The South’s formal response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision came in the form of a document called the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, signed by ninety-nine of the region’s 128 members of Congress. This document, popularly dubbed “the Southern Manifesto,” denounced the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision and called for its reversal. With the promulgation of the Southern Manifesto in March 1956, the South’s leaders helped to establish massive resistance as the white South’s response to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Historians of the era have consistently acknowledged the significance of the document, but, astonishingly, it took more than half a century for a scholarly monograph on the Southern Manifesto to be published. John Kyle Day is to be commended for finally producing this much-needed and thoroughly researched examination of what he calls “the single worst episode of racial demagoguery in the era of postwar America” (p. 3).
Day rightly asserts, I believe, that the Southern Manifesto “remains both misunderstood by scholars and largely forgotten by the public-at-large” (p. 3). To help rectify this situation, Day first places the manifesto in historical context by dedicating the bulk of the first two chapters to the events leading up to and resulting from the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling. In short, Day argues that by the end of 1955 white southerners had divided into two different camps, with moderates on one side calling for gradual compliance with Brown and intransigent segregationists on the other side promoting interposition and noncompliance. Designed to appeal to leaders in both camps, the Southern Manifesto united white southerners and infused resistance to civil rights with respectability. Consequently, Day argues, it convinced most Americans that white southern opposition to Brown should be seriously considered and that desegregation should proceed at a very slow pace. [End Page 278]
This relatively long-term consequence resulted, however, from the manifesto’s more immediate objective: to bolster the re-election bids of southern Democratic incumbents in Congress. This, Day contends, is the key to understanding the manifesto. It was primarily a political document written by the members of the southern congressional delegation to personally help them fend off challenges from more rabid segregationists in the 1956 national elections, to prevent the formation of a politically disastrous third party like that of the “Dixiecrats” in 1948, and to help southern Democrats maintain their hold on committee chairmanships in the House and Senate. The Southern Manifesto, therefore, was not, as is commonly believed, the handiwork of Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina or a document that moderates signed out of compulsion. Rather, it was the creation of virtually the entire southern congressional delegation, under the leadership not of Thurmond but of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Likewise, the so-called moderates who signed it were “self-interested seekers of reelection” (p. 112) who were “fully committed—intellectually, socially, and politically—to the preservation of segregation” (pp. 109–10).
Scholars may question some of Day’s arguments, such as his assertion that the Southern Manifesto constituted the single worst occurrence of racial demagoguery in 1950s America, or that “moderate” signatories of the document, such as Congressman Brooks Hays and Senator J. William Fulbright, both of Arkansas, were fully committed to segregation. However, it is indisputable that the heart of Day’s book, where he traces the origins and development of the Southern Manifesto itself, constitutes a significant contribution to the historical literature of the civil rights era. This well-written work fills a void in our understanding of the white southern response to the civil rights movement and should inform subsequent works examining this period in America’s history. [End Page 279]
BRENT J. AUCOIN teaches history at the College at Southeastern in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is the author of A Rift in the Clouds: Race and the Southern Federal Judiciary, 1900–1910 (2007) and a biography of Thomas Goode Jones (forthcoming from the University of...