- Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954–1989by Stephanie R. Rolph
Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954–1989by Stephanie R. Rolph is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on massive resistance—the concerted efforts of southern white supremacists to resist desegregation in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education(1954) U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Rolph takes a fresh look at the Citizens' Council, which Neil R. McMillen's The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64(Urbana, 1971) first put in the spotlight. [End Page 741]Building on McMillen's findings, Rolph provides an expanded investigative framework that carefully situates the Citizens' Council's activities in local and regional, and, moreover, national and international, contexts. She argues that maintaining white unity was the Citizens' Council's primary goal in its thirty-five-year history. That goal led its leaders "to decades of partnerships and through an evolution of white supremacy that traveled an arc from overt racial terrorism to race-neutral conservatism" (p. 13).
Rolph shows how the Citizens' Council's local origins in Indianola, a small town in the Mississippi Delta where the organization was founded in 1954, shaped its racial politics profoundly, even after the relocation of its headquarters to Jackson, Mississippi, a few years later. Faced with a majority-black population in the northwestern counties of the state, white leaders understood that in order to hold back the forces of integration, they could not just rely on local intimidation tactics and racial violence but also had to build an ideological and political framework that made the Citizens' Council's agenda attractive to all members of white society, moderates included. Rolph examines the Citizens' Council's efforts to gain both grassroots support and the support of Mississippi's political and business elite. Its longtime administrator William J. Simmons, she shows, was able to connect the organization to the highest echelons of power, especially after the election of Governor Ross R. Barnett in 1959, and to secure state funding for its activities.
Although Rolph focuses on the corporate structure, ideology, and coalition building of the Citizens' Council, she also weaves the activities of the civil rights movement into her narrative. Mostly unable to sustain direct-action campaigns due to Citizens' Council–guided resistance (which included the assassination of NAACP state field secretary Medgar Evers in 1963), the movement did gain a foothold in Mississippi and scored victories such as the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Rolph aptly examines how the forces of integration affected the Citizens' Council's state and regional standings. By the mid-1960s, it had lost its grip on white resistance and its ability to renegotiate division among Mississippi's white proponents of the status quo into one coherent white supremacist voice. As its influence in the state and the region faltered, its efforts to shape national debates on race relations increased. Rolph is at her best when she analyzes Forum, a weekly radio and television program started in 1957, as an increasingly important part of that effort. The Citizens' Council also expanded into the international politics of white supremacy, forging coalitions with the racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.
Resisting Equalitybuilds on an impressive body of sources. It is well structured and clearly lays out its argument. Its conclusions resonate when Rolph points out, "The patient cultivation of white supremacy through organizations like the Citizens' Council … ensured that the legacies of segregation, disfranchisement, and institutional discrimination would not be lost to history but find new ways to survive and divide" (p. 189). Altogether, Rolph's book represents a significant contribution to scholarship on white resistance, the history of American race relations, and southern history. [End Page 742]