches of “falling right in to the Communist plan.” For Ogden, communism and liberalism seemed synonymous, as did conservatism and true Americanism. When the US Congress considered liberalizing immigration policy, for example, Ogden was among the grassroots warriors who rushed to defend the existing quota system, based on a 1924 law, that disproportionately favored Western European immigrants over those from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She passionately maintained that the quota system protected the American way of life and American freedoms.
Ogden died on 23 June 1971, nearly a decade before the apex of the conservative counterrevolution—Ronald Reagan’s 1980 ascent to the presidency—yet she and countless other white Mississippi women undeniably left a deep imprint on the movement.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy (2018)
- Florence Sillers Ogden Papers, Charles W. Capps Jr. Archives and Museum, Delta State University
- The Sillers: A Mississippi Delta Family website, www.sillersfamily.wordpress.com