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The birth of the Citizens' Council

A blazing wooden cross 9 feet high was jammed into a pipe sunk into the ground in front of Pensacola High School. It was May 20, 1954, just three days after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On the same night, many miles across the state of Florida, on the Atlantic coast, another cross burst into flames. This one, wrapped in burlap and soaked with kerosene, was placed on a ridge overlooking the black section of Fort Pierce.

Thus began a fierce campaign of white resistance to integration. While most Ku Klux Klan groups still relied on violence and the intimidating message conveyed by its flaming symbols, the newly formed movement of "Citizens' Councils" had another idea: use more "respectable" economic pressure against "agitators" who demanded desegregation.

The first Citizens' Council was formed in conservative, cotton-rich Sunflower County, Miss., inspired by Judge Tom P. Brady's hastily printed tract, Black Monday, the text of a speech he gave to the Greenwood, Miss., chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution a few months after the Brown decision. Black Monday is a veritable encyclopedia of racist ideas that proposed the creation of a 49th state solely for blacks, and contained such lurid observations as: "Whenever and wherever the white man has drunk the cup of black hemlock, whenever and wherever his blood has been infused with the blood of the Negro, the white man, his intellect and his culture have died."

One man heavily influenced by Black Monday was Robert B. "Tut" Patterson, a former Mississippi State University football star, World War II paratrooper and the manager of a 1,500-acre cotton plantation in Leflore County. After reading Brady's remarks, Patterson called together 14 prominent businessmen and civic leaders on July 11, 1954, in Indianola, Miss. The meeting was soon followed by a larger gathering of whites at the town hall, and the first Citizens' Council was born. Barely six months later, the newly formed State Association claimed affiliates in 33 counties, with new out-of-state councils in Alabama and Georgia.

Within a year, the movement boasted 60,000 members in 253 councils throughout Mississippi. While the blood sport of racial violence never lost its appeal for some white Mississippians, the Citizens' Council movement tried to cast itself as a law-abiding entity. With only 22,000 of the state's nearly 1 million blacks registered to vote in 1952, the Citizens' Councils emphatically recommended that whites discourage Negro registration "by every legal means."

When Citizens' Council delegates from 11 Southern states met two years later, the movement claimed 300,000 members, and they renamed themselves the Citizens' Councils of America. Although most Councilors (as they called themselves) regarded their lower-class Klan cousins with contempt, the movement was just as thoroughly racist. "In general, the nature of the Negro is more primitive and childlike than the Whites, and his crimes are likely to be more savage and less sophisticated," wrote prominent psychologist Henry E. Garrett in one Council publication.

Such beliefs were commonplace among the elite that closed ranks with the Citizens' Councils and the South's leading politicians to oppose integration. Chief among the latter was Mississippi's senior senator, James O. Eastland, who in 1956 was one of more than 100 congressmen and senators from 11 states who signed a "Southern Manifesto" asserting that the Brown decision and its legal progeny were unconstitutional.

The Citizens' Councils also embraced anti-Semitism. Because integrationists were considered Communists and Jews were seen as the principal agents of communist subversion, many hard-line segregationists concluded that Jews were the driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement. This theory had the added benefit of divesting blacks of intellectual and moral stature and reducing them to mere pawns in the struggle between devious Jews and the Christian defenders of white civilization.

One year after the Brown decision, the Supreme Court issued an enforcement decree, ordering lower federal courts in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware to implement its landmark ruling "with all deliberate speed." But the ruling had little immediate effect. Still, worried Citizens' Council militants sprang into action. In Selma, Ala., more than half of those blacks courageous enough to support a desegregation petition lost their jobs within weeks of signing their names. In Mississippi, South Carolina and elsewhere, Citizens' Council leaders began to aggressively implement the solution first proposed by Judge Brady in Black Monday: They activated his call for "a cold war and an economic boycott" against black agitators. "A great many Negro employees will be discharged," Brady predicted.

And they were. State legislatures also attacked black activists with new laws that especially targeted the NAACP. These wide-ranging and unconstitutional statutes required disclosure of NAACP membership rolls, demanded the dismissal of public employees who were NAACP members, and subjected the organization to investigations by state agencies and committees.


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