Earlier in the year, this video of Reverend Dr Phil Snider addressing Springwood, Missouri City Council on gay rights went viral, with over 3 million YouTube viewings. It shows Snider delivering a speech comprising direct quotes from white preachers of the 1950s and 1960s, simply substituting ‘racial integration’ with ‘gay rights’. His concern was that these archaic racial segregationist ideas were being applied in Springwood to legitimize the campaign against gay rights.
The religious justification for continued segregation across the Southern States in America in the 1950s and 1960s, which Snider draws upon, may seem ridiculous to many hearing it now. It may also prompt responders to question its effectiveness in convincing Southerners to support a campaign that sought to deny African Americans equal rights, particularly in a period of universal human rights re-evaluation. In actual fact, these justifications were used extensively by white resistance movements during this period with considerable success.
Massive Resistance v Passive Resistance
No white resistance movement was quite as prominent and successful in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the Citizens’ Councils, who legitimized their campaign and ideology by promoting themselves as protectors of the ‘Southern Way of Life’ and the Nation from the mongrelisation of de-segregation. They aimed to combat the passive resistance of the civil rights movement with massive resistance, by gaining immense popular support. They managed to rally this support through the medium of a monthly newspaper entitled The Citizens’ Council, which allowed them the space to justify their stance on segregation.
The Citizens’ Council, July 1956 Frontpage
Black Monday and the Birth of the Citizens’ Councils
The first Citizens’ Council was founded in July 1954 in Mississippi by plantation manager Robert B. Patterson and a dozen other likeminded men. They were impelled to act after hearing Judge Tom P Brady’s ‘Black Monday’ speech, given in response to the 17 May 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision to overturn the notion of “separate but equal” founded in the Plessy v Ferguson trial of 1896, thereby starting a process of de-segregation. This angered many in the South, such as Marvin Griffin, Governor of Georgia who stated:
“Come hell or high water, races will not be mixed in Georgia’s schools.”
The Councils attracted many members because of their aim to “put society back together in its accustomed pattern.” Evidence of the success of these justifications has been documented by Numan Bartley who stated that their accomplishment can be seen through the speed with which the Councils expanded from Mississippi across the South, together with their incredible membership growth of 250,000 within the first year.
White Resistance to the Brown Decision
Respectable White ‘Bigots’
The Councils were able to attract much of their support by disassociating themselves with, in Judge Tom P. Brady’s words, “the nefarious Ku Klux Klans”. According to David Halberstam, the Councils had an “almost self-conscious desire for respectability.” They steered clear of any associations with violence, and pledged to defend the ‘Southern Way of Life’ by purely legal means, which attracted the middle class moderate.
Our Dixie Forever!
George Lewis argued that white supremacy and religion were central pillars of the ‘Southern Way of Life’, which constituted their past and identity. They were comfortable in their superiority, and in the uncertainty of the post-war period, they clung to the certainty of their roles in society. Council publications would use religious ideas to justify the separation of the races, with one article from April 1957 stating:
“God made different races and put them in different lands. He knew the races must live apart so they won’t mix.”
Brown was a direct threat to their identity as it promoted this race mixing, so it is unsurprising so many Southerners rallied behind an organization who promised to preserve their way of life.
Integration: A Communist Plot
The Citizens’ Councils were able to take advantage of Cold War paranoia, with one Council article linking integrationists with communism because they sought to create “one huge mass of humanity”. They also claimed that the integrationist’s real intentions were for inter-racial sexual relations, which, according to McMillen, “sought to exploit the white community’s darkest fears about racial co-mingling.” George Lewis noted that because communism was a National issue, the Councils were able to transform a Southern sectional problem into a problem of America’s national security. This tactic undermined integrationist organizations such as the NAACP as well as creating an atmosphere of fear.
The success of the Citizens’ Councils during 1954-1965 is undeniable; they were an extremely popular organization who effectively convinced their members they were protecting their sacred ‘Southern Way of Life’ as well as the Nation by standing against segregation. They were successful due to a strategic campaign of using religious and Cold War rhetoric to undermine the de-segregationists and create fear, which they spread around the South through their monthly newspaper. The move to de-segregation was arguably inevitable, however the Citizens’ Councils slowed the process and were a major obstacle to the civil rights movement.
With regard to the gay rights movement in Springwood, Snider concludes perfectly – “I hope you won’t make the same mistake. I hope you will stand on the right side of history.”