Citizens' Councils logo
|Successor||Council of Conservative Citizens|
|Formation||July 11, 1954|
The Citizens' Councils (also known as White Citizens' Councils) were an associated network of American white supremacist organizations. The first was formed on July 11, 1954. After 1956, it was known as the Citizens' Councils of America. With about 60,000 members, all over the United States, although mostly in the South, the groups were founded to oppose racial integration during the 1950s and 1960s, using intimidation tactics including economic boycotts, propaganda, and occasionally threats of violence against civil-rights activists.
By the 1970s, following passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s and stronger enforcement of rights by the federal government, the influence of the Councils had waned considerably. The successor organization to the White Citizens' Councils is the Council of Conservative Citizens, founded in 1985.
Some sources claim that the White Citizens' Council originated in Greenwood, Mississippi following the 1954–1955 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. Others say that it originated in Indianola, Mississippi. The leader was Robert B. Patterson of Indianola, a plantation manager and the former captain of the Mississippi State University football team. Additional chapters soon appeared in other communities.
Patterson and his followers formed the WCC in part to respond to increased activism by the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a grassroots civil rights organization organized in 1951 by T. R. M. Howard of the all-black town Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou was 40 miles from Indianola. Although as an adult Patterson opposed African-American civil rights groups, in boyhood in Clarksdale, he had been friends with Aaron Henry, later an official in the RCNL and the future head of the Mississippi NAACP.
Within a few months, the WCC had attracted members, and new chapters developed beyond Mississippi in the rest of the Deep South. It often had the support of the leading citizens of many communities, including business, civic and sometimes religious leaders.
Economic retaliation and violence
Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, the WCC met openly and was seen as "pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club." The group eschewed the use of violence, instead using economic and political tactics against activists. But, the historian Charles Payne notes, "Despite the official disclaimers, violence often followed in the wake of Council intimidation campaigns." Occasionally some Councils directly incited violence. For instance, in Montgomery, Alabama, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Senator James Eastland addressed a large Council meeting in the Garrett Coliseum saying (this was also distributed as a mimeographed flyer):
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.
The Citizens' Councils used economic tactics against African Americans whom they considered as supportive of desegregation and voting rights, or for belonging to the NAACP; the tactics included "calling in" their mortgages, denying loans and business credit, and boycotting black-owned businesses. In some cities, the Councils published lists of names of NAACP supporters and signers of anti-segregation petitions in local newspapers in order to encourage economic retaliation. For instance, in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1955, the Citizens' Council arranged for the names of 53 signers of a petition for school integration to appear in a local paper. Soon afterward, the petitioners lost their jobs and had their credit cut off. As Charles Payne puts it, the Councils operated by "unleashing a wave of economic reprisals against anyone, Black or white, seen as a threat to the status quo." Their targets included black professionals such as teachers.
Medgar Evers' first work for the NAACP on a national level involved interviewing Mississippians who had been intimidated by the Citizens' Councils and preparing affidavits for use as evidence against the Councils if necessary. Evers was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Citizens' Council as well as the Ku Klux Klan. The Citizens' Council paid his legal expenses in his trial.
Many state and local politicians were members of the Councils; in some states, this gave the organization immense influence over state legislatures. In Mississippi, the State Sovereignty Commission funded the Citizens' Councils, in some years providing as much as $50,000. This state agency also shared information with the Councils that it had collected through investigation and surveillance of integration activists. For example, Dr. M. Ney Williams was both a director of the Citizens' Council and an advisor to governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi. Barnett was a member of the Council, as was Jackson mayor Allen C. Thompson. In 1955, in the midst of the bus boycott, all three members of the Montgomery, Alabama city commission announced on television that they had joined the Citizens' Council.
Numan Bartley wrote, "In Louisiana the Citizens' Council organization began as (and to a large extent remained) a projection of the Joint Legislative Committee to Maintain Segregation." In Louisiana, leaders of the original Citizens' Council included State Senator and gubernatorial candidate William Rainach, future U.S. Representative Joe D. Waggonner, Jr., the publisher Ned Touchstone, and Judge Leander Perez, considered the political boss of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes south of New Orleans. On July 16, 1956, "under pressure from the White Citizens Councils," the Louisiana State Legislature passed an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution mandating racial segregation in nearly every aspect of public life. The bill was signed into law by governor Earl Long on 16 July 1956 and went into effect on 15 October 1956. The amendment read, in part:
An Act to prohibit all interracial dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports, or contests and other such activities; to provide for separate seating and other facilities for white and negroes [lower case in original] ... That all persons, firms, and corporations are prohibited from sponsoring, arranging, participating in or permitting on premises under their control ... such activities involving personal and social contact in which the participants are members of the white and negro races ... That white persons are prohibited from sitting in or using any part of seating arrangements and sanitary or other facilities set apart for members of the negro race. That negro persons are prohibited from sitting in or using any part of seating arrangements and sanitary or other facilities set apart for white persons.
School segregation and the demise of the councils
Throughout the last half of the 1950s, the White Citizens' Councils produced children's books that taught that Heaven is segregated.
The White Citizens' Council in Mississippi prevented school integration until 1964. As school desegregation increased, in some communities the WCC sponsored "council schools," private institutions set up for white children. Many of these private "segregation academies" continue to operate today.
By the 1970s, as white Southerners' attitudes toward desegregation began to change following federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s and enforcement of integration and voting rights, the influence of the WCCs began to wane. A few such groups still exist, including the Council of Conservative Citizens, founded by former White Citizens' Council members.
- African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954)
- African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68)
- Timeline of African-American Civil Rights Movement
- "July 11, 1954". University of Southern Mississippi. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
- "Council of Conservative Citizens". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
- "White Citizens' Councils aimed to maintain 'Southern way of life'". The Jackson Sun. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
- Roberts, Gene and Hank Klibanoff (2006). The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 66. ISBN 0-679-40381-7.
- Cobb, James C. (23 December 2010). "The Real Story of the White Citizens' Council". History News Network. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
- Beito, David T.; Beito, Linda Royster (8 April 2009). Black maverick: T.R.M. Howard's fight for civil rights and economic power. University of Illinois Press. pp. 95–97. ISBN 978-0-252-03420-6. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
- Payne, Charles M. (16 March 2007). I've got the light of freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle. University of California Press. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-0-520-25176-2. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- Poston, Ted (15 & 19 June 1956). "The Negroes of Montgomery". New York Post. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 266–279. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Dittmer, John (1 May 1995). Local people: the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi. University of Illinois Press. pp. 46–48. ISBN 978-0-252-06507-1. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- McMillen, Neil R. (1971). The Citizen's Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 211. ISBN 0-252-00177-X.
- Wakefield, Dan (22 October 1955). "Respectable Racism". The Nation. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 222–227. Retrieved 13 September 2011.
- Vollers, Maryanne (April 1995). Ghosts of Mississippi: the murder of Medgar Evers, the trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the haunting of the new South. Little, Brown. pp. 57–58. ISBN 978-0-316-91485-7. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
- Burford, Sarah (19 Nov 2011). "Newest Navy Vessel Named for Civil Rights Martyr Medgar Evers". Afro - American Red Star (Washington, D.C.). p. A.1.
- Luders, Joseph (Jan 2006). "The Economics of Movement Success: Business Responses to Civil Rights Mobilization". The American Journal of Sociology 111 (4): 963–0_10.
- Vollers, Maryanne (April 1995). Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Little, Brown. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-316-91485-7. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
- Leonard, George B.; Harris, T. George; Wren, Christopher S. (31 December 1962). "How a Secret Deal Prevented a Massacre at Ole Miss". Look. Reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 671–701. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Sitton, Claude (13 June 1963). "N.A.A.C.P. Leader Slain in Jackson; Protests Mount". New York Times. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 831–835. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Reddick, L.D. (Winter 1956). "The Bus Boycott in Montgomery". Dissent. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 252–265. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Bartley, Numan V. (1999). The rise of massive resistance: race and politics in the South during the 1950s. LSU Press. p. 86ff. ISBN 978-0-8071-2419-2. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- McMillen, Neil R. (1971). "Chapter IV Louisiana: And Catholics Too". The Citizen's Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 59–72. ISBN 0-252-00177-X.
- Bagdikian, Ben (20 & 22 October 1957). "You Can't Legislate Human Relations". The Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 390–395. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
- Tyson, Timothy B. (3 May 2005). Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story. Random House. p. 182. ISBN 978-1-4000-8311-4.
- Dr. John Dittmer, "'Barbour is an Unreconstructed Southerner': Prof. John Dittmer on Mississippi Governor's Praise of White Citizens' Councils", 22 December 2010 video report by Democracy Now!, accessed 21 November 2011
- McMillen, Neil R. (1971). The Citizen's Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 301. ISBN 0-252-00177-X.
- Geary, Daniel and Sutton, Jennifer. "Resisting the Wind of Change: The Citizens' Councils and European Decolonization," in Cornelius A. van Minnen and Manfred Berg, eds., The U.S. South and Europe, University of Kentucky Press, 2013.
- McMillen, Neil R. (1 October 1994). The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–64. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06441-8. Retrieved 6 September 2011.
- The Citizens' Council - Historical resource website by Edward Sebesta, with digitized copies of the full run of The Citizens Council newspaper, 1955–1961. Originally a publication of the Mississippi Citizens' Council, the monthly publication became the official paper of the Citizens' Councils of America in October 1956.
- Available in PDF from Internet Archive.
- "Civil Rights Documentation Project", University of Southern Mississippi
- Dr. John Dittmer, "'Barbour is an Unreconstructed Southerner': Prof. John Dittmer on Mississippi Governor's Praise of White Citizens' Councils", 22 December 2010 video report by Democracy Now!
- "Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman: The Struggle for Justice", American Bar Association