- Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936–1965
At the 2004 Organization of American Historians (OAH) meeting in Boston, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall delivered her presidential address on the “long civil rights movement,” a new initiative to reexamine the historiographical periodization of the black freedom struggle. Since her speech—and an article published the following year (“The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91 [March 2005]: 1233–64)—the “long civil rights movement” has redefined the field. Whether scholars embrace or reject this effort to broaden the scope of the movement, no civil rights study can simply ignore it.
In Defending White Democracy, Jason Morgan Ward lengthens the timeline of white opposition to black civil rights, and he quickly gestures to Hall: “If there was a ‘long civil rights movement,’ there was a long segregationist movement” (p. 2). While Ward situates his study within the burgeoning historiography of conservatism and the long civil rights movement, he contends that scholarship by Hall, Joseph Crespino, David L. Chappell, and others fails to identify the New Deal origins of the white segregationist movement. As such, Ward traces this white resistance from 1936—when fissures in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “southern wall of support” began to show—to 1965, the “legislative climax of the civil rights movement” and the moment at which “segregationist predictions of a national white backlash materialized” (pp. 10, 182). By the late 1930s, Ward argues, figures such as Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge warned of a nascent civil rights movement threatening white supremacy. Although [End Page 322] many dismissed Talmadge and others like him as “rabble-rousers,” white southerners increasingly feared that their way of life would be upended by New Deal liberals, African Americans, Communists, and other subversives (p. 37).
When the United States entered World War II and black activists launched the “Double V” campaign, these racial anxieties bubbled to the surface and began to figure more prominently in southern political life. Ward notes that white supremacists responded with “their own vision of Double Victory,” one that would vanquish the fascist menace abroad and the specters of “federal tyranny” and “black insurgency” at home (pp. 39, 64). Thus, the war galvanized both African Americans and white southerners in their conflicting causes, a fact often overlooked in civil rights histories. As the nation transitioned from war to peace, moreover, the “expedient egalitarianism of the war effort” forced “white supremacists” to become “segregationists”—that is, simultaneously cautious of “militant bigotry” yet devoted to the racial status quo (pp. 90–1). Accordingly, the white conservative “battle cry” shifted to one of “states’ rights,” and the Dixiecrats emerged in 1948 as an expression of this “sectional militancy” and disdain for Democratic civil rights proposals (pp. 100–1).
Ward hits his stride in his assessment of massive resistance. While many scholars use the Brown and Brown II decisions as “anchor dates” for southern resistance, Ward posits that the rhetoric and tactics employed by white segregationists after 1954 were not new (p. 4). Rather, they evolved out of oppositional strategies embraced by southern conservatives since “the earliest signs of a civil rights revolution” (p. 153). White supremacist rhetoric and action attained a new level of national visibility in the 1950s and 1960s, but the segregationist cause had not been born at mid-century.
Although Ward has delivered a fine piece of scholarship that builds nicely on the existing historiography, his book falters in a few areas. First, Ward utilizes a problematic methodology in which he focuses on “particular states within a subregion of the South.” He recognizes the “imperfect” nature of this approach, yet he fails to adequately explain its merits (p. 8). Throughout the book, Ward seems to flit between states without proper consideration of their divergent [End Page 323] political cultures. Thus, the chapters—and even the vignettes within them—often feel...