On this dayJul 11, 1954

First White Citizens’ Council Forms to Oppose School Integration

Image | University of Mississippi

On July 11, 1954, white residents of Indianola, Mississippi, formed a White Citizens’ Council to organize and carry out massive resistance to racial integration of public schools.

After the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, mandating an end to racial segregation in public schools, a Mississippi Circuit Judge named Tom Pickens Brady gave a speech criticizing the decision and urging white citizens of the state to oppose the ruling. Later, a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Brady declared integration a threat to the “Southern Way of life,” and his speech was later published as a pamphlet titled “Black Monday” (referencing the day of the week the Brown decision was released).

Robert B. “Tut” Patterson, who owned a 1,500-acre plantation near Indianola, Mississippi, was inspired by Brady’s words and soon called for a meeting of concerned white people to try and oppose integration. On July 11, a large group of local white men and women gathered at the Indianola town hall and formed the first White Citizens’ Council. One year later, 250 White Citizens’ Councils had been launched throughout the South, boasting a total of 60,000 members; by 1956, active Councils were operating in 30 states, and by 1957, membership reached 250,000.

“Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction,” Robert Patterson wrote in 1956. “Segregation represents the freedom to choose one’s associates, Americanism, State sovereignty and the survival of the white race. These two ideologies are now engaged in mortal conflict and only one can survive.”

The Councils’ membership of business, religious, and civic leaders defended white supremacy and used social pressure and economic retaliation to intimidate and coerce black and white people who supported integration. In South Carolina, where 55 Council chapters were active by July 1956, 17 black parents were fired or evicted from their farms within two weeks of signing a pro-integration petition in the small town of Elloree. In Yazoo County, Mississippi, when 53 black residents signed an NAACP petition for integration, the local Council published their names in a newspaper ad, leading to harassment, firing, and credit cancellation. In the end, all signers removed their names from the petition and the Yazoo County NAACP disbanded.

The White Citizens' Councils claimed to not endorse or engage in explicit violence, and in that way tried to differentiate themselves from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Councils, dubbed the "Uptown KKK," did largely avoid the Klan’s stigma but shared many goals -- and in some cases, members.

The massive resistance by the white community was largely successful in preventing the integration of schools in the South. In the five Deep South states, every single one of 1.4 million black schoolchildren attended segregated schools until the fall of 1960. By the start of the 1964-65 school year, less than 3 percent of the South’s African American children attended school with white students, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1 percent. In 1967, 13 years after Brown, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observed that white violence and intimidation against black people “continues to be a deterrent to school desegregation.”

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