Life

Hate in the Air

Newly released recordings of Citizens’ Council Radio Forum show white supremacy’s evolution through the civil rights era in real time.

The logo of the Citizens’ Councils.
The logo of the Citizens Council.
University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collection

In 2002, Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library Special Collections bought 418 open-reel magnetic audio tapes. They contained episodes of the Citizens’ Council Radio Forum, a broadcast program dating from 1957 through 1966. The name might sound staid, even boring, but that bland exterior was intentionally crafted. The first pamphlet this organization published, in 1954, began like this: “Either we will all stay white together, or we will be integrated county by county and state by state.” Anyone wanting to see how midcentury racists courted—and won—mainstream audiences using mass media could do worse than to start here.

Formed in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the Citizens’ Council represented the “respectable” wing of white supremacist thought in the South for decades, from 1954–89. “These were the guys in white collars, not the guys in white hoods,” historian Stephanie Rolph said when I asked her about the Citizens’ Council’s place in the history of American racism. “For the most part, these are guys who are elders in their church, members of civic organizations, business owners, attorneys, elected officials.”

Mississippi State has recently made digital versions of about 300 of these audiotapes available online as well as transcripts of the tapes made by Rolph in the course of writing her 2018 book, Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989. The tapes were so fragile, Rolph told me, that six or seven of them snapped during the transcription process; seems like this act of preservation came right in time.

Rolph’s transcripts make for fascinating and disturbing browsing, showing the tactics of an organization that perceived the country’s first small, then big, movements toward civil rights as a total state of emergency. The council’s major project was to slow down desegregation by solidifying white opposition. Members feared, Rolph explained to me, that white Americans were “accepting that desegregation is the order of the day. It’s the law. You should just accept it and move on with it.” Using print publications, television, and radio, the council fought against “normalizing progress.” They saw themselves as “truly American in their identity … representative of most white Americans, if those white Americans were being honest with themselves.” For a while, the Forum programs were introduced by this tagline: “The American voice with a Southern accent.”

While the council did intimidate and actively repress black people living in the South who fought for equality—Byron De La Beckwith, who shot and killed NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in 1963, was a council member in Greenwood, Mississippi—it also pressured white moderates to fall into line by threatening their business interests and throwing political weight behind segregationist politicians. White moderate Mississippi journalist Hodding Carter wrote in the New York Times in 1961 that the council was omnipresent in everyday life: “In countless restaurants across the state, Citizens’ Council literature can be picked up with the toothpicks at the cashier’s counter.” (The University of Mississippi has digitized copies of some of these Citizen’s Council print publications; you can browse them here.)

The radio programs represent the council’s vision of its national reach. Starting in 1958, Forum recorded in D.C., interviewing a series of congressmen and senators from both sides of the aisle, and from the North and the South. Given that range, the recordings in the archive from the late ’50s and the ’60s show how the council tried to distill the ideology of the white supremacist South for a national audience.

Race, and racism, were both hidden and ubiquitous in Forum’s rhetoric. The host, Dick Morphew, would interview guests who addressed a range of issues, emphasizing matters of “states’ rights” and “individual liberty”—keeping references to white supremacy oblique, while the issue was always waiting in the wings. “The Citizens’ Councils are dedicated to race relations based on common sense, not on the power politics of left-wing pressure groups,” the introduction to Forum stipulated, presenting its racism as somehow—magically—apolitical.

In 1966, Citizens’ Council Radio Forum broadcast a series of programs from Africa; Rolph pointed to these entries when I asked her to recommend some notable items in the archive. William J. Simmons, head of the council in Mississippi, interviewed the prime minister of the new country of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, in a two-part episode, supporting the predominately white government in its 1965 declaration of independence from the United Kingdom. “I like to avoid racialism and color,” Smith said, but he added that he felt like Britain and the United States had rejected and sanctioned Rhodesia simply because its rulers were white.

While Rhodesia’s existence later became a cause célèbre among American right-wing groups, these transcripts are evidence that the Citizens’ Council was early to the bandwagon and that these Southern segregationists saw their project as a global one. (If “Rhodesia” plus “American white supremacists” rings a bell in your mind, this might be why.) The Africa trip was an innovation that took the Citizens’ Council beyond its reactionary Southern ancestors. “What separates the movement,” Rolph wrote in her book, “from the race-baiting of demagogues like James K. Vardaman or Ben Tillman, was its desire to unify with whites outside of the South and even outside of the United States.”

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as integration became evermore the law of the land, the council didn’t seem to miss a beat in trying to recruit white Americans to its cause. In one episode, Simmons appeared as Morphew’s guest to describe his trip to Los Angeles immediately after the 1965 riots and couldn’t conceal a little bit of an “I-told-you-so” tone, aimed at a Western city he thought was finally waking up to the realities of race. “It’s rather pitiful to see the reaction of [white] people who have been led by liberal commentators to have a guilt feeling for all this,” Simmons told Morphew. “I heard one man say, ‘Well, I’ve never felt prejudice in my heart, but I do now.’ Of course, it’s not prejudice, it’s the instinct for self-preservation, but they are coming to a fuller understanding of what the rest of the country is facing.”

The archive is a wake-up call for those who perceive the midcentury civil rights era as a great leap forward in the nation’s moral progress, or who are surprised at the recent “rise” of “respectable” white supremacist thought. “The Citizens’ Council movement sought to ‘white out’ the civil rights movement through a reinvigoration of ideology and white activism,” Rolph wrote in her book. If you look at the work of the council, she added, “it becomes clear that white supremacy was reborn in the civil rights era, not irreparably weakened.”