- Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954–1989 by Stephanie R. Rolph
Despite a title that implies a broad-based history of the Citizens' Councils in the South and in the nation as a whole, this book focuses largely on the Association of Citizens' Councils of Mississippi, the Jackson Citizens' Council, and the Citizens' Councils of America that, apart from its early years in the Delta, operated from headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, until closing its doors in 1989. Rolph aims to build on Neil R. McMillen's southern-wide study, The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64 (Urbana, 1994; orig. pub. 1971). She asserts that McMillen and other "historians have, for the most part, ignored the Council's later years," prematurely ending their accounts with its "ultimate failure" to prevent the civil-rights movement's success in ending de jure segregation and African-American disenfranchisement. Continuing her study through the 1980s, Rolph finds that "the Council's unwavering commitment to white supremacy ensured its continued relevance" and "ultimately saw success in its convergence with mainstream political ideology" (3).
Rolph researched extensively in personal papers, Citizens' Council materials, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission papers, newspapers, and oral histories. Her sources and methodology do not cross disciplines; Resisting Equality is a conventional history focused mostly on the Councils' top leadership. She adopts a chronological organization, but given her emphasis on the importance of addressing the Citizens' Councils after 1964, the fact that she covers that twenty-five-year period in just one of her six chapters is disappointing.
Rolph argues that the Councils in Mississippi enjoyed a unique degree of local white support. Local Mississippi councils "acted more or less independently" and, especially during their peak popularity between 1954 and 1964, used "economic and physical intimidation" that amounted to "racial terrorism" to dissuade African Americans from challenging racial discrimination (5, 6). In Yazoo City, for example, the council ensured that notices in the the local white-owned newspaper and various other outlets publicized the names of African Americans who signed a public-school desegregation petition, thereby inviting retribution, such as loss of employment.
Without evidence, Rolph argues that local Councils were violent toward African Americans. She cites the claims of contemporary journalists but concedes that they also lacked proof of council violence. Discussing the murder of civil-rights activist George Lee in May 1955, Rolph writes, "The Council's involvement with his murder seemed well known," but she offers no substantiation, noting, "No one was ever convicted of his murder" (45, 46). Rolph mentions Emmett Till's murder, also in 1955, but admits that "Till's murderers had no clear ties to the Citizens' Council" (46). Rolph's only evidence of Citizens' Council [End Page 141] violence is the murder in June 1963 of Mississippi civil-rights leader Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith, a council member in Greenwood, who was eventually convicted in 1994. Prominent Council members condemned Evers' murder, and Rolph admits that "Beckwith could have been acting on his own" (143).
Rolph's main focus is the Citizens' Councils' higher echelons and their efforts to cultivate connections with conservatives and the radical right in the United States and South Africa through a weekly television program called Citizens' Council Forum broadcast between 1957 and 1966 and through speaking engagements, correspondence, and networking. Such efforts assumed increasing importance as the Council lost influence among Mississippi's political leaders when civil-rights successes marginalized unrepentant, militant segregationists. Rolph's own evidence contradicts her argument that the Citizens' Councils remained relevant; they became increasingly peripheral, even to the private schools that they had founded in Mississippi to evade public-school desegregation. Without offering evidence, Rolph claims that white supremacy "became enshrined within" the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan. The councils did not endorse Reagan for president but celebrated his victory, while remaining "much more comfortable within Radical Right networks" (185).
Apart from its evidential shortcomings, the book lacks a list of abbreviations as well as a sufficiently inclusive index to aid readers. Sometimes...