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  • The South Confronts the Court:The Southern Manifesto of 1956
  • Anthony Badger (bio)

On Monday, March 12, Georgia's senior senator, Walter George, rose in the Senate to read a manifesto blasting the Supreme Court. The Manifesto condemned the "unwarranted decision" of the Court in Brown as a "clear abuse of judicial power" in which the Court "with no legal basis for such action, undertook to exercise their naked judicial power and substituted their personal political and social ideas for the established law of the land." The signers pledged themselves "to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation." It was signed by nineteen of the twenty-two southern senators, by every member of the congressional delegations from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, by all but one of the representatives from Florida, all but one from Tennessee, all but three from North Carolina, and half of the Texas delegation.

To examine the Southern Manifesto is to see a snapshot of the relationship between political leaders, popular opinion, and racial change at a precise moment in time. This essay examines the motives of the drafters, the force which they were able to exert over more moderate southern congressmen, and the motivation and fate of those who did not sign. It aims to explain why the faith of the Supreme Court justices that responsible southern leaders would take their communities into voluntary compliance with the law of the land was misplaced. It tests the self-exculpatory model of Massive Resistance in which the leaders of the South had no alternative but to bow to popular white racism. Do the electoral consequences for the nonsigners suggest that there was a political road not taken by southern leaders in the 1950s? [End Page 126]


The idea of a manifesto was Strom Thurmond's and he drafted the first version. There was no doubt that the former Dixiecrat presidential candidate was entirely serious. He was not simply deferring to popular sentiment. All political leaders in the state were united in their determination to resist desegregation. Older and younger political leaders were united behind a program that combined school equalization and the attempt to buy off conservative black leaders in order to prevent the process of desegregation getting started. Harry Ashmore, the Arkansas newspaper editor representing presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, was anxious to dissuade Thurmond from a public gesture, since the manifesto would force potential Stevenson supporters in the South out on a limb on the segregation issue: "If he pushes it, there are all kind of people that are going to be put on the spot. They're going to have to sign it." When he approached Olin Johnston, Thurmond's colleague and former New Deal supporter, Johnston lamented that the "the trouble with Strom is that he believes all that shit." But the real problem was that Johnston and other South Carolina leaders believed it as well. Defiance of the Supreme Court in South Carolina was driven by leaders as much as by popular sentiment.1

What Thurmond hoped to achieve by his manifesto was to enforce this unanimity of opinion on defiance of the Supreme Court in other parts of the South, to force other politicians, who might waver in their commitment to segregation, to proclaim their determination to protect traditional patterns of race relations. As far as Thurmond was concerned, the manifesto was certainly "not for home consumption." Rather, the aim was to "obtain unity of action" throughout the South. As Thurmond and his staff were subsequently proud to point out, the core of Thurmond's original version of the manifesto remained intact after all the various drafts and revisions of the Declaration: in particular, his reading of the Constitution, the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment, judicial precedents for separate but equal, and the importance of parental control over education.2

Thurmond was a political lightweight as an upstart freshman senator. His idea for a manifesto would have been stillborn had it not been taken up by Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, who prevailed upon Walter George to...


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