That Defective Southern Memory Thing…

29 Dec

Former RNC Chair, and current Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour’s fond memories of White Citizen’s Councils …

And the reality.

How Things Change... The Old...

The Real Story of the White Citizens’ Council

And New. Former Republican Senator George Allen and Council of Conservative Citizens

Although the term “historical revisionist” seems to have been co-opted these days by committed right-wingers who typically reserve it for liberals who refuse to adhere to the true and sacred American narrative according to Limbaugh and Beck, apparently Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour didn’t get the memo.  In a recent interview with The Weekly Standard, Barbour, who is a favorite of the ultraconservative, race-baiting Council of Conservative Citizens, offered a startling new interpretation of this group’s massive resistance-era antecedent, the arch-segregationist White Citizens’ Council, whose title was subsequently deracinated to become the Citizens’ Councils of America.  When asked how his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi came to integrate its public schools relatively peacefully in 1970, Barbour responded:

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

Mississippi Governor and Former RNC CHair Haley Barobor at Council of Conservative Citizens BBQ

The White Citizens’ Council was formed in July 1954 in Indianola, a little north of Yazoo City in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, by a World War II veteran and plantation manager, Robert B. “Tut” Patterson, and some local businessmen and politicos.  The council organizers had been inspired by a speech by Judge Tom Brady, also a Mississippian, who called on Southern whites to mount an organized resistance campaign against the Supreme Court’s integration decree.  The Council spread across, and ultimately out of, Mississippi, generally attracting the white economic and political elites of the Deep South’s Black Belt counties but later making some inroads among blue-collar whites in the cities as well.

Pledged to maintain white supremacy, the councils foreswore violence but did their best to intimidate blacks who might think about challenging the status quo and to make painful examples of those who did.  Perched atop the local economic pyramid, the councils’ white elites could seriously reduce, if not cut off entirely, the flow of commerce and credit, not to mention employment, to blacks who got out of line.  Council leaders typically made it a point to see that the names of any black persons who had attempted to register to vote or signed petitions for school desegregation made their way to the local newspapers so that whites in the community would know which blacks to fire, turn off their tenant farms, or deny credit.  An Alabama council member summed up his group’s aims quite candidly when he explained, “We intend to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a Negro who advocates desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit, or renew a mortgage.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins Speaking at C of CC Event

Council membership may have reached a region-wide total of 300,000 at one point, but the group’s political influence varied considerably from state to state.  It was strongest by far in Mississippi, where the Council propagandized about the horrors of racial amalgamation and publicized the NAACP’s “well-known” ties to communism.  The group also worked closely with the publicly funded State Sovereignty Commission to spy on, harass, and undermine not only those thought to favor integration but those whose attitudes toward it were simply unclear.  The pugnacious editor and publisher Hazel Brannon Smith, who would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for her editorial assaults on the Citizens’ Council, described the atmosphere in Holmes County, Mississippi, when the group’s power was at its peak:

The councils said that if we buried our heads in the sand long enough, the problem would go away.  It was the technique of the big lie, like Hitler:  tell it often enough and everybody will believe it.  It finally got to the point where bank presidents and leading physicians were afraid to speak their honest opinions, because of this monster among us.

What is so striking about Gov. Barbour’s description of how the Citizens’ Council supposedly kept Yazoo City Klan-free is that it actually describes how the Council operated at the local level to keep blacks from pursuing their civil rights.  Take, for example, the following incident which occurred, of all places, in Yazoo City. On August 5, 1955 the local NAACP chapter submitted a petition bearing fifty-three signatures to the school board asking for immediate desegregation of all schools.  Stunned that the supposedly well-treated, contented black citizenry of Yazoo City would make such a move, the local Citizens’ Council move swiftly.  The first step was to run a large advertisement in the Yazoo City Herald listing the names of the petitioners, who had already been identified in the paper’s account of the petition being filed.  Most of the petitioners were black professionals, businessmen, and tradesmen who seemed to have achieved a measure of economic independence that promised to insulate them from white pressure and coercion.  It soon became obvious, however, that NAACP leaders had underestimated the amount of economic influence the local whites still enjoyed over members of the black middle class in Mississippi.  One by one, those who signed the petition lost their jobs or whatever “business” or “trade” they had with whites.  Some blacks move quickly to remove their names from the list. Others held out but eventually followed suit.  Many of those who removed their names found it impossible to get their old jobs back, nor could they find new employment.  Many left town altogether.  Only those who were totally dependent on the black community for their incomes managed to survive economically.  By the end of the year only two names remained on the petition; both belong to people who had already left town.  And NAACP officials admitted that the local chapter had lost members as a result of the petition drive.  “We expected pressure,” said another, “but not this much. We just weren’t prepared for it.” (more)

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Posted by on December 29, 2010 in Black History, Stupid Republican Tricks


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