By: Davis Houck
When the United States Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the Brown v. Board of Education school integration case on May 17, 1954, the decision kicked off a campaign of “massive resistance” across the South.
According to the justices, separate could never be equal, thus overturning nearly 60 years of legally enforced segregation. Immediately after the verdict white southern politicians pledged their states to defiance: how dare the “Communists” on the court declare their “way of life” unconstitutional. The principal fear resulting from the Court’s decision was that school integration would lead to interracial dating, interracial marriage, the “mongrelization” of the white race, and the eventual take-over of the country by Communists. Left unsaid, of course, was that white men had been having sex with black women for centuries.
Perhaps the best organized and funded form of resistance was known as the White Citizens’ Councils. Formed at this house in Indianola on July 11, 1954, the Citizens’ Councils spread quickly, with tens of thousands of members across several states by 1955. Headquartered initially in Winona, and later in Greenwood, the Councils pledged themselves to resisting school integration. Rather than violent resistance typified by the Ku Klux Klan, the Councils enacted different forms of terrorism—most notably through financial retribution. Whether it was in the form of store credit being cancelled, a job threatened or lost, a loan being called in, or an outright consumer boycott, the Council movement effectively coerced many would-be black activists to withdraw support for integrationist aims.
And while the Councils publicly opposed violence, members were not altogether innocent of terrorizing local blacks willing to resist their economic intimidation. For example, Council members actively threated Belzoni merchants Gus Courts and Reverend George W. Lee; in fact, two Council members, Peck Ray and Joe David Watson, Sr., were targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as suspects in Lee’s murder. The shotgun assassination of Lee while he drove home on May 7, 1955 foreshadowed a summer of violence in Mississippi, culminating in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till less than four months later. In fact, Steve Whitaker claims that each member of the Till jury was personally visited and lobbied by a member of the Citizens Council. So successful was the Council movement among white southern men that the state of Mississippi actually helped fund the organization through its State Sovereignty Commission, thus channeling public tax dollars to a private racist organization.
Robert B. “Tut” Patterson, a plantation manager and former football star at Mississippi State from Indianola, served as Executive Secretary of the organization throughout its early years. Under his leadership the Councils published a weekly newspaper (back issues available), a weekly radio program (transcripts available at Mississippi State University), and the Councils generally commanded the respect of middle-upper class white southern society. Today the organization lives on through the Council of Conservative Citizens.