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White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement

Many feared change

29 December 2008
Police in front of demonstrators (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Demonstrators protest integration of a New Orleans public school in 1960.

By Jason Sokol

A Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, Sokol is also the author of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights. This article is excerpted from the book Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.

African Americans who waged epic struggles for civil rights also altered white Southerners’ worlds. Some whites embraced the prospect of a new interracial land. Many more reacted with hostility. They feared social and political change, and grappled uncomfortably with the fact that their way of life seemed gone for good.

The “Southern way of life” encompassed a distinctive mix of economic, social, and cultural practices — symbolized by the fragrant magnolia, the slow pace of life, and the sweet mint julep, a popular alcoholic beverage. It also contained implications about the region’s racial order — one in which whites wielded power and blacks accommodated. Centuries of slavery and decades of segregation cemented a legal and political system characterized by white dominance. By the 20th century, “Jim Crow” had become a shorthand for legalized segregation. (That phrase derived from the name of a character in a 19th century minstrel show in which whites wore blackface makeup and caricatured slave culture.) Massive inequalities marked every facet of daily life. Blacks always addressed whites as “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” though whites seldom bestowed such courtesy titles on African Americans. Blacks labored in white homes as nannies, cooks, maids, and yardmen. Whites expected docility; black resistance seemed unfathomable.

Through the long years of slavery and segregation, white Southerners produced and absorbed cruel stereotypes about African Americans: that they were unclean and shiftless, unintelligent and oversexed. Blacks became either clowns or savages, with no area in between. Whites often defined themselves — their status, identities, daily lives, and self-worth — in relation to these concocted notions about African Americans. If blacks were submissive and infantile, whites were strong and dignified. Blackness meant degradation; to be free was to be white. The civil rights struggle threatened to hoist African Americans up and out of this social “place” that whites had created for them. White Southerners would find blacks in their schools and neighborhoods, their restaurants, and polling places. Many whites feared this vision of the Southern future.

Many white Southerners came to believe that African Americans abided — and even enjoyed — their roles as second-class citizens. When the civil rights movement tore through the South in the 1950s and 1960s, it exposed the falsity of such beliefs. At long last, African Americans voiced their discontent and demanded dignity. Black rebellion clashed so sharply with white perceptions that many disbelieved their own eyes. And as grassroots organizers led a mass movement for black equality, whites rose up in resistance.

The U.S. Supreme Court, with its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ensured that Southern schools would become the first battlegrounds. The court ruled that segregated schools stamped black children with a “badge of inferiority,” and that Southern states must integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Southern politicians denounced the court ruling. In language that played upon whites’ underlying racial fears and stoked contempt for the federal government, senators such as Harry Byrd of Virginia claimed the court had overstepped its bounds. White Southerners tried to circumvent the order, and rallied to beat back desegregation at every turn. Local leaders and businessmen organized themselves into Citizens Councils, groups that visited economic reprisal upon any blacks — or whites — who dared advocate integration. In 1957, a federal court ordered integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools. Nine blacks were selected to enroll in Little Rock’s Central High School, but Governor Orval Faubus blocked the students from the schoolhouse door. After initial reluctance, President Dwight Eisenhower mobilized a battle group of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to enforce the court order by escorting the “Little Rock Nine” to class. When several African-American teenagers finally arrived at Central, they encountered a vicious white mob. Parents jeered the incoming students and the federal marshals who protected them. Enraged white Southerners deplored a scene they thought had died with Reconstruction: that of federal troops protecting blacks’ civil rights in the South.

A similar conflagration erupted in New Orleans when that city became the first in the Deep South to desegregate. In November 1960, four African-American girls integrated Frantz Elementary School in the city’s Ninth Ward. That neighborhood was one of the city’s poorest. In addition to grievances against organized blacks and an active federal government, white Southerners also felt deep class divides. White Ninth Ward residents believed that the city’s rich and powerful had foisted integration upon them — and them alone. Across the region, poor whites shouldered the “burden” of integration. If the upper classes maintained social safety valves like country clubs, private schools, and exclusive suburbs, poorer whites confronted the fact that their public schools, swimming pools, and neighborhoods were often the first to experience desegregation.

Millions of white Southerners found champions in politicians such as Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who both cultivated and exploited for political gain a deep anti-civil-rights sentiment. In his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He became the very picture of white resistance. Members of the Ku Klux Klan — a violent organization driven by racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism — persisted in a similar delusion: that the bloodshed they inflicted could postpone the day of racial equality. In 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, Klansmen bombed a black Baptist church and killed four girls. The next year, Klansmen in Philadelphia, Mississippi, murdered three civil rights workers and buried them under an earthen dam. Such gruesome violence sickened many white Southerners, and rifts emerged within the white South. Still, a majority desired the same end — a return to the nostalgic days when blacks doffed their hats to whites and acquiesced to their roles in the segregated Jim Crow order.

Extremism on one side often handed victory to the other. The Klan’s horrifying violence pricked white America’s conscience and, ultimately, moved the nation closer to passage of epic civil rights legislation — the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. When President Lyndon Johnson, himself a native Texan and a Southerner, helped usher the legislation through Congress, white Southerners felt betrayed.

The Civil Rights Act integrated businesses and public facilities. Suddenly, whites had to serve blacks in their stores and dine beside them at restaurants. Such changes shattered the rhythm of white southerners’ daily lives. Many whites denounced the “Civil Wrongs Bill,” holding that such federal laws imperiled their own rights. They clung to the notion that rights were finite, and that as blacks gained freedom, whites must suffer a loss of their own liberties. On the precarious seesaw of Southern race relations, whites thought they would plummet if blacks ascended. Throughout black-majority areas, the Voting Rights Act granted African Americans a stunning new power. In these citadels of the old slave South, where whites were outnumbered by a ratio of almost four-to-one, blacks voted some of their own into political office. In several rural locales, like Macon County and Greene County, Alabama, African Americans suddenly wielded political power. Before the civil rights years, few whites could have conceived of such transformations. By the 1970s, the previously unthinkable became political reality.

The civil rights movement forever altered white Southerners’ everyday lives, upended their traditional attitudes about blacks, and, in some towns, shifted the balance of political power. It stripped the veneers of docility from African Americans and invested them with a new dignity. Life seemed unrecognizable to many white Southerners. Confronted with a reality they had barely contemplated, some whites retaliated with any weapons at their disposal. Others attempted to avoid the upheaval; they tried to maintain cherished ways of life even as the ground shifted beneath their feet. In the end, evasion proved impossible. While whites fought the civil rights movement with varying strategies of resistance, few escaped its long reach.

In the end, the civil rights movement transformed the South and the nation. As it changed Southerners’ lives and minds, some whites felt they had been liberated — freed from the mandate to degrade and oppress, free from the roles they assumed in the constricting racial hierarchy. Into the 21st century, however, racial inequality continues to haunt American life. Black Americans remain disproportionately impoverished, imprisoned, and undereducated. Yet many ghosts of the Jim Crow South have vanished. After the civil rights movement, African Americans could attend integrated schools, they ran for — and won — political office, and they lived with a dignity that the culture of Jim Crow had denied. These changes also seeped into white Southern life and reshaped its very contours. The civil rights movement pushed Southerners, black and white alike, further along the path toward racial equality.

Hooded Ku Klux Klan members (AP Images)

The Ku Klux Klan advocated white supremacy and employed terrorism and violence against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and others.