Protectors of the South: How the Citizens’ Councils legitimized their campaign against de-segregation between 1954-1965

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.”

11 comments on “Protectors of the South: How the Citizens’ Councils legitimized their campaign against de-segregation between 1954-1965

  1. mattyyiangou says:

    It isn’t often you can read something where you can feel the emotion of the writer coming through. You can just see how much care and work you have put into this research essay which is awesome to read.
    The video at the start of the post was also brilliant to really show how outdated some of the ideas still existing are. Throughout my education I have mostly only learnt about the intiatives by those promoting equality so it was really interesting to see the opposite in this post.

  2. This is intriguing! Very interesting. I found the video at the start to really bring the piece alive today – a great connection! What I really focused on is how you used religious reasons and justification to keep segregation going… how interesting is it that the other side, the freedom movement and figures like Martin Luther King Jr (a baptist minister) would use religion for the exact opposite cause! Even King’s most famous speech is littered with biblical phrases. I would be interested to see how important it is to get the Christian public behind you to justify change (or continuity) of something. Your piece really got me thinking and you write in such a clear and enjoyable way.


  3. Great use of video and images to enhance what is obviously a passionate piece of work. As someone who doesn’t know much about this topic myself, reading a clear, concise and approachable piece of work such as this has urged me onto to chuck some of the key words form this into databases and have a looksy for myself. Also, the use of linked texts like the Plessy v Ferguson trial, was incredibly helpful.

    Cheers for the read!

  4. sarahellem says:

    Thanks Matty and Cameron – appreciate your kind words. I really enjoyed relating my essay topic to current issues and I was lucky a friend who read my essay sent this clip through to me because it made him think of my argument! Cameron – it is fascinating and I am sure it is not a stand alone phenomenon. I know in Apartheid South Africa religion was used in similar ways. In my research I found that many white southern ministers believed in integration but were too scared to act upon these ideas due to the control the Citizens’ Councils held in most counties (and later in the 1960s when the Councils dissolved, the Ku Klux Klan). In every edition of the newspaper The Citizens’ Council, there appeared articles which used religious or Cold War arguments to support segregation – many encouraged the laymen to coerce their ministers into delivering sermons on segregation. Originally my essay was purely going to focus on religious justifications, however it became clear that they never would have gained the amout of support they did without their other justifications. It definitely would be interesting to look into the two movements’ use of religion though!

    • sarahellem says:

      Thanks James, I have a link to the newspapers I used – if you are interested I would recommend these as all the historians in this field relied heavily on them. They truly are a fascinating insight into the minds of the ‘moderate’ white segregationist in the 1950s and 60s.I would also recommend watching Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning if you want some good movies on this area – they are what got me interested in the first place!

  5. mm31190 says:

    The video was a great way of contextualising your argument. I don’t want to start a debate about gay rights, although it is hard to teach children about equality when it doesn’t happen. I believe that if the government doesn’t allow equality for gays then we obviously do not live in an equal society. I love how well you have presented your argument in this blog and how relevant the lessons we have supposedly learnt from the struggle for blacks and equality I today with the gay rights movements. A great read, very motivating, I will defiantly be forwarding that video onto a few people and thinking about your article whilst enlightening people about equality.

  6. An interesting look at the ‘other.’
    Whilst it baffles me to no end how one can believe that certain people are deemed as the lesser, it is also something that interests me to know end. The justifications of the Citizens Council that you bring to light are of no exception. Whilst this is a topic that one can get swamped in with ease, you have followed a clear thesis and for this I commend you (look at me pretending I’m important.) It is an interesting topic and no matter how much I wish it was not it will also always be a relevant one. If you don’t believe me simply google the Westboro Baptist Church.

    Ignorance is bliss so they say I prefer the idea that ignorance is stupidity. To reject a person that based on elements that you believe your God has given them is something that I can not see an all loving God accepting, yet you highlight how these people used this God as a justification. The fear of the unknown is key within this idea a theme that runs throughout your essay.

    • sarahellem says:

      Thanks Jackie! I totally agree with what you say in your last paragraph – I’m pretty sure they were key points to the justification of the civil rights movement and what undermined the Councils and Klans (although both still exist in various forms). Interestingly, slavery was also upheld (in the segregationists minds) as religiously justified. Many of the religious rhetoric of the resistance movement came from pre-Reconstruction times. Whilst religious reasoning was very effective, I think it was the fear of change to their way of life that was most effective – but that is personal opinion! Thanks again for your comment!

  7. georgibrady says:

    I loved the heading of your blog but it was definitely the strategically placed video that sucked me in. I have seen that video before but was then curious as to what your piece would be about. I think that by relating a video that is so relevant to present day, to a subject relevant 60 years ago was a really great way to hold people’s interest. I absolutely love American history so this was really fun to read. It definitely encouraged me to raise some questions too, in regards to the the Citizen’s Council newspaper and the acceptance of freedom of speech.
    I also really love communist history so find it really interesting that the Citizen’s Council related desegregation to communist activity and tried to make it a national security problem. It’s quite shocking to see something that we assume is the norm in present day, be argued as against religious ideologies. I think this is one of the few situations when white, middle-class, men did not get the final say.
    Most of the time when we hear about desegregation, we are never really taught in an in depth manner about those that opposed it, so I really loved reading your blog!

    • sarahellem says:

      Thanks Georgi – I really enjoyed writing it! I always saw segregationists as really unintelligent, archaic people but after researching this area, I began to realise they really did believe what they were doing was right, and in the context of the Cold War I can understand how they were able to recruit so much support. It is very easy for us to lay judgment and say they were awful people, and their ideas were horrible, but it also must have been quite daunting to see everything you know change. Nothing can justify inequality and at the end of the day, the success of the civil rights movement shows this.

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