In Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era, Clive Webb takes on the stories of five white extremists who waged war against integration with vehement hate. Webb's purpose is to "[assess] the causes, characteristics, and consequences of far-right activism in the South from the 1950s to the 1960s" (p. 2). Webb argues that these men were not pathological anomalies but represented something "deeply rooted in the American political culture," something seen in today's resurgent far right (p. 214).
Of the five men Webb profiles, two focused their energies on fighting school desegregation and entered their target communities as relative outsiders (Bryant Bowles and John Kasper), two were former military men who mounted multiple unsuccessful campaigns for political office and encouraged violence as a necessary means to defend their homeland (John Crommelin and Edwin A. Walker), and one was the "most violently fanatical racist spawned by massive resistance" who served as legal defense for perpetrators of anti-civil-rights violence, was suspected in bombings and murders, and laid the foundation for contemporary white hate organizations (p. 153). Each man exploited class tensions among southern whites by organizing working-class and poor whites against economic and political elites, who were portrayed as complacent pawns of the federal government and Jewish communists. To foment violence, these self-proclaimed saviors of the white race also fueled white fears about black men preying on white women. Finally, while the men espoused some variation in their rhetoric, each developed anti-Semitic claims, even when they had little knowledge of or interaction with Jews.
Webb does an impressive job of explicating the contours and context of the efforts of these men. He shows how local political contexts shaped their successes and failures. Webb also details how these five men and the organizations with which they were affiliated [End Page 441] affected the overall trajectory of massive resistance. Finally, he offers interesting evidence about the ways in which support of free speech made strange bedfellows between the far right and far left.
Webb strives to be fair in his assessments of who these men were and how they came to build careers as extreme racists while accommodation was creeping across the South. Interestingly, he calls the men and the organizations and actions with which they were affiliated "terrorist," imposing a contemporary framework on the analysis (arguably a very well-deserved one). These five men were marginalized and repeatedly arrested during the civil rights era, but they were also—as Webb himself notes—often enabled by the complicity of white elites. In short, in the landscape of the era, they were regarded as nuisances by white officials who also spouted invective but often couched it in what they saw as the more amenable discourse of states' rights.
Webb's initial claim that the five men whose stories he shares are significant for having had "the most direct political impact on the civil rights struggle" is a bold one that is not fully supported in the text (p. 2). Arguably, groups like the Citizens' Council or white members of the state legislatures had more impact than these five extremists, both in repressing activism and in unintentionally advancing the cause of civil rights.
In his well-documented analysis, Webb argues that these five rabble-rousers ultimately did more to further the cause of civil rights than hurt it. Webb's book is a compelling one, not least because the reader is drawn to see parallels between the past and present throughout the book. In the end, Webb's claim that the five extremists profiled here indicate a deeper problem in the American political culture is convincing—both by the evidence itself and by Webb's very nicely written interpretation of it. [End Page 442]
Jenny Irons teaches sociology at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. She is author of Reconstituting Whiteness: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (2010) and is beginning a new project on how women negotiate the...