Shedding Light On Civil Rights-Era Citizens Councils

Comments from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour that appeared to praise the work of so-called Citizens Councils are raising controversy. Many cite the Citizens Councils as racist organizations that fought against racial equality. NPR's Audie Cornish talks to University of North Carolina journalism professor Hodding Carter III, who grew up in Mississippi, and whose father documented the rise of Citizens Councils.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Another Southern governor has been doing some explaining this week. Republican Haley Barbour of Mississippi has been considered a possible challenger to President Obama in 2012. Now, he is backpedaling from a quote he gave the Weekly Standard in a profile of him and the place where he grew up, Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Governor Barbour was asked why Yazoo City managed to integrate its schools without violence. He said it was due to the local Citizens' Council, a group of white town leaders, because they did not tolerate the Ku Klux Klan. Well, those comments sparked a lot of bad press and Barbour has since issued a statement.

He said, to quote a part of it, "My point was my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints, either. Their vehicle, called the Citizens Council, is totally indefensible, as is segregation."

Well, we wanted to know more about the Citizens' Council, so we're joined by Hodding Carter the Third. He is a professor of Public Policy and Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a former reporter in the Mississippi Delta, where he was born and raised. Hodding Carter, welcome to the show.

Professor HODDING CARTER (Leadership and Public Policy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: So you actually did some reporting on Citizens' Councils back in the '60s. Tell us, how did they come about and why?

Prof. CARTER: They were formed in the Delta, which is where our paper was. They were formed for one reason only: To oppose any form of integration. They were formed immediately after the desegregation decision of 1954.

And let me just read one little phrase from their organizing pamphlet: The Citizen's Council is the Souths answer to the mongrelizers(ph). We will not be integrated. We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage of 60 centuries.

That was the point. And at every point they had a chance, they used pressure of every sort except overt violence to put down any dissent from total white supremacy.

CORNISH: So you said this is in response to the Supreme Court's Brown versus the Board of Education ruling.

Prof. CARTER: Thats correct.

CORNISH: But who would have been a member of the Citizens' Council in a place like Yazoo City?

Prof. CARTER: In fact, Haley got this one right. The original members were in fact the sort of leadership types. They figured if they came together, crushed dissent and crushed any black who was trying to go toward integration, they could in effect prevent the next stage that had been used before in the South, which was overt violence. And which, of course, was to come again later in the South.

CORNISH: So what kind of methods did they use?

Prof. CARTER: Well, Yazoo City is a good example of what they used. A group of some 50 or so black citizens in Yazoo City signed a petition asking for the desegregation of the schools really early. The Citizen's Council published, not only in the newspaper but on placards around town, the names of all of those who had signed that petition, suggested people look at those names carefully.

Within two weeks, all but something like 12 of those 50-something names had been stricken. Some of the people had left town, some of the businesses they had, had been closed. Immediate, fast, very quick lesson in what nonviolence meant to the Citizen's Council.

CORNISH: And I do want to say civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed in 1963 by a member of the Citizen's Council in Jackson, Mississippi. And there is other evidence of use of violence by members of councils. Was the Yazoo City Council different?

Prof. CARTER: Well, the Citizen's Council was always extremely careful to use rhetoric which said we will not, we do not condone, we will prevent the destruction of our way of life by other means. But you should not be surprised, they would say, if the effort to stop it peacefully fails, if violence breaks out.

That was as coded an invitation as you would want to those who would take up violence, that if things got to it, nobody was ever going to turn against them. And indeed, nobody in the Citizen's Council in Mississippi at any time - and I was there throughout the entire period - got up and led the charge to bring the killers to justice, to expose them.

The killers in Mississippi swam in a sea of Citizens Council control and, therefore, protection for what they did. Never, ever were those people brought to justice by white leadership.

CORNISH: And how are we to interpret Governor Barbour's memories of Yazoo City, and his statement about these councils? I mean, what does it say about him and maybe his political prospects?

Prof. CARTER: Well, Haley is a younger man that I am. And he could be forgiven for a slight lapse of memory, since he was not in the middle of the business at the time that it was really hot.

On the other hand, he was from a family of leadership in Yazoo City, and he knows perfectly well what kind of force was used, economic and other forms, in Yazoo City to hold things down, as I used to like to say.

Why was he saying that? I think he was talking to a sympathetic interviewer and lost his mind.

CORNISH: That's Hodding Carter III, former journalist in Mississippi, also former member of the Carter administration, and now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hodding Carter, thank you so much.

Mr. CARTER: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Hodding Carter joined us from the studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill.

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