The Mind of the Segregationist

David Chappell, History, University of Arkansas

Research Grant, 1999

The biggest result so far of my project, “The Mind of the Segregationist,” is one-third of my book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (2004, University of North Carolina Press). An advance review in the Atlantic Monthly (November 2003) assessed the book as “one of the three or four most important books on the civil rights movement.” My summary of the book appears as the lead article in the Journal of the Historical Society (Spring 2003).

Still in the works is the larger project the grant supported, an entire book devoted to segregationist propaganda and strategy, tentatively titled The Mind of the Segregationist. I have drafted about half of that manuscript—most of the three most important chapters: on constitutional arguments, on religious arguments, and on the “classics” of segregationist thought (Herman Talmadge’s You and Segregation, Judge Tom Brady’s Black Monday, James J. Kilpatrick’s series of “Interposition” editorials, former Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Byrnes’s article in U.S. News and World Report, etc.).

My HFG grant covered travel expenses to the archives of prominent segregationists, and of southern leaders who wrestled with segregationism but decided not to support it. The most interesting in the latter category was the popular evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell (a prominent conservative southern Presbyterian editor and former missionary, who answered much of Graham’s mail and guided him on practical and spiritual questions), both declared publicly, in Life magazine in 1956, that segregation could not be biblically or constitutionally justified. Ebony magazine made much of Graham’s stance, praising him lavishly in September 1957, but historians have ignored it—along with Graham’s refusal to practice segregation in his southern “crusades” after 1954 or so and his public endorsement of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. Segregationists attacked Graham for deviating from what they understood as the conservative course on race. Graham was often soft-spoken about his integrationist stance after 1956, but he stuck to it.

Graham’s position on race would have been career suicide had he run for public office. Elected southern leaders went the opposite way, achieving near unanimity in their “Southern Manifesto” of opposition to the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions of 1954 and 1955 (Lyndon Johnson, Estes Kefauver, and Al Gore Sr. were the only southern senators who declined to sign). Graham, however, remained one of the most popular figures in the South, and on most issues one of the most conservative.

The archival record suggests that segregationism, though it was the leading issue in southern election campaigns from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, did not go as deep in southern white culture and psychology as historians have hitherto thought.

Other religious leaders of the white South were closer to Graham than to the elected politicians. Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the (southern) Presbyterian Church in the U.S. voted by strong majorities to support public school desegregation in 1954. The vote in the SBC, the more democratic of the two all-southern denominations, was roughly nine thousand to fifty. Segregationists attacked their own churches in order to promote segregationism, though surprisingly few congregations achieved enough unity or militance on the question to withhold funds from the denomination or to withdraw from it, or even to threaten to do so.

Integrationists ridiculed the absurd attempts of a few lay and clerical leaders on the fringe of the segregation movement to use the Bible to justify segregation. But the integrationist reaction seems to have exaggerated the extent and the influence of biblical arguments among segregationists. Far more common than segregationist “proof-texting” in the records of both religious and secular segregationists are statements of an increasingly heated anticlericalism. The southern white churches ended up conflicted, passive, and relatively silent on race questions. As frustrating as that silence was to Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, it was also frustrating to the segregationists who felt abandoned and betrayed by their own churches. The segregationists recognized that their cause was greatly weakened by their inability to match what the Black leader Fred Shuttlesworth called his “weapons of spiritual warfare.”

The archival record suggests that segregationism, though it was the leading issue in southern election campaigns from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, did not go as deep in southern white culture and psychology as historians have hitherto thought. The further one went below the surface of opinion polls and demagogic single-issue campaigns, the less solidarity and confidence one found among white southerners on segregation. Their segregationism did not have nearly the cultural and spiritual resonance that the defense of slavery had had one hundred years earlier. In the slavery struggle, the South’s leading ministers and theologians confidently and resourcefully claimed slavery was a “positive” good, sanctioned by the Bible as well as the Constitution and classical philosophy. There is nothing like that confidence and commitment to segregation a hundred years later: though the opinion polls show overwhelming numbers “favor” segregation, they do not show how much white southerners were willing to sacrifice to defend segregation. The polls do not reveal the deep conflict among white southerners over how best to defend segregation.

If we seek to understand how an impoverished, disfranchised, and unarmed minority succeeded in overthrowing the system of segregation, we must learn how they found and exploited the fissures and pressure points in southern white society. The conflict between the white South’s political and religious institutions helps us begin to understand that although white southerners overwhelmingly supported segregation, they were not about to make significant sacrifices to defend it, and the were incapable of unifying behind any particular strategy of defense.

Had American liberals grasped that basic truth about the white South, they might have found the nerve to challenge segregation a lot earlier and more effectively than they did. As things turned out, American liberals were instead dragged with little preparation into the wake of an indigenous Black southern movement. That movement’s greatest gift, my research suggests, was that its leaders understood the white South better than the liberals—or the racist politicians who represented the white South—did.

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