White Supremacy, White Women, and Desegregation
Two people died and hundreds were injured when the Air Force veteran and native Mississippian James Meredith desegregated the University of Mississippi in 1962. Local resident Ray Gunter and journalist Paul Guihard suffered fatal gunshot wounds in the battle that erupted on campus more than eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). Federal agents, highway patrolmen, and the university’s police chief escorted Meredith to his dormitory on September 30, 1962. By nightfall, a mob had assembled; an estimated three thousand people gathered and yelled segregationist slogans, attacked federal agents, and threw bottles and bricks. The federal government answered Mississippi’s massive resistance with an armed intervention. Federal guardsmen arrived on campus, followed by army troops during the night. By the early morning hours, the riot had been quelled. James Meredith’s enrollment stood firm, and he successfully graduated the following year.1
Thirty days after the segregationist riot at the University of Mississippi, Cornelia Dabney Ramseur Tucker, an eighty-one-year-old South Carolinian, wrote a letter to U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy to protest the federal government’s actions at Oxford. For decades, Tucker had been a conservative grassroots campaigner, and she addressed Kennedy in a matriarchal manner. Opening her letter with “My dear Attorney General,” Tucker boasted that from her “accumulated wisdom of more than eighty years of sympathetic study of human nature I presume to write you this letter as one from mother to son.”2 Tucker explained that while she was “assuming—as a mother would of her son—that your purpose in this Mississippi military action is to improve race relations, it is now definitely proven that such action has served only to inflame the passions of both races.”3 Tucker sought to put the attorney general in his place by insinuating that though he might have had good intentions, his inexperienced handling of the situation proved that he was in need of motherly advice.
Tucker’s advice for Kennedy was that of a white supremacist. Figuratively taking him by the hand—“Let us reason together—you and I”—she lectured Kennedy on human nature, arguing that allowing Meredith to attend Ole Miss was tantamount to “mental cruelty” to the veteran, perhaps even leading to his “mental derangement.” Tucker claimed that violent segregationists and the prevalence of white supremacy were not the problem; rather it was the very presence of Meredith, who was “a constant incentive to rebellion by other students.” Closing with a patronizingly racist statement about black people’s “loveable qualities,” Tucker urged Kennedy to “entertain some confidence” in states’ rights and to trust officials, “who know that their own states are not yet prepared for this innovation.”4
Tucker’s letter derived its legitimacy from her status and authority as a mother and as an elderly southern lady. Her self-presentation as a benign advisor, however, clashed with her political actions. Tucker interwove motherly advice with racism, white supremacy, and an emphasis on states’ rights.
Tucker was an advocate of massive resistance. Beginning in the 1950s, southern segregationist politicians as well as grassroots activists organized against Brown specifically and the civil rights movement more generally, building on decades of segregationist ideology, laws, policies, and customs.5 Proponents of massive resistance attacked the ruling from a variety of hostile positions. They invoked states’ rights, attempted to find biblical justifications for the continuance of racial segregation, and denounced civil rights activists as communist agents. Southern white women played pivotal roles in the defense of white supremacy. They were vocal segregationists who actively campaigned for the racial hierarchization of society. White women policed the boundaries of white supremacy and ensured its stability in their communities, using a variety of tools.6
Historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers has shown that not only did white mistresses of enslaved people profit economically from their ties to slavery before abolition, but after the Civil War, such white women became “co-conspirators” in the construction of the South’s racial caste system designed to sustain white privilege.7 Women benefited from the white supremacist culture in which they lived, and so they supported it. The everyday culture of white supremacy made white privilege and the sense of race-based entitlements seem normal, and that sense of normalcy permeated the everyday lives of housewives, working women, mothers, and longtime grassroots agitators like Cornelia Tucker who connected white supremacy to her prior, broader conservative activism in support of anticommunism and traditionalist values.
Tucker’s emphasis on maternal authority, moreover, can be ranked with traditional framings of women’s activism in the realm of politics. Early on in U.S. history, the idea of Republican motherhood tasked women with the political duty to both raise patriotic male citizens and maintain public virtues through their domestic influence. Women’s abolitionist activism, the temperance movement, and the suffrage movement, too, created “rhetorical links between political ideas and maternal practices,” which served both as a justification for white, upper- and middle-class women’s activism and as the foundation for it.8 Motherhood gave women a social status in a patriarchal society, and it served as a tool for creating spaces for women in the public sphere.
Race and class differences among women delimited their maternalist activism and dictated how it was perceived and received. Particularly pronounced differences in the framing of black and white mothers emerged during the period that saw the ascendance of the civil rights movement and the countercampaign launched by the massive resistance movement. The “discourse on motherhood was not incidental” to either movement, historian Ruth Feldstein argues.9 The actions taken by black and white women in the name of motherhood render portrayals of mothers as apolitical in the 1950s as inadequate.10
Certainly, Tucker capitalized on her motherhood to justify her intervention. Similarly, many segregationist women used their role as mothers to legitimize their challenges to court-mandated desegregation. Sociologist Beth Roy concludes that school desegregation in particular “was a struggle that especially evoked women’s activism; who else could better claim the moral authority to speak up when the site of contestation was the domain of children?”11 While segregationist women’s support for massive resistance was a matter of white supremacist principle and so not limited to the issue of school desegregation, school desegregation crises offered them the opportunity to publicly intervene by making tactical use of the idea of maternalism. Of course, the desegregation of schools was linked to every other segregationist fight against integration and to the defense of a white supremacist social system more generally. But school desegregation battles were prime sites of female massive resistance, spaces where the actions of segregationist women, in particular working-class women, became most prominent and most effective. The publicity generated through media reports was critically important in sustaining these groups’ actions.
Maternalism proved to be one of the linchpins of segregationist women’s activism in the 1950s and 1960s, but many of these women continually expanded their strategies for battling desegregation and adapted their arguments against it in the South and across the nation to fit different audiences and political purposes. By creating performative spaces in interaction with the media, white supremacist women expanded the traditional frames of mothers’ and women’s roles and activism in the public sphere. They showed that their maternalism was invested in white supremacy and often a means to this end.
A masculinist rhetoric, the concomitant idea of white southern womanhood, and the belligerence and chauvinist undertones of the showdowns between segregationists and the federal government can create the impression that women were relegated to the sidelines or merely used as pawns in massive resistance. Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood, however, shows that white women were self-conscious agents in the segregationist countermovement. This book offers a gender, cultural, and social history of segregationist women’s activism in massive resistance. Historian Elizabeth McRae suggests that women in massive resistance assumed the role of “segregation’s constant gardeners.”12 Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood examines how these activities were entwined with factors of social differentiation, particularly class, social status, and space, and how white supremacist women steadily expanded the frames of their public activism.
The book presents three case studies: the Mothers’ League of Central High School during the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, between 1957 and 1960; the so-called cheerleaders who were active in the school desegregation crisis in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960 and 1961; and the female citizens’ council and fellow white supremacist grassroots agitators in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, particularly in Charleston, between 1954 and 1963. This comparative study explores the scale, scope, and characteristics of women’s support of and role in massive resistance and the defense of white supremacy in these different southern metropolitan areas, showing the strategies women employed to bridge the discursive and practice gaps between urban and rural spaces and between domestic and public spaces.
The women who are the protagonists in this book all believed in white supremacy, and their support for continued segregation and opposition to legal and social equality became one expression of their discriminatory views. While they—along with all massive resistance proponents in this multifaceted and changeable movement—might hold different views on broader political topics, including political party affiliations, they shared a belief in the superiority of whites that underwrote how they lived their everyday lives.
The book asks how these segregationist women created public spaces for their activism in the 1950s and 1960s, how ideas about gender, race, and class informed their strategies and actions, how their activism related specifically to these different spatial and social settings, and how they expanded the roles they developed for themselves beyond their local contexts. In view of women’s exclusion from formal power structures in the 1950s and early 1960s, Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood reevaluates the role of grassroots activists and their relationship with political and economic elites in massive resistance, thereby adding to our understanding of segregationist grassroots activism and political action in the 1950s and 1960s.13
Until recently, few studies focused on women in massive resistance.14 This historiographical neglect is striking, given the central role gender discourses play in segregationist ideology. Since Reconstruction, the ideological construct of (white) southern womanhood has been a battleground for proponents and opponents of desegregation and social equality for African Americans. Historian John Ruoff argues that southern womanhood became a collective symbol for the “southern way of life” itself. According to segregationists, the social equality of white and black Americans posed a critical threat to southern womanhood, the “integrity of the races,” and, thereby, to the South.15 White women, however, were not merely mute icons of white supremacy but vocal segregationists themselves. They took part in the defense of segregation and they injected their idea of the “integrity of the races” into massive resistance’s masculinist discourse. This raises the question how interactions between class and status concerns, race, space, and gender shaped these women’s views and actions.
Given the separate spheres paradigm in the era of domestic containment and thus the limited opportunities for women to participate in public activities, this study stresses what women chose to protest and the methods they used to mount their objections effectively within massive resistance and the broader political discourse of the era. Women’s groups in massive resistance transcended a thematically narrow focus on children and family surrounding an immediate school desegregation. Well versed in the rhetoric of massive resistance writ large these women created performative spaces through which they defied the behavioral expectations attached to their race, class, and gender, which enabled them to play key roles in segregationist political action. The women expanded the social and spatial scripts that limited the actions of white working-class women.16
Segregationist women at the forefront of protests walked a thin line between motherly respectability and impropriety, according to conventions of the time. Their activism was acceptable to male segregationists when women emphasized their maternal capabilities and when they relied on their supposedly special ability to enter disputes surrounding schoolchildren. Male segregationists also supported female groups when they used their alleged delicate constitutions to their advantage in publicity and political lobbying campaigns and when women portrayed their activism as the work of just another parent association. In her study of housewives from the opposite end of the political spectrum in 1940s and 1950s Canada, Julie Guard shows that housewives employed their identities to “claim political space” and to justify actions that would otherwise have been deemed unpalatable. Like these Canadian housewives, segregationist women frequently “used maternalism strategically to overcome the limitations imposed on them because of their gender.”17
Gender essentialist maternalism, then, served as a “cover” for women’s political participation and public protest and gave them “license to deploy the kinds of strategies of resistance available to those with little power.”18 Female massive resisters across socioeconomic backgrounds used this strategy to justify their presence and their actions in the public political discourse and on the streets. Through this maternalist framing of their actions, segregationist women extended their household duties to caring for and policing the community, and conflicts surrounding schools and schoolchildren were easily portrayed as essentially domestic issues. Segregationist women did not confine their activism to maternalist politics in the service of white supremacy, however. All continuously adapted and expanded the frames of their political activism. Maternalism served as a cover, but the women eventually and consciously blew that cover and publicly presented themselves as political agents of white supremacy.
Historian Michelle Nickerson’s work on 1950s, conservative California housewives also lends itself to the study of women in the massive resistance. Nickerson describes housewives’ engagement as a “housewife populism” that spanned “the political spectrum” and used maternalism as a means of forming networks with “centers of power.”19 Nickerson argues that conservative women represented themselves as the selfless advocates of children, families, and households and as defenders of local communities. Harking back to discourses that styled communities as the bulwark against overbearing state interventions and communism in the 1930s, conservative women in the 1950s made anti-elitist and antistatist arguments the cornerstones of their campaigns.20 The housewife populism of middle- and upper-class California, conservative housewives, who also opposed racial desegregation and organized against social movements, exemplifies the long history of women as community activists and the long, national history of white supremacy. But there were also many differences among conservative women activists. The social status of the Charleston supporters of massive resistance was similar to that of the California women, and the Charleston women had also been active in their neighborhoods and community for decades and shared many of Californian conservative housewives’ political outlooks, but while the women most prominent in Charleston’s and South Carolina’s Lowcountry massive resistance were antistatist and anticommunist they most certainly were not anti-elitist, neither in their self-conception nor in their rhetoric. Agitators like Cornelia Tucker saw themselves as part of a racialized caste system and class-based society, and they expressed contempt for people they deemed poor and uneducated.
The working-class and middle-class women in Little Rock and New Orleans, in turn, had networks in their own neighborhoods, but they did not have a social standing in their larger communities. In fact, locals described them as “unknowns,” or as white trash, a social group without social capital. These women frequently attacked political and social elites and expressed disdain for what they saw as the hypocritical establishment, but despite their continuous efforts, their public activism was not sustainable because of their lack of economic, cultural, and social capital. They had a public presence during crises and when there was a power vacuum to fill, but then they disappeared from sight.
The fact that the prominent female segregationists in Arkansas and Louisiana were working women, moreover, could also be used to advantage. These women were not “just” housewives; they shared the traditional responsibility of bread-winning with their husbands out of economic necessity. Female segregationist agitators in Little Rock, New Orleans, and Charleston transgressed their roles as maternal massive resisters frequently and forcefully.
Working-class women’s modus operandi differed significantly from those of middle- and upper-class fellow female segregationists. Members of the Mothers’ League of Central High School entered local and regional electoral politics on right-wing platforms in pursuit of upward mobility, whereas the cheerleaders in New Orleans became notorious for their foul-mouthed tirades and physical violence. The women’s socioeconomic backgrounds informed their actions. Both groups exhibited a clear class consciousness, and the women frequently criticized and mocked affluent whites who advocated moderation while living in firmly segregated spaces, the “silk-stocking” districts of the respective cities. The upper- and middle-class women active in Charleston’s and South Carolina’s Lowcountry massive resistance similarly transgressed seemingly harmless maternalism by deploying the organizational and mobilizational experience they had amassed in prior club activism for the benefit of organized white supremacist resistance.
A wave of scholarship in the past decade has explored racialization and its intersection with class and region, particularly the history of poor whites. Historians Keri Leigh Merritt and Nancy Isenberg have shown that evolving definitions of whiteness, class, and social status in the South and in the nation further complicate the history of white supremacy. Merritt argues that poor whites in the nineteenth century “possessed class consciousness” and chronicles the tense relationship between poor whites and emancipated blacks particularly after Reconstruction.21 The working-class women of Little Rock and New Orleans were both heirs to and producers of class-based resentment against a white elite as well as a white supremacist hostility toward black people. African Americans’ acquisition of economic and cultural capital through desegregation threatened what segregationists viewed as a socially mandated racial hierarchy and the idea of “whiteness as treasured property,” which afforded everyday privileges even to white working-class people.22
In its basic definition, class denotes the “economic stratification” created by access to the means of production, material assets, and, as historian Barbara Fields notes, the “ideological mediations” of these markers of “inequality of human beings from the standpoint of social power.”23 Class, therefore, is also gendered, racialized, spatialized. In order to trace the multifaceted aspects of the working-class street politics in defense of white community assets of segregationist women in Little Rock and in New Orleans and the white supremacist agitation and network building with right-wing and conservative players of middle- and upper-class segregationist women in Charleston, my analysis employs the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of social classes and different forms of capital. To Bourdieu, class is at once an economic circumstance, derived from “material differences,” and a sociocultural circumstance, “expressed in lifestyles,” habitus, and representations.24 In this view, the social world is a “multi-dimensional space that can be constructed by discovering the main factors of differentiation.” This social differentiation results from the unequal distribution of the immanent power of different forms of capital.25
Whereas capital is, at its core, an economic condition, it can, Bourdieu argues “present itself in three fundamental guises”: as economic capital, as cultural capital (broadly translatable as culture, representation, and knowledge), and as social capital (comprised of social connections and networks that promise to be mutually beneficial to its members and to offer resources).26 Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital directly relates to the school desegregation struggles in Little Rock and New Orleans. In its institutionalized state, Bourdieu argues, cultural capital encompasses education, including schools and universities. The prior cultural capital of one’s family plays a role in the level of education one achieves, and the educational system can make it possible for one to acquire knowledge and, therefore, cultural capital, which in turn can be converted into economic capital—the path to upward social mobility.27
The Mothers’ League of Central High School and the cheerleaders of New Orleans protested the desegregation of formerly white public schools in their respective working-class districts. Bourdieu states that people who occupy “neighboring positions” in social space “are placed in similar conditions and are therefore subject to similar conditioning factors.” Through this economic, social, and cultural proximity of individuals of a similar social class, mutual dispositions and views arise. These dispositions and views create a “sense of one’s place” in society, which produces a desire to define and police boundaries between social groups.28
Physical space, too, expresses this relational, changeable social matrix. In Postmodern Geographies, Edward Soja shows that while primordially given, the organization and the meaning of geographical space are socially constructed, translated, and transformed. Space is not a structure separate from a society’s framework but is imbricated in modes of production and sociocultural hierarchies.29 The social structure shaped the space in which white supremacy asserted itself through the legal segregation of public facilities, federal and local housing policies that fostered residential segregation, suburbanization and white flight, zoning laws and ghettoization, busing and property value controversies, and expressed fears that the close proximity of black and white students in desegregated schools would encourage miscegenation. The actions of segregationist women across the socioeconomic spectrum were spatialized, too: they defended their turf—geographically and socially.
Simultaneously, the social backgrounds and the public behaviors of the working- class and lower middle-class women in Little Rock and New Orleans located them at the margins of this white supremacist space. In contrast to their fellow segregationist agitators in Charleston, South Carolina, and to their moderate white counterparts, the women of the mothers’ league and the cheerleaders had little economic, cultural, and least of all social capital in their communities. In fact, upper and middle-class whites referred to these women as “white trash.” Adolphine Terry, the patron of the moderate Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools in Little Rock, a group of elite white women who campaigned to reopen Little Rock’s high schools after their closure in the 1958–59 school year, called the women of the Mothers’ League of Central High “a group of poor whites and a portion of the lunatic fringe that every town possesses.” The league embarrassed the “better class” of Little Rock’s whites.30 Similarly, opponents of the cheerleaders of New Orleans dismissed them as “white trash.” The cheerleaders, in turn, reclaimed the term and used the same insult to describe every white person who was not, in their view, sufficiently white supremacist.31 The segregationist women active in Little Rock’s mothers’ league oscillated between being seen as respectable, although marginal, working-class whites who aimed to defend their social position within the community and being labeled white trash as a result of the transgressive actions they took to ensure their social position. The cheerleaders, in contrast, were not concerned with their reputation, and the majority of the group embraced and co-opted their media portrayal as vulgar and improper.
The term “white trash” is historically and culturally loaded.32 It emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, bound to a long national history in which class and race were entangled, and was used to express disdain for the supposed idleness and destitution of lower classes and their supposedly genetic inferiority. By 1850, northern commentators as well as southern elites were derisively portraying a distinct caste of “southern white trash,” a permanent social class of poor white laborers and landless farmers. The concept of southern white trash encompassed class and race as well as gender and space: elite whites viewed “white trash” women as “a wretched specimen of maternity” who did not “care properly for their offspring,” Nancy Isenberg argues. Variations of these themes reemerge in critics’ descriptions of working-class women who were massive resistance proponents in Arkansas and Louisiana. During Reconstruction, Isenberg shows, “Republicans designated white trash as a ‘dangerous class’ that was producing a flood of bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals,” violating sexual and social norms. In social and in spatial terms, commentators perceived the individuals whom they deemed southern white trash as a “stagnant” people who exhibited geographical, cultural, social inertia. The category white trash, Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray argue, is a “naming practice” that has helped define “stereotypes of what is and is not acceptable or normal” behavior for white people in the United States.33 The cases of the mothers’ league and the cheerleaders reveal how such designations were deployed within communities in a supposedly solid white South.
For an understanding of the political escalations in Little Rock and New Orleans, it is vital to recognize the entanglement of class and race. This entanglement figured in white supremacist grassroots activism, including the women’s groups, but it equally permeated the actions of state politicians in dispute with the federal government. National media portrayed Arkansas governor Orval Faubus as an Ozark hillbilly, and Faubus, in turn, embraced this idea of himself to ramp up support from grassroots segregationists in his home state, who had theretofore chided Faubus for his inadequate backing of white supremacy.34 In Louisiana, Governor Jimmy Davis represented himself as the voice of rural, poor people in his campaigns. The singer, actor, and son of sharecroppers presented himself as “a hillbilly with a touch of style,” as Isenberg aptly summarizes. Both Faubus and Davis were aware of their white trash reputation in Washington, D.C., and in the national media, and both defiantly toyed with it.35
Many historians have addressed the complex relationships between the white and the black working classes, instances of interracial cooperation, white working-class racism, and the “psychological wage of whiteness” that set white workers apart from black workers.36 The mostly working- and lower middle-class female segregationists in Little Rock and in New Orleans had an acute sense of their place and the place in society they designated to others. The women regarded Central High School, Frantz, and McDonogh 19 elementary schools, and public space as rightfully theirs. The middle and upper-class female massive resistance supporters in Charleston and South Carolina’s Lowcountry, too, were acutely aware and supportive of their region’s racialized caste system, and they defended what they saw as the naturally owned spaces and privileges of white people. A “legitimizing theatricalization” of everyday practices goes hand in hand with the exercise of power, according to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of social classes and space. These theatrical practices are designed to justify domination.37 Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood applies Bourdieu’s theory of power and performance to the activism of female segregationist who, through theatricalization and medialization, created performative spaces by which they could justify their actions and have an impact.
Space is a dynamic, practiced place, shaped by different actors.38 Women in massive resistance were actors in this process, and they constructed different, performative spaces for themselves in the public sphere based on their socioeconomic and sociocultural backgrounds. Historians and political scientists have theorized the public sphere as spaces that are essentially democratic due to their open access, use of common resources, and employment for the performance of public roles.39 However, public spaces also reflect and reconstruct social hierarchies, which means that they are gendered and racially compartmentalized, and those hierarchies are reflected in the fact of segregated facilities and separate spheres.40 The ideology of separate spheres and domestic containment in the 1950s and early 1960s complicated the access to public roles that segregationist women had owing to white privilege.
What constitutes a performative space? Erving Goffman’s seminal study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, defines a performance as “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers.”41 Performance is not only an individual activity; people can also form “teams” that cooperate to maintain “a given projected definition” of a situation. Segregationist agitators in all three locales formed such teams, and they sought to define desegregation as a state of emergency to their observers to legitimize their actions and elicit support.42
Performances, whether on a theater stage or in the streets, are “a microcosm of social structure.”43 According to Judith Butler, gender and sex, for example, are codetermined and constituted by performative, corporeal acts.44 Female massive resistance proponents were self-conscious agents in their gendered self-portrayals. The women of Little Rock’s mothers’ league publicly presented themselves as white damsels in distress and Charleston’s Cornelia Tucker dressed herself in delicate chiffon robes at dinner parties she used for political networking, while the New Orleans cheerleaders consciously transgressed gender lines with their violent behavior and were subsequently labeled unfeminine.45
In his work on the public performances of street theater by civil rights activists and activists of the New Left in the 1960s, Martin Bradford points out that public performances contributed to the permeation of life by everyday politics and broadened the definition of politics and political engagement.46 Segregationist women, too, broadened the political arena with their public performances on the street, through their lobbying campaigns, and with publicity stunts. Through the media-conscious theatricalization of their protests, segregationist women not only sought to justify white domination but to push against public scripts, that is, explicit and implicit social rules and customs of legitimate behavior, and social frames that defined women’s social roles and political positions.47
All segregationist women sought to justify their public activism through performative acts, but the performances of working-class women in Little Rock and New Orleans were very different from those of middle- and upper-class women in Charleston and South Carolina’s Lowcountry owing to economic, social, and cultural capital or a lack thereof. The predominantly working-class and lower middle-class women in Little Rock and New Orleans were unable to rely on the resources of social elite networks in their communities, and their lack of financial resources further complicated their protest. These women were not considered power players in the grand scheme of things, and their social positioning as working- and lower middle-class housewives or working mothers meant they did not have an influential public voice. Drastic measures seemed to be in order to rationalize their public actions and generate influence, which resulted in the construction of performative spaces that deviated from the norm. Both in Little Rock and in New Orleans, observers commented on the apparent “carnival-like” atmosphere that surrounded the protests, at least until their violent escalations, an atmosphere in which certain “social constraints” were “suspended.”48 In his study on behavioral scripts and power relations, historian James Scott argues that carnival allows “certain things to be said, certain forms of social power to be exercised that are muted or suspended outside this ritual sphere.”49
Women’s activism in Little Rock and in New Orleans emerged out of an impending desegregation crisis, one they helped create. This perceived emergency served as an opportunity structure that made the public sphere more accessible to women’s activism. A variety of factors, including shifting political circumstances and social relations and the actions taken by participants in crisis situations can create opportunity structures, that is, enhanced possibilities for grassroots mobilization and impact on “mainstream institutional politics and policy.”50
The state of emergency that the working-class and lower middle-class women in Little Rock and New Orleans contributed to and capitalized on never occurred in Charleston because, in part, segregationist women in Charleston and the Lowcountry did not have to escalate that far in order to be effective on behalf of white supremacy. To be sure, these segregationist agitators also employed theatrical and media-conscious strategies, but Cornelia Tucker and other grassroots white supremacist women mostly had the social networks, organizational experience, and resources to influence local and regional politics. Middle- and upper-class women used maternalist discourses and hardline white supremacist rhetoric, their participation in lobbying and grassroots mobilization campaigns, and their successful establishment of links to broader conservative networks in the region and the nation to create performative spaces that justified their public interventions and deviation from the Old South southern belle ideal. In Charleston, moreover, segregationist politicians and grassroots officials were reassured by the higher age and social rank of the women who were prominently active in segregationist campaigning. Women’s actions on behalf of massive resistance were presented and perceived as a natural extension of their Daughters of the American Revolution or United Daughters of the Confederacy memberships.
Although strategies, methods, and some ultimate goals varied, the common denominator for the proponents of massive resistance was the defense of white supremacy and the continuation of segregation. Women deliberately created group- and region-specific popular images for their organizations and for themselves as individuals. They were aware of journalists’ role as actors in the desegregation crises rather than mere observers. Women consciously enlisted the help of the press in order to gain attention and to widen their spaces of influence. The public image of the women’s groups varied and was related to class, but there was a sexist undertone in the coverage of all of them. Media either concentrated on women’s appearances or described their behavior in a stereotypically gendered way, including labeling some of the women as hysterical.
White supremacist women’s activism was entwined with external influences, such as their geographical region or the progress made by the civil rights movement at the time. In a classic definition formulated by social scientists Friedhelm Neidhardt and Dieter Rucht, social movements are “organized and sustained” of a “collectivity of inter-related individuals, groups and organizations to promote or to resist social change with the use of public protest activities.”51 In this sense, massive resistance was a social movement that sought to counter civil rights progress, starting different campaigns, employing different strategies, and serving as an overall identificatory tool for diverse, elite and grassroots white supremacist agitators from the 1950s onward. Segregationist women’s actions were at times responsive to perceived civil rights “threats,” at times proactive, and always adaptive.
Massive resistance was a countermovement to increasing political and judicial pressure that threatened the legal codification of segregation and to the civil rights movement that captured the national stage from the 1950s to the 1970s. While massive resistance was part of a long history of white supremacy and the oppression of African Americans that transcended a southern sectional struggle, it was also a distinct phase in a regional response to the post–World War II phase of the black freedom struggle, which challenged discriminatory laws and practices in the South as well as the systematic, institutionalized discrimination against African Americans across the nation.52 White supremacists perceived the Brown ruling in particular as a fundamental attack on segregation and its legal and habitual underpinnings. Massive resistance was a diverse, dynamic, and concerted effort by a conglomerate of white supremacist actors who sought to expand their opposition to legal and social equality beyond their own region. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, massive resistance branched out, inserting itself into desegregation clashes in Chicago, Detroit, and Boston, where segregationists mimicked the tactics they had seen unfold in southern communities a decade earlier.
Massive resistance’s trajectory was longer than the federal legislation that supposedly ended segregation with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act in 1968, and it is this sustained mobilization and agitation of elite and grassroots white supremacists that distinguishes massive resistance from earlier white supremacist protest. Segregationist politicians and grassroots activists in the South began to mount a determined campaign in the late 1940s against the civil rights platform of the national Democratic party, desegregation verdicts by federal courts, and the federal government’s changing attitudes toward the long-standing demands of black civil rights activists. Segregationist agitators began to launch concerted actions against this fundamental challenge to segregation and white supremacy between the establishment of the States’ Rights Party, known as the Dixiecrats, in 1948 and the first Brown verdict in 1954. With the Brown decision, massive resistance came into full force.53
Massive resistance was characterized by its aggressive defense against the perceived assault on legally codified and customary everyday white privileges by the actions of civil rights activists, federal court decisions, and federal legislation.54 The rallying point of working-class and lower middle-class women in massive resistance was the imminent desegregation orders in their communities, although they all had long espoused a belief in white supremacy. They decisively acted on these convictions only after Brown and were able to cultivate support from white elites, and thus the period of their public segregationist protest agitation was more truncated than in the case of the predominantly middle- and upper-class women supporters of massive resistance whose ideologies and actions Elizabeth McRae rightly traced back to the 1920s.55
Working-class and lower middle-class women, exemplified by the mothers’ league and the cheerleaders, were unable to sustain their political influence after the imminent desegregation crises had faded. With few exceptions, these women did not have the social capital and, therefore, neither the social networks nor the resources to establish a more permanent presence in public conservative activism. Although a number of massive resistance supporters, most notably members of Little Rock’s mothers’ league attempted to transcend their previous actions and translate them into a career in right-wing politics, they had no stable connections to their community’s civic and political elite and could not amass continued support. In addition, the stain of the “white trash” label white elites had given these women, immortalized in newspaper and television pictures that showed them screaming in front of the schools, was difficult to wash off.
Nevertheless, some middle-class and upper-class women segregationist actors were able to incorporate broader political tropes into their campaigns, which had the effect of aligning these campaigns with regional and national conservative organizations.56 Intellectuals and grassroots activists formed an organized, conservative social and political movement after the Second World War.57 The tenets and ideological roots of modern conservatism are diverse, but the conservative political spectrum houses social and moral traditionalism, fervent anticommunism, political opposition to racial equality and other social equality movements, laissez-faire capitalism, opposition to federal interventions on the state level and antistatism, and libertarian views on individualism and freedom of choice. The formation of the National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr. functioned as a consolidating space for different currents of conservatism and for the movement’s self-identification. After the Second World War, these ideologies were embraced by both white upper- and middle-class communities in suburbia and by urban and rural working-class communities in the Old and the modernizing Sunbelt South.58 If we understand the modern conservative movement as “a collective identity” that developed and evolved “in the course of struggles and collaborations over meaning,” we can see how a number of segregationist female activists might have seen their quest for continued white supremacy as compatible with conservative ideologies. A shared belief in everyday white supremacy, which afforded white people across the socioeconomic spectrum race-based privileges, included preferential treatment, the belief in white people’s essential superiority, and spatialized power, resting on the assumption that all spaces, public and private, physical and social, belonged to white people, and nonwhite people were intruders, could serve as the tool for fusing and consolidating diverse views.59
Proponents of massive resistance advocated a reactionary worldview rooted in white supremacy. The relationship between the segregationist structure of the state and segregationist grassroots campaigns was both symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. Massive resistance was not solely a top-down phenomenon—at times, segregationists’ resistance was driven by the activism of grassroots groups.60 The relationship between massive resistance’s grassroots groups’ male-dominated leadership and women’s activities within the movement was likewise symbiotic. Although massive resistance was undeniably male-led, the movement’s women’s groups and individual activists were not necessarily subordinate to men. Women’s activism at times complemented, at times dominated, and at times prompted men’s activism.
Tucker taunted Kennedy in her letter by infantilizing him, thus implicitly questioning his masculinity. This was a tried and true tactic that the Mothers’ League of Central High School also consciously employed to stir men into action. It is within this network of interdependent conversations about white supremacy, race, gender, class, region, and space, in which segregationist women in Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina initiated and executed their activism in massive resistance. Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood uncovers their paths.
Chapter 1 analyzes and compares Arkansas’s, Louisiana’s, and South Carolina’s respective massive resistance campaigns, in particular the civil rights activism and segregationist backlash leading up to the desegregation crises in Little Rock from 1957 to 1959, in New Orleans from 1960 to 1962, and the extended defiance in South Carolina that centered around Charleston and its metropolitan area from 1954 to 1963. This chapter highlights central argumentative lines in massive resistance in these states and locales, emphasizing the positions adopted at the regional grassroots level and the concomitant gender aspects of segregationist resistance.
Chapter 2 presents the first case study: the formation, strategies, and activities of the Mothers’ League of Central High School between 1957 and 1960. The league’s segregationist activism was both dynamic and adaptable. It widened its activism from participation in a local desegregation crisis to working for regional elections and ultimately to an attempt to form a national organization. It created performative spaces through both stereotypically gendered displays of hyperbolic emotion and through aggressive actions. The women thus carved out a space for a white working-class, female politics in Arkansas. Ultimately, however, the group’s lack of economic and social capital and its branding as the city’s “white trash” thwarted it, and it dissolved in 1960.
Chapter 3 analyzes the emergence and actions of the so-called cheerleaders during the desegregation crisis surrounding two elementary schools in New Orleans, William Frantz and McDonough 19, tracing the name of the group and presenting a social history of these predominantly working-class women. The chapter also examines the women’s verbal and physical violence and their social status, focusing in particular on their creation of performative spaces, the conscious corporeality of their actions, and the relationship between them and the media. The core group of cheerleaders was more diverse in terms of their social background and education level than previously assumed, thus complicating the “white trash” label often associated with their image.
Chapter 4 examines segregationist women’s groups and individual female activists in Charleston and South Carolina’s surrounding Lowcountry between 1954 and 1963. South Carolina’s campaign of massive resistance avoided a localized, highly publicized school desegregation crisis, and the state defied Brown until 1963. The state had several enclaves of white supremacist activism, however, and one of the most active was in Charleston and its metropolitan area. Here, the most prominent women who engaged in massive resistance were middle to upper class; this chapter thus provides an excursus into a different social space. Female segregationists in South Carolina had previously been politically active in patriotic societies and civic clubs, and they were able to align their segregationist activism with broader conservative values. Female activists in Charleston’s massive resistance grassroots movement could, therefore, muster more economic and social capital, and their history provides a contrast filter to the working-class segregationist women in Arkansas and Louisiana. South Carolina segregationists were the most successful in framing what appeared to be a sectional struggle as a question of national and even international importance.
The conclusion points to the central similarities and differences of the women’s groups and individuals analyzed in the case studies and assesses their significance for the study of women in massive resistance, linking these women’s activism to right-wing and new conservative politics from the 1950s onward. White women employed varied tactics in their activism in defense of white supremacy. Creating performative spaces through their actions, which generated publicity value, allowed them to extend the frames that limited their public roles. “Ordinary” white women as well as women who were previously politically active were motivated by a culture of everyday racism that inscribed racialized expectations and privileges. Segregationist women helped to create crises in order to avoid desegregation and to police the boundaries of white privilege. They were as versed in the ideology and just as committed to the defense of white supremacy as their fellow male activists.