After the US Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in its May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Tut Patterson organized the Citizens’ Council to resist the ruling. The group held its first meeting in Indianola on 11 July with the backing of fourteen prominent Mississippians, including the town’s mayor. Indianola selected Patterson as its Citizen of the Year. A few months later, representatives from twenty-two counties created the Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi, headquartered in Greenwood, and chose Patterson to serve as executive secretary, the organization’s only salaried administrator in its early days. Beginning in 1956 he also served as secretary of the Association of Citizens’ Councils of America.
Robert Boyd Patterson was born on 13 December 1921 in Clarksdale. He attended Mississippi State College, where he starred on the football team. During his senior year he served as team captain and was named all–Southeastern Conference. Patterson graduated in 1943 and immediately entered the army, where he served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division and fought in Europe from the D-Day invasion to the occupation of Germany, rising to the rank of major. After the war Patterson became a plantation manager in LeFlore County and married Mary Agnes Chism of Clarksdale. Under his wife’s influence he became a Methodist.
“History proves,” Patterson once declared, “that the supreme power in the government of men has always been public opinion.” The Council’s purpose was clear—stirring opposition to integration. The group’s first task was ensuring the passage of a state amendment giving the legislature power to close public schools and provide tuition grants for segregated private schools. Patterson warned that integrated schools were only the beginning. The future of the nation, he told Council members, depended on “Southern white people.” “If we white Southerners submit, . . . the malignant powers of mongrelization, communism, and atheism will surely destroy this Nation from within. Racial intermarriage has already begun in the North and unless stopped will spread to the South.”
Patterson relied on exaggeration and even fabrication. In 1955 he released what was allegedly a recording of a speech by Roosevelt Williams, a professor at Howard University and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. According to the tape, the group’s “real” agenda was “integration of the white bedroom,” since white women longed for black men. The tape was widely distributed, with the attorney general of Georgia mailing transcripts in official envelopes. However, the recording was a fake, and Williams did not exist. Patterson downplayed the hoax, declaring, “We never claimed it to be authentic.”
Membership in the Citizens’ Councils peaked at around one million, and southern resistance delayed significant school desegregation for a decade, allowing whites time to organize private schools and flee the public school system. In 1966 Patterson helped to found Greenwood’s Pillow Academy, from which his two sons and two daughters graduated. After the Methodist Church began to espouse what Patterson saw as “its social gospel,” he also helped organize an Independent Methodist Church.
Around 1961 William Simmons, editor of the Citizens’ Council magazine, quietly surpassed Patterson among the Council’s leaders. The organization had developed from its rural grassroots origins into a sophisticated publicity machine, and Patterson lacked the social standing and boardroom polish of Simmons, who came from a prominent banking family. Simmons’s corporate background advanced the organization’s long-standing goal of marshaling the region’s elite. Patterson continued to play a pivotal role as executive secretary and as a public speaker throughout the former Confederate states.
By 1970 the successes of the civil rights movement led Patterson to conclude that the “Federal Government is now fully committed to the amalgamation of the white and black races.” Integration was in evidence everywhere, even “our national news media” and “entertainment such as television.” “The Negro is thrust into every situation on television, obviously and unnaturally.” Patterson hoped others shared his disgust: “I believe most people resent it.” However uneasy whites felt about integration, Patterson and his allies overestimated American racism. Southern segregation and the Council’s resemblance to Nazism made many uncomfortable. Patterson himself published in neo-Nazi journals.
The Citizens’ Council formally disbanded in 1989 but was replaced by the Council of Conservative Citizens, which Gordon Baum had founded four years earlier based on the Citizens’ Council’s mailing list. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Council of Conservative Citizens as a white nationalist hate group, but it retains some influence. It has approximately fifteen thousand members and continues the Citizens’ Council’s mission of raising money for private white academies. Patterson carried on his career in organized racism as a member of the advisory board and a columnist for the Citizens Informer, the Council of Conservative Citizens’ primary publication. The Informer’s editor described him as “our revered elder statesman.”
Patterson died on 21 September 2017 at age ninety-five.
- Heidi Beirich and Bob Moser, “Communing with the Council,” Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center) (Fall 2004)
- Hodding Carter III, The South Strikes Back (1959)
- Citizen Council Publications Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Hank Klibanoff, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (19 June 1983)
- Neil McMillen, The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964 (1994)
- Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (7 January 1993)
- Robert Boyd Patterson Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Southern Poverty Law Center website, www.splcenter.org