- The Citizens’ Council and Africa:White Supremacy in Global Perspective
When the Citizens’ Council’s chief administrator, William J. Simmons, returned to Mississippi after several weeks of traveling through southern Africa in 1966, he confidently reported that he had found “no evidence” of racial tension, despite widespread reports of armed whites and “unsettled conditions” in the region. During his remarks on the Citizens’ Council weekly program, Forum, he explained that whites in southern Africa struck him as “very much like … white people in the South … prior to … the civil rights revolution.” The relationship between white and black was “one of acceptance,” with no hint of “theoretical preconceptions about how things ought to be or how some sociologist thinks they ought to be. In a word, they’re just natural.”1 Simmons’s nostalgia notwithstanding, his appearance in southern Africa in 1966 signified more than a wistful glance. The eleven Forum programs that the Citizens’ Council recorded in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and South-West Africa (Namibia) were only one piece of a broad investment that the Council made in the post–civil rights movement years to preserve what was left of the system of segregation and state-sanctioned white supremacy recently lost in the American South. Close examination reveals that the decolonization process in Africa was a consistent concern for the Citizens’ [End Page 617] Council. That consistency and the partnerships between the organization and various benefactors suggest that scholars need to develop a deeper understanding of global networks of white supremacy and their reinvigoration in the midst of challenges and institutional defeats.
Scholars of the civil rights movement have correctly situated the contours of the black freedom struggle in the United States within a global context of black liberation movements and decolonization abroad. In similar fashion, historians of American foreign policy have linked administrative priorities to both decolonization events and civil rights campaigns at home.2 In each of these approaches, scholars have uncovered communities of activism and power, contextualizing local movements within broader and more complex environments of politics, economy, and national identity. This essay suggests a similar treatment of white supremacy within the segregationist movement. It does so through an examination of the Citizens’ Council’s engagement with decolonization processes in Africa. The Council’s interest in Africa escalated dramatically after Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965, so much so that the Forum program organizers recorded interviews from various locations in southern Africa over the course of several weeks. A closer examination of the Citizens’ Council’s relationship to Africa from the organization’s beginnings in 1954 to the Rhodesian independence crisis in 1965–1966 contextualizes American iterations of white resistance within a global ecosystem of white supremacy that sustained the Council after its campaign to preserve segregation in the United States failed.
The relationship between the Citizens’ Council and white minority regimes in southern Africa is not a new area of scholarly interest. The working framework among scholars who have written about these connections recognizes the Council’s interest but lacks consensus about its motivation. Thomas Noer describes the Council’s interest in global networks of white supremacy as mostly pragmatic, an investment that, he argues, increased after 1964 in an attempt to secure financial [End Page 618] support from organizations with deeper pockets as support in Mississippi was disintegrating.3 Zoe L. Hyman’s work on the intersections of American segregationist ideology and movements to secure white power in South Africa challenges this perspective. Her research identifies a much earlier “transatlantic exchange of literature,” evidenced through the partnership of the Citizen, the monthly journal published by the Citizens’ Council, and the South African Observer, a parallel publication from Cape Town committed to maintaining white supremacy in southern Africa.4 Daniel Geary and Jennifer Sutton agree. Their examination of the Citizen throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s underscores the “sustained engagement” of white supremacist groups like the Citizens’ Council with allies committed to obstructing European decolonization efforts like those in southern Africa. Geary and Sutton’s work follows this interest in “conservative white internationalism” well into the 1980s, nearly twenty years after the...