Massive Resistance

In February 1956 Virginia’s senior senator, Harry Flood Byrd, called on southern states to undertake “massive resistance” to the growing pressure for racial desegregation from both the federal government and increasingly astute African American activists. Byrd’s phrase became an umbrella term for the intricate network of barriers that individual southern states designed and deployed to halt—or at least retard—the drive toward desegregation. In Mississippi as in the rest of the South, massive resistance was a tangled and often uneven affair that gained its coherence from a common goal of maintaining racial segregation rather than from any single overarching strategy. It reached its apogee in the Magnolia State between the spring of 1954 and the autumn of 1962, but even within those dates its breadth and pace changed subtly, encompassing both the shrewd “practical segregation” of Gov. J. P. Coleman (1956–60) and the aggressive populist racism of Gov. Ross Barnett (1960–64). Throughout its history, massive resistance involved the passage of specific legislative acts, appeals to states’ rights, propaganda campaigns, grassroots organization, and carefully choreographed campaigns of violence and intimidation, all of which were designed to maintain long-established traditions of white supremacy. Daily oppression of African Americans was intense and ongoing, but the resistance years were also characterized by grand set pieces of public political theater as Mississippi’s segregationists clashed openly with federal forces, testing the doctrine of states’ rights to its limits.

The rallying cry of massive resistance was intended for all southern states, but Mississippi set the tenor of segregationists’ legislative intransigence, provided a template for grassroots organization, and refined the ideological canon. Although historians often point to the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision as a catalyst for truly massive southern resistance, Mississippi’s segregationists took decisive steps well before that date. As early as 1948, for example, Gov. Fielding Wright introduced many of the themes and much of the rhetoric of later resistance when he ran as the Dixiecrat vice presidential candidate, and Mississippi’s state legislature sought to outmaneuver the Supreme Court by appropriating millions of dollars for a 1950 school equalization program that was specifically designed to forestall future calls for desegregation.

In the years following Brown, massive resistance reached its peak. After an abortive start in late 1953, the first real signs of organization at Mississippi’s grassroots came in July 1954 when plantation manager Robert B. “Tut” Patterson met with fourteen other men in Indianola to form the nation’s first Citizens’ Council. Patterson’s original purpose was to provide an updated and less embarrassing version of the Ku Klux Klan that would eschew open violence in favor of support for firmly prosegregation politicians and for economic intimidation to mute local dissent against the segregationist line. In October 1954 the state’s groups were so vibrant, especially in the Delta, that Patterson established the Mississippi Association of Citizens’ Councils to coordinate activity. Within two years some ninety Council groups with an estimated quarter of a million members existed across the South. Mississippi’s Citizens’ Councils remained at the forefront of organizational activity throughout the massive resistance years, especially in terms of producing propaganda. In October 1955 William J. Simmons founded the influential Citizens’ Council newspaper, and its circulation reportedly grew to between forty thousand and sixty thousand. Eighteen months later he oversaw the production of the Citizens’ Council Forum television show from his native Jackson.

A symbiotic relationship connected the grassroots forces that gathered in the Citizens’ Councils to Mississippi’s most prominent politicians, many of whom played important roles in stimulating and coordinating resistance activity. Circuit Judge Tom P. Brady’s “Black Monday” speech, named after Rep. John Bell Williams’s label for the date of the Brown decision, became one of the most important and widely reproduced pamphlets produced by the Citizens’ Councils. Sen. James O. Eastland publicly stated that Mississippians had a duty to disobey the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decisions. Mississippi’s other senator, John C. Stennis, was one of the drafters of the Southern Manifesto, in which 101 of the 128 southern members of Congress pledged to resist desegregation by “all lawful means.” And although Governor Coleman distanced himself from the Citizens’ Councils, his successor, Barnett, was widely known to be a long-standing supporter. Under the guidance of proresistance politicians, the state legislature passed a swath of laws designed to stave off desegregation and retard black political progress. A special September 1954 legislative session, for example, agreed to the closure of white schools faced with imminent desegregation, a move ratified two months later in a referendum in which sixty thousand voters indicated their approval. Other laws were designed to hamstring black protest and curtail the effectiveness of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: perhaps most notably, all school employees were required to list their organizational memberships over the previous five years. The legislature also sanctioned the 1956 creation of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which used state funds to underwrite propaganda campaigns designed to convince northerners that segregation should be allowed to continue below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Throughout Mississippi’s massive resistance, those legislative measures were underpinned by brutal acts of intimidation and violence at the local level. Some of those episodes received national and even international attention: for example, the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which caused such a furor that the murderers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were ostracized even by their fellow Mississippians, and the 1964 abduction and murder of voter registration volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Elsewhere, violence and intimidation against blacks were less well reported but no less systemic. In a typical act of segregationist retribution, thirty-eight of the fifty-three Yazoo City blacks who signed a petition calling for the desegregation of local schools were forced to flee the city, while many of those who remained were summarily fired from their jobs, denied bank loans, or refused service in local stores.

In 1962 Mississippi provided one of the most high-profile incidents of the resistance era when Barnett spearheaded an attempt to prevent African American James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi. In an indication of the increasing tensions between state and federal government, the Kennedy administration deployed twenty-three thousand troops to force Meredith’s enrollment even after officials had secretly agreed with Barnett on a way to defuse the situation. Widespread rioting followed as a mob of three thousand, many of them reputedly members of the Citizens’ Council, roamed the campus. Ultimately, however, the showdown at the university signaled that the federal government would prevail in such open confrontations, and the Citizens’ Councils’ close association with the forces of failed resistance in Oxford precipitated their decline.

Early histories suggested that as soon as it became clear that presidential administrations would not tolerate continued racial segregation and as soon as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been signed, massive resistance dissipated. Recent scholarship, however, has forcefully argued that resistance metamorphosed rather than collapsed. Segregationists learned more subtle, coded ways of denying nonwhites’ equality: in 1966, for example, the Mississippi legislature considered thirty bills designed to dilute nonwhite voting strength in the state without contravening the US Constitution. Three years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of Mississippians of voting age who were registered to vote was 23.3 percent higher for whites than for blacks. Mississippi’s segregationists had not given up their battle, but stripping their actions and rhetoric of the most egregious and open racism enabled them to find legally acceptable means of achieving their objectives.

Further Reading

  • Chris Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
  • Numan V. Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s (1969)
  • Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2009)
  • Neil McMillen, The Citizens’ Councils: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64 (1971)
  • Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
  • George Lewis, Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (2006)
  • J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
  • Maarten Zwiers, Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat (2015)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Massive Resistance
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date April 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018