Mississippi Citizens Councils: What Were They?

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is still in the news for his defense of the role of the Citizens Council in dealing with desegregation and civil rights in Yazoo City. Many see the councils — which spun off a group that initially called itself the White Citizens Council — as primarily white supremacist groups. John Dittmer, professor emeritus at DePauw University in Indiana, is the author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. He talks with Michel Martin about the history of the Citizens Councils.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

In a minute we'll hear from a security expert about whether all those new security procedures at the airport are actually doing any good.

But first, we have another story about the power of memory. We just heard from the mayor of South Carolina about how his city and state are gearing up to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

Now we go to Mississippi where the legacy of slavery, segregation, is also being remembered in different ways. In a recent interview in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a Republican who's been mentioned a bit of late as a potential presidential candidate, spoke approvingly about a group called the Citizens Council.

Barbour was quoted as saying that while northerners saw the councils as akin to the Ku Klux Klan, he says the councils were groups of leading business people that actually kept a lid on the Klan, and helped his hometown, Yazoo City, integrate the schools without violence.

His remarks sparked criticism even from some other conservatives, and he has stepped back from them. But we wanted to know more about what the facts really are about citizens councils and what role they actually did play in Mississippi, so we've called on John Dittmer. He is professor emeritus at DePauw University, and author of the book "Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi," and he joins us now from his home office in Green Castle, Indiana.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JOHN DITTMER (Professor Emeritus, DePauw University): I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Now, could you just tell us a bit about the history of the citizens councils, how were they founded, by whom, and what kinds of activities they engaged in? It's my understanding that they were actually originally called White Citizens Councils.

Mr. DITTMER: Well, in Mississippi, they just used the name Citizens Council. I think they thought that White would be redundant. In other states they added the White to the title.

The Citizens Council was founded specifically for the purpose of denying blacks entrance into white schools. And as several have pointed out, in Yazoo City, Barbour's home town, the council was very successful in preventing blacks who had signed petitions to get their kids into school, to get them in. People who signed the petitions were fired if they worked for whites, had credit denied if they were independent, and as such, no Mississippi public schools desegregated until 1964.

MARTIN: How exactly did these groups work?

Mr. DITTMER: A writer named Hodding Carter once said that Citizens Council was the uptown Ku Klux Klan. These were a bunch of professional businessmen, leaders of the community, Barbour was right in that respect. But the image of the Citizens Council was that it was nonviolent, and the reality is much, much different.

For example, it was a Citizens Council member, Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered Jackson civil rights leader Medgar Evers. And after Beckwith was arrested, the Citizens Council raised money to pay for his court defense.

MARTIN: Well, let me just tell you what Haley Barbour says, and then you can tell me how you respond to it. I mean, he initially said that the reason his city desegregated without the violence that characterized other places is that these organizations of town leaders would run the Klan out of town. And then he released this following statement on December 21st: When asked why my hometown in Mississippi did not suffer the same racial violence when I was a young man that accompanied other towns' integration efforts, I accurately said the community leadership would not tolerate it, and helped prevent violence there. My point was that my town rejected the Ku Klux Klan, but nobody should construe that to mean I think the town leadership were saints either. Their vehicle, the Citizens Council, is totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful time for Mississippi, the rest of the country, and especially African-Americans who were persecuted in that time.

Do you think his assessment of Yazoo City, to your knowledge, was correct, that the leadership there did not tolerate the Klan?

Mr. DITTMER: In Yazoo City, as in other cities, it was not so much the Klan was persona non grata, it was superfluous. The Citizens Council was the keeper of the color line. Up until the mid-'60s when the civil rights movement was making great gains in Mississippi, not until 1953 was the Klan a factor anywhere.

Secondly, he had to walk away from that comment with the simple statement that the Citizens Council was not a good organization. But as I and others have tried to point out, this organization of town leaders was really a vicious group that would do anything to advance the cause of white supremacy.

For example, right after the Brown decision in 1954, the Citizens Council stated that if schools were desegregated that would result in the rape of white girls, and ultimately in, quote, "the mongrelization of the white race." What was the impact of these kinds of statements on people who were maybe inclined to react violently against efforts by blacks to desegregate their facility?

MARTIN: The other thing - the other question I had for you is that in terms of how school integration actually occurred in Mississippi in general, and in Yazoo City in particular, do I have it right that the town leaders basically just set up alternate schools for white kids?

Mr. DITTMER: Well, yeah. Yazoo City did not desegregate its schools until 1970, and your point is a good one, because there was no violence in Yazoo City in 1970, because by that time whites had given up on the public schools. They were founding their own private segregated academies so there was no use for them to get upset.

MARTIN: How were they able to avoid desegregating the schools until 1970?

Mr. DITTMER: Well, that was a series of court evasions. The Supreme Court in 1955 said that schools should desegregate with all deliberate speed. And that, for the deep South, meant never.

MARTIN: In interviews, the other comment that Governor Barbour made that has attracted some attention is he was asked how he remembers that era. He's quoted as saying, I just don't remember it as being that bad. He said, I remember Martin Luther King came to town in '62. He spoke out at the old fairground, it was full of people, black and white, and he was asked if he remembered what King said. He said, I just don't really remember. The truth is, we couldn't hear very well, we were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars watching the girls talking with boys. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.

That's really the only thing that is offered as his memory of that era, and I'm just wondering how you respond to those remarks.

Mr. DITTMER: Two things. First of all, you did not have in the middle of the civil rights movement, white teenagers hanging out on the periphery of a civil rights speech. But the other point is that Barbour did not have any indication in his remarks of being upset at all by this, but Barbour was a junior in high school. So he was of age then. He knew what was going on.

Whites knew what was going on. They just didn't approve of it, and I think this comes down to his remarks today.

MARTIN: Derrick Johnson, we spoke to him, the president of the NAACP in Mississippi, he says that actually people in Mississippi are not that shocked by what Governor Barbour has to say, but that they feel that it is important to let the country know what the mindset is. And the mindset is one of revisionism. And he thinks it's a very serious matter, and I'd like to ask what your view of this is.

Mr. DITTMER: Yeah. I think Barbour is one of many unreconstructed Southerners. He is not a Holocaust denier in the sense that he admits that slavery existed and that a hundred years of racial segregation existed. But it really wasn't that big a deal for him.

MARTIN: Well, what if it wasn't that big of a deal for him, it didn't really affect his life, at least as he remembers it. Is that so wrong?

Mr. DITTMER: Well, I think that it depends on whether you have a moral conscience or not. Certainly there were people in Mississippi, white people, who were aware of what was going on, and who were horrified about it. The problem was there was no white minority in Mississippi that was able to vocalize its sentiments at the time.

So the Haley Barbours of that generation didn't really have to pay that much attention to it.

MARTIN: John Dittmer is professor emeritus at DePauw University. He's also author of the book "Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights In Mississippi," which we should note won the prestigious Bancroft Prize. He joined us from his home office in Green Castle, Indiana.

Professor Dittmer, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DITTMER: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

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