Reading

The White Citizens Councils

Historian David Halberstam describes the White Citizens’ Councils and their efforts to actively oppose integration in the South in the 1950s.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Racism

In the following passages, historian David Halberstam describes the White Citizens’ Councils, an associated network of white-supremacist organizations. The full article appeared in 1956 in the American magazine Commentary.

 


 

. . . The White Citizens Councils, a loosely connected series of local groups which have arisen throughout the South in protest against the Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954 desegregation decision, undoubtedly constitute a very significant political phenomenon. Individually, the Councils can be either powerful or frail, at times the sincere expression of confusion and desperation, at other times the vehicle for personal frustration. But the single thread connecting all the Councils, strong and weak, is the determination not just to oppose integration in the public schools but to stop or at least postpone it. In most of the Deep South, where hostility to integration is nearly universal, it is this militancy and dedication that make the Council member stand out.

 

Despite occasional efforts by supporters to build the Councils up into a movement of broad conservatism, their only serious purpose is to fight the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Not only do they contest the NAACP’s desegregation suits, but they seek to cancel much else that the Negro has gained over the last half-century by keeping him out of the polling booth. The exact strength of the Councils is difficult to determine: in Mississippi, their cradle, 100,000 members are claimed, but sober estimates would run closer to 55,000. Yet nowhere in the Deep South is their strength to be scoffed at—it is a product of crisis and as more law suits are filed it will mount.

 

The Council movement has been compared frequently to two earlier organizations that originated in the South, the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction times, and the new Klan that appeared on the scene after World War I. And indeed there are, at least for the moment, certain parallels between the Klans—especially the original one—and the Council movement. The differences are nonetheless crucial. The Councils have an almost self-conscious desire for respectability. They struggle to achieve a constitutionally illegal purpose by “all legal means.” They shun both the Klans’ reputation for violence, and their haberdashery; their members are respectable citizens of the community, the quintessence of the civic luncheon club. At their meetings there is emphasis on speakers from the ministry and the universities… 1

  • 1David Halberstam, “The White Citizens Councils: Respectable Means for Unrespectable Ends,” Commentary, October 1, 1956.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, “The White Citizens Councils,” last updated April 28, 2022. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History and Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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