Citizens' Councils logo
|Successor||Council of Conservative Citizens|
|Formation||July 11, 1954|
|Purpose||Maintaining segregation and white supremacy in the South.|
The Citizens' Councils (also referred to as White Citizens' Councils) were an associated network of white supremacist, extreme right, organizations in the United States, concentrated in the South. The first was formed on July 11, 1954. After 1956, it was known as the Citizens' Councils of America. With about 60,000 members across the United States, mostly in the South, the groups were founded primarily to oppose racial integration of schools, but they also opposed voter registration efforts and integration of public facilities during the 1950s and 1960s. Members used severe intimidation tactics including economic boycotts, firing people from jobs, propaganda, and violence against citizens and civil-rights activists.
By the 1970s, following passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s and enforcement of constitutional rights by the federal government, the influence of the Councils had waned considerably yet remained an institutional basis for the majority of white residents in Mississippi. The successor organization to the White Citizens' Councils is the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, founded in 1985 to continue collaborations between Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist political agendas in the United States. Republican politician and past Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was a member while North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and Georgia Congressman Bob Barr were both strong supporters of the Council of Conservative Citizens; David Duke also spoke at a fund raising event, while Patrick Buchanan's campaign manager was linked to both Duke and the Council.
In 1996, a Charleston, SC, drive-by shooting by Klan members of three African American males occurred after a Council rally; Dylann Roof, the perpetrator responsible for the murder of nine Emanuel AME church members in Charleston in 2015, espoused Council of Conservative Citizens rhetoric in a manifesto.
In 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Some sources claim that the White Citizens' Council first started after this in Greenwood, Mississippi. Others say that it originated in Indianola, Mississippi. The recognized leader was Robert B. Patterson of Indianola, a plantation manager and a former captain of the Mississippi State University football team. Additional chapters spread to other southern towns. At this time, most southern states enforced racial segregation of all public facilities; in places where local laws did not require segregation, Jim Crow harassment enforced it. After preliminary post-Civil War Reconstruction efforts led by blacks and poorer whites, the subsequent period from 1890 to 1908 led to disfranchisement of most blacks through the passing of new constitutions and other laws making voter registration and elections more difficult, and led to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite civil rights organizations winning some legal challenges, most blacks in the 1950s were still retaliated against for registering to vote, as well as for riding buses and sitting at lunch counters, in the South and remained so even after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Patterson and his followers formed the White Citizens Council in part to respond with economic retaliation and violence to increased civil rights activism. The Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a grassroots civil rights organization founded in 1951 by T. R. M. Howard of the all-black town Mound Bayou, Mississippi was also 40 miles from Indianola. Aaron Henry, a later official in the RCNL and the future head of the Mississippi NAACP had met Patterson during their childhood.
Within a few months, the White Citizens Council had attracted similar racist members; new chapters developed beyond Mississippi in the rest of the Deep South. The Council often had the support of the leading white citizens of many communities, including business, law enforcement, civic and sometimes religious leaders, many of whom were members. Member businesses, such as newspaper publishing, legal representation, medical service, were known for collectively acting against registered voters whose names were first published in local papers before additional retaliatory actions were taken against them.
Sometimes they were directly involved in voter purges to remove Black voters.
Unlike the Ku Klux Klan but working in unison, the White Citizens Council met openly, and was seen superficially as "pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club." Although the White Citizens Council publicly eschewed the use of violence, the economic and political tactics used against registered voters and activists embraced institutional violence. The White Citizens Council members collaborated to threaten jobs, causing people to be fired or evicted from rental homes; they boycotted businesses, ensured that activists could not get loans, among other tactics. As historian Charles Payne notes, "Despite the official disclaimers, violence often followed in the wake of Council intimidation campaigns." Occasionally some Councils directly incited violence, such as lynchings, shootings, rapes and arson, as did Leander Perez during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. In some cases, Council members were directly involved in acts of violence, such as Nat King Cole being assaulted in Birmingham or Byron De La Beckwith murdering Medgar Evers.
For instance, in Montgomery, Alabama, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, at which Senator James Eastland "ranted against the NAACP" at a large openly held Council meeting in the Garrett Coliseum, a mimeographed flyer publicly espousing extreme racial White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan rhetoric was distributed, parodying the Declaration of Independence and saying:
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, or even suspected of being activists; the tactics included "calling in" the mortgages of black citizens, denying loans and business credit, pressing employers to fire certain people, 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 published in the local paper the names of 53 signers of a petition for school integration. 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, as well as farmers, high school and college students, shop owners, and housewives.
Medgar Evers' first work for the NAACP on a national level involved interviewing Mississippians who had been intimidated by the White Citizens' Councils and preparing affidavits for use as evidence against the Councils if necessary. Evers was assassinated in 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens' Council as well as the Ku Klux Klan. The Citizens' Council paid his legal expenses in his two trials in 1964, which both resulted in hung juries. In 1994, Beckwith was tried by the state of Mississippi based on new evidence, in part revealed by a lengthy investigation by the Jackson Clarion Ledger; he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Many leading 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, funded by the taxes paid by all citizens, 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 adviser 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 city commission in Alabama 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 M. Rainach, 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 near New Orleans. After he left the editorship of the Shreveport Journal in 1971, George W. Shannon relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, to work on The Citizen, a monthly magazine of the Citizens' Council. The Citizen halted publication in January 1979, by which time Shannon had returned to Shreveport.
On July 16, 1956, "under pressure from the White Citizens Councils," the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law mandating racial segregation in nearly every aspect of public life; much of the segregation already existed under Jim Crow custom. The bill was signed into law by governor Earl Long on July 16, 1956 and went into effect on October 15, 1956. The act 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.
Another disposition they managed to pass was a public challenge law allowing two voters to challenge another voter to see if he was lawfully registered, disposition they used to purge the rolls of Black voters, in one parish, Bienville, 95% of Black voters were purged. Similarly, they were involved in handing to the registers pamphlets such as Voter Qualification Laws in Louisiana: The Key to Victory in the Segregation Struggle and making them participate to mandatory semonaries about preventing Black registration and purging Black voters.
Throughout the last half of the 1950s, the White Citizens' Councils produced racist children's books that taught that heaven (in the Christian conception) is segregated. The White Citizens' Council in Mississippi prevented school integration until 1964. As school desegregation increased in some parts of the South, in some communities the White Citizens' Council sponsored "council schools," private institutions set up for white children, as these were beyond the reach of the ruling on public schools. Many of these private "segregation academies" continue to operate today.
By the 1970s, as white Southerners' attitudes toward desegregation began to change following passage of federal civil rights legislation and enforcement of integration and voting rights in the 1960s, the activities of the White Citizens' Councils began to wane. The Council of Conservative Citizens, founded by former White Citizens' Council members, continued the agendas of the earlier Councils.