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35 Chapter 2 The Relational Context of White Resistance The forces of white backlash that confronted the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s were intertwined and unrelenting. In 1955 the Citizens’ Councils mobilized white professionals and in 1963 the Ku Klux Klan galvanized working-class whites. State officials, from governors to legislators to law enforcement officers, used their respective powers to fight desegregation and create a climate that raised the cost of challenging segregation to great heights. And from 1956 to the early 1970s, the MSSC engaged in a range of activi­ ties—such as public relations, surveillance, and intervention—to protect the state’s right to maintain segregation. Collectively, albeit with different strategies, these forces defended whiteness, a racial identity and social location that defined privilege and power in the American South. Yet, these forces fought a losing battle. Or did they? The civil rights movement ultimately generated more sympathy with the federal government and the American public than did white segregationists, and desegregation came to the South, despite segregationists ’ snarling insistence on a way of life that divided white and black into powerful and subservient. While the flagrant, violent defense of whiteness became taboo, however, a significant measure of continuity in the racial order was maintained. As the boundaries that circumscribed legitimate political discourse and action shifted, whiteness was reconstituted: whites recast themselves as victims of discrimination and defenders of the freedoms of association and choice. Such changes were based on how elites perceived or experienced particular relations to be relevant. As feared by the few legislators who protested the MSSC’s formation 36 Reconstituting Whiteness and funding, the Citizens’ Council was intimately connected to the state organization from the beginning, although the relationship between the two segregationist groups was not initially as strong as the Citizens’ Council had anticipated. The nature of the relationship between the MSSC and the Citizens’ Council, as well as the nature of the MSSC’s defense and reconstitution of whiteness, depended in large part on the governor and his administration’s approach to race relations. This observation would hold true throughout the MSSC’s existence, from the days of James Coleman’s “practical segregation” to Ross Barnett’s fierce resistance to Paul Johnson’s turn to what might be called resistant accommodation.1 1956–1959: Governor James P. Coleman During its formative years, the MSSC embarked on a mission to win northern sympathy by organizing a public relations program. It also forged ties with conservative black Mississippians whose voices could be marshaled as evidence of black support for segregation. For the most part, the federal government remained distant from Mississippi politics and did not enforce civil rights provisions in the state. And while the Citizens’ Council had played a prominent role in creating the MSSC, its efforts to forge ties with the agency and profit from its resources were often thwarted under the administration of Governor James P. Coleman. Coleman became Mississippi’s governor in 1956. He was elected at a time when white Mississippians were shoring up their defense against integration . Coleman, who described his ideology as “practical segregation,” was not endorsed by the powerful Citizens’ Council in his bid for governor and intentionally distanced himself from the segregationist organization . One explanation for why he won the gubernatorial race without the council’s support was that the vote of stalwart segregationists was divided in the primary between a racist former governor, Fielding Wright, and a racist future governor, Ross Barnett.2 Subsequently, Coleman had tense relations with Citizens’ Council leaders throughout his tenure in office, which in turn resulted in tense relations between the MSSC and the Citizens ’ Council.3 While Citizens’ Council members served on the MSSC board and investigators often communicated with council members in local investigations, the Citizens’ Council was unable to get much funding from the state, either through the MSSC or legislative disbursement. Its members were also often frustrated by the MSSC’s less than aggressive The Relational Context of White Resistance 37 defense of segregation, such as when, under the leadership of Coleman, the MSSC relented to the state donation of land for the building of an integrated Veterans Affairs hospital. Though Coleman was labeled a moderate by staunch segregationists, this was no time for moderate or liberal white Mississippians to safely support —or even appear to support—black civil rights. Coleman was a segregationist and proudly touted his efforts to maintain segregated schools as well as law and order during...


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