When Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, his primary audience comprised a group of eight Alabama clergymen who had joined together in a “Call to Unity” that criticized King’s nonviolent protest of racism and racial segregation in Birmingham. The clergymen had urged the protesters to take up their arguments with the courts rather than in the streets, claiming that the “extreme measures” of the “outsider” activists were inciting racial tensions in ways that would potentially undermine the work of “responsible citizens” already focused on “various problems which cause racial friction and unrest.” Beyond his direct address to the clergymen, however, King took rhetorical aim at a much wider audience of white moderates, brilliantly calling those who saw and objected to the everyday injustices of racism to act on their own ideals rather than passively wait for the slow progress of legally sanctioned social change.
King’s epistolary tour de force is an enduring reminder that the most serious obstacles to genuine progress have never been merely legal or institutional, but are rather embedded in the routine practices and daily interactions of everyday people who hold the structures of prejudice and oppression firmly in place. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy charts the often-neglected power of the white women indispensable for creating and maintaining white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. While historical accounts of the opposition to civil rights tend to feature the virulence of (in)famous Southern white male politicians—George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and James Eastland—as icons of the Jim Crow South and architects of segregation, McRae offers a much more nuanced narrative that captures the determined and constant work on the part of women that was necessary to cultivate and preserve white supremacy from the earliest years of the 20th century. In so doing, McRae’s account challenges common assumptions that women’s segregationist activism emerged overwhelmingly as a response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Documenting a much longer history of the everyday efforts of women who assumed local, regional, and, occasionally, state-wide leadership roles and the groups of women they mobilized in turn, McRae uncovers the lesser-known figures who fought to entrench local forms of white supremacy—in textbooks, school curricula, public spaces, social work, local bureaucracies, and, above all, family life—that ultimately made racism and segregation impossible to undo in the courts and Congress alone. Capitalizing on their authority as mothers and the purveyors of moral citizenship, the white women at the center of McRae’s narrative saw to it that the practices and ideologies of white supremacy permeated every possible area of life, mounting a grassroots movement where white women became “the mass in massive resistance” (4) to the progressive change promised by the civil rights movement. If white Southern male politicians became the public face of segregation in the Jim Crow South, it was white women who cultivated and naturalized the everyday forms of white supremacy that Martin Luther King knew could not simply be legislated away.
McRae’s study foregrounds the careers of four white women whose work epitomizes the gendered forms of authority available to some well-positioned Southern women, while also chronicling the many ways these women became early models for less well-positioned women who were nevertheless moral authorities in their own families and local communities. Thanks to McRae’s careful attention to the contexts of their quite different social and intellectual development, none of these women ever threatens to become a familiar caricature of white supremacy; rather, the sometimes profound ideological differences and dramatically different political affiliations of the women at the center of her book testify to the overriding power of white supremacist beliefs to trump other differences. McRae’s account of Nell Battle Lewis, a columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer, for example, depicts a woman progressive enough in her early years of her 45-year career to be threatened by the KKK for her strong critiques of the Klan’s reactionary violence but whose particular form of white supremacy unmistakably emerged in her paternalistic reform ideals, grounded in a belief that Southerners needed to live up to the true promise of separate but equal. Whether composing reviews for cultural performances, writing material for the children’s page, or penning her weekly column into the mid-1950s, Lewis engaged in the “Jim Crow storytelling” essential to naturalizing segregation in the cultural imagination of everyday Southerners. In contrast to Lewis, who was raised in Raleigh and educated in the North, McRae offers a portrait of Florence Sillers Ogden, a Mississippian cotton plantation owner who also initially found a voice as a columnist in two Southern newspapers. Ogden then leveraged a combination of her class privilege and gendered authority to engage in state-wide politics, working with the Daughters of the American Revolution and recruiting for the new segregationist organization, Women for Constitutional Government in the service of larger political change. Her particular political engagements highlight the difficulties that began to emerge for other Southern segregationists who were affiliated with a Democratic party newly (if cautiously) attending to the injustices of racism; some, like Ogden, welcomed the benefits of FDR’s New Deal for a white-controlled economy while also resisting federal efforts to end lynching or pack the Supreme Court.
If white Southern male politicians became the public face of segregation in the Jim Crow South, it was white women who cultivated and naturalized the everyday forms of white supremacy that Martin Luther King knew could not simply be legislated away.
White supremacist commitments, however, did not dictate political affiliation. Demonstrating the ways in which white supremacy transcended political party, McRae offers the contrasting examples of Mary Dawson Cain and Cornelia Dabney Tucker. Cain, whose early start in journalism enabled her to rise in political circles and eventually to run (unsuccessfully) for governor of Mississippi in 1951, ardently opposed New Deal policies like Social Security and eventually declared herself a “Jeffersonian Democrat,” prying open the divisions between Southerners who objected to FDR’s socialist policies and those who were reluctant to join the Republican Party (still, as it was, the party of Lincoln). Tucker, by contrast, a widowed mother of five from Charleston who worked in real estate, used her growing influence to lead a defection of South Carolina whites from the Democratic party altogether. Mobilizing her women’s networks and fellow segregationists with petitions, phone calls, and telegrams, she exploited fears of communism in her characterization of FDR’s social welfare programs as anti-American; she set out, with some success, to “remake South Carolina’s Republican party” (77) as a direct response to what white segregationists believed was a Democratic betrayal of Southern interests. The stories of these women and their meticulous cultivation of white supremacy in the everyday lives of their communities and in their behind-the-scenes political organizing help McRae’s readers understand why Southern white resistance to federal efforts, beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt’s anti-lynching campaigns—her husband, FDR, by contrast never supported federal anti-lynching laws—and culminating with forced school integration, were so sturdy and surprisingly well-coordinated.
White women had become instrumental figures in building the elaborate and wide-reaching scaffolding of white supremacy and systems of racial segregation stretching back to the 1920s. In social welfare offices, white women were the frontline workers policing the color line in the bureaucratic record keeping of births and citizenship status that determined voter eligibility, marriage licenses, and school enrollment. In the management of the schools, white women forcefully led the charge to dictate the “patriotic” content of their children’s curricula and textbooks, particularly when it came to challenging Northern versions of the Civil War as a conflict fought over slavery (rather than states’ rights). When school desegregation loomed as an inevitability, white women became the primary figures of local resistance, invoking the threat of interracial intimacies and social mixing that would undermine the lessons of etiquette and social distance fostered in their families. McRae brings into vivid focus the white mothers desperate to protect their innocent daughters from the dangers of hypersexualized black adolescents and the threat of miscegenation. When matters forced political decisions of school boards or local government, white women were able to mobilize already-existing networks and their community organizations to preserve the practices of white supremacy.
Thanks to McRae’s careful attention to the contexts of their quite different social and intellectual development, none of these women ever threatens to become a familiar caricature of white supremacy; rather, the sometimes profound ideological differences and dramatically different political affiliations of the women at the center of her book testify to the overriding power of white supremacist beliefs to trump other differences.
McRae’s book also traces a longer history of the way white women shaped the discourse of resistance, quite often engaging in rhetorical tactics that simultaneously preserved racist ideology (and its political impacts) and disavowed explicit racist intention. Particularly as civil rights began to dominate the political discussion at the federal level, the public-facing work of Southern white women strategically adopted a rhetoric of race-neutral patriotism ostensibly aimed at the preservation of states’ rights in the face of federal intrusions. Calling attention to the discrepancy between rhetoric and practice, however, McRae holds up the claims of white segregationists denying the salience of race against common practices including (white) women’s groups sponsoring essay contests for high school students in Mississippi on topics that included “Why I Believe in Social Separation of the Races of Mankind” and “Why Separate Schools Should Be Maintained for the White and Negro Races,” promising significant scholarships as prizes as late as the 1960s (192). Likewise, white women’s organized harassment and threats against white mothers who continued sending their children to school after federally enforced integration reveal how the battle for the allegiance of white moderates was fought daily on the field of routines and community interaction. For segregationist women, the main enemy was not civil rights activism but apathy and a growing population of white moderates.
In the management of the schools, white women forcefully led the charge to dictate the “patriotic” content of their children’s curricula and textbooks, particularly when it came to challenging Northern versions of the Civil War as a conflict fought over slavery (rather than states’ rights).
McRae’s broadening of the narrative of grassroots resistance to civil rights to highlight the often-overlooked role of everyday women in the work of maintaining a Jim Crow order enables her to draw crucial and provocative lines of connection between segregationist white women’s activism in the Jim Crow South and the anti-busing protests, including those led by Northern working-class white women in Boston, in the 1970s. Challenging “a false divide in the historiography” (232) that keeps anti-busing protesters and Southern segregationists ideologically distinct on the basis of region or assumed intention, McRae illuminates a shared sense of moral authority as mothers and guardians of social mores between these two groups, each of whom who saw itself as resisting federally enforced policies that threatened their choices about neighborhood, property investment, and schools for their children. Like white Southern segregationist women before them, the Boston protesters deflected charges of racism, claiming instead that the “right to choose” what is best for their children was at the core of the debate, conveniently sidestepping the reality that their efforts to maintain the status quo necessarily meant re-entrenching the effects of de facto racist segregation kept in place by less visible racist policies and practices like redlining and highway planning.
McRae’s book insists that the story of racist massive resistance, much of it historically led and sustained by women, was always much more than simply a Southern or a Jim Crow phenomenon, and that it was always about much more than school segregation. Pursuing the privileges conferred on whiteness, no matter how neutral the rhetorical framing, McRae reminds us, has a deeper and longer American history than many would care to admit. Above all, McRae’s work issues a timely reminder of the seemingly unshakable foundations of white supremacist structures and practices, however carefully and cleverly repackaged they may be for a given political moment. Her book stands as a counter-narrative to the very forms of Jim Crow storytelling that her subjects helped to invent and solidify and that stubbornly continue to re-emerge, whether in accounts from Alabama clergymen blaming activists (rather than centuries of racist oppression) for social “tension,” or current discourses that locate the problems of racial unrest in the impatient overreaction of marginalized people and the only authentic solutions in the hands of a benevolent and race-neutral state.