Massive Resistance


George Wallace blocks the entrance to Foster Auditorium Stand in the Schoolhouse Door Massive Resistance, a term originally taken from Virginia senator Harry Byrd's call for "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's 1954 public school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, has come to mean the broader opposition to the civil rights movement. Massive Resistance took many forms, including the White Citizens' Council (which organized as a socially acceptable method of lawful and peaceful resistance to desegregation); legal opposition to civil rights legislation in the U.S. Congress, in Alabama, and across the South; and the violent reprisals of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). White Citizens' Councils reached their peak of activity by the late 1950s and gradually declined in power, especially after passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s. Klan membership in Alabama peaked in the mid-1960s and declined to near irrelevancy by the end of the twentieth century.

Alabamians who participated in the various forms of Massive Resistance did so for a number of reasons, all of which drew from a long legacy of state-sponsored racial inequality stretching back through decades of segregation and slavery. Some feared that racial equality would allow African Americans to compete politically and economically with whites. Others believed that integration would allow blacks and whites to date and marry, which was viewed by many as unacceptable at the time. Some Alabamians associated the support of racial integration and federal civil rights legislation with Soviet Communism. Finally, others believed that the extension of civil rights was inevitable, but that it should come gradually and at the direction of state and local governments. In fact, many of Alabama's political leaders portrayed their resistance as support for "gradual" civil rights instead of the "immediate" action of the federal government and civil rights organizations.

Rise of the White Citizens' Councils  

Lt. Gov. Albert Boutwell, right, and Gov. John Albert BoutwellIn Alabama, the first modern civil rights resistance group to form was the American States Rights Association (ASRA), created in early 1954 by influential businessmen and landowners from Birmingham and the Black Belt. Its membership also included several state politicians dedicated to using their positions to resist desegregation, and the organization funded a radio program, hosted by Asa Earl Carter, an active member of several groups associated with Massive Resistance. When a similar group, the White Citizens' Council, formed in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1954, ASRA members joined with other segregationists to form branches of the organization in Alabama. The first arm of the Alabama White Citizens' Council (AWCC) formed in Selma in late 1954 or so, with assistance from Mississippi advisors. From the outset, the councils were strongest in the Black Belt, though there was an active Birmingham branch that counted businessmen and politicians such as Sidney Smyer and Albert Boutwell among its members.

During the bus boycott, leaders of the Montgomery Car Pooling During the Montgomery Bus BoycottThe Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in December 1955, prompted a surge in council membership across the state, particularly in Montgomery, where the mayor, police commissioner, and other members of the local government, and leaders of religious organizations publicly joined. The city's branch boasted 9,000 members and published the segregationist States Rights Advocate. In February 1956, AWCC branch leaders from across Alabama formed the State Association of Citizens' Councils, led by John H. Whitley, a Tarrant drugstore manager. Although not the most powerful member, Whitley embodied the business-class origins of most of the councils' members. Additionally, several members were well-placed politicians, including Montgomery judge Walter B. Jones, who used his legal training to advise on resistance to desegregation; state senator Sam Engelhardt, Jr., a Macon County landowner notorious for his opposition to school desegregation, and Dallas County senator Walter Givhan, who had helped lead the Dixiecrat movement. By the end of 1956, there were 80,000 men and women in more than 100 councils across the state.

In publications, speeches, and statements, the councils made a concerted effort to distance their actions from the violent reprisals of the Ku Klux Klan. This image of a more peaceful and thus more socially acceptable segregationist organization fit with the professional and respected status that many of the members enjoyed in their communities. Banker members denied loans and mortgages to black citizens who participated in demonstrations or attempted to register to vote. Attorneys refused to represent activists arrested or imprisoned for protesting on behalf of civil rights. Newspaper editors and reporters affiliated with the councils kept up a stream of segregationist print criticizing both the federal government and those within the state government deemed too liberal on the question of race, publicized the names of civil rights activists who challenged segregation, and routinely printed passionate defenses of white supremacy. And in general, employers fired or blacklisted Alabamians known to be active in the movement for racial equality.

Most Council members repudiated violence, but there were some who more easily crossed the line between legal and illegal resistance. The best example is Asa Carter, whose North Alabama Citizens' Council broke from the state council in early 1956. Carter's group began to espouse a more aggressive approach, involving the use of violence and physical intimidation. He went on to join a violent branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham.

Legal Resistance  

Lister Hill (1894-1984) was a U.S. congressman from Lister HillDespite their reputation as progressives, Alabama's U.S. congressmen joined efforts to resist federal civil rights legislation. In 1956, the state's entire contingent endorsed the "Southern Manifesto," a congressional resolution signed by 101 legislators who promised to overturn the Brown decision. Promoting a gradualist view, the state's delegates supported efforts to limit federal action on behalf of civil rights throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including a large-scale filibuster by fellow southerners in the hopes of preventing a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Alabama senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman playing important roles. Such well-placed resistance made federal action on civil rights exceedingly difficult.

Members of the state government worked even more eagerly to resist change. After Brown, the state legislature passed in 1955 the Pupil Placement Act, authored by state senator Albert Boutwell, who was active in the Birmingham chapter of the AWCC. The legislation enabled local administrators to assign students to specific schools, effectively preventing black students from attending all-white schools. In addition, Boutwell's 1956 "freedom of choice" law was enacted to allow parents to place children in specific schools.

National Guard troops protect a Trailways bus carrying Freedom RidesAt the executive level, governors John Patterson and George Wallace adopted Massive Resistance as state policy in the 1950s and 1960s. As attorney general, Patterson succeeded in banning the NAACP from organizing in the state in 1956. During the 1958 gubernatorial contest, Patterson openly solicited the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and went on to win the election. Then, as governor, he used his power and position to oppose desegregation, refusing in 1961 to protect the Freedom Riders when they arrived in the state, leaving the nonviolent activists open to vicious attacks at bus stations in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Wallace, who took office in 1963, encouraged the creation of the Committee on Constitutional Law and State Sovereignty, usually called the Sovereignty Commission, which served as a legislative arm for Wallace's efforts to halt the advance of civil rights in Alabama. Wallace is most known, however, for opposing desegregation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and at Tuskegee High School in Macon County in 1963. In addition, he ordered state troopers to halt black demonstrators in Birmingham and tried to disrupt negotiations between movement leaders and the city government during the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. He also ordered troopers and other security forces to prevent the March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery March, an action that led to troopers assaulting civil rights marchers in Selma. Wallace also was instrumental in encouraging and facilitating the creation of private "segregation academies," which were able to legally forbid the enrollment of African American students. In the end, neither Wallace nor Patterson was able to stop the advance of civil rights, but as prominent leaders in a program of "massive resistance," they encouraged further opposition at the local level.

Violent Resistance and the KKK  

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was Sixteenth Street Church BombingViolent resistance to civil rights is most commonly associated with the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan of the 1950s and 1960s. The organization used intimidation, physical violence, and assassination to punish anyone who challenged segregation. Although the organization publicly endorsed John Patterson for governor in 1958, the Klan remained largely outside the political structure, a stance that allowed political leaders and AWCC members to denounce physical attacks on civil rights activists. While Council leaders and politicians avoided openly cooperating with and supporting the Klan, but in fact their separate forms of resistance worked in concert to make continued activism on behalf of civil rights difficult, complicated, and dangerous. The KKK was never as organized as the Citizens' Councils, and in Alabama there were at least six separate chapters claiming the title of Klan. Yet despite the divergence in membership and organization, the members of the Klaverns, as individual chapters were known, had a common goal, to use any means necessary to halt the advance of civil rights. Most notably, Klan members were responsible for bombings at the homes of Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Shores, Fred Shuttlesworth, E. D. Nixon, and at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, as well as the murder of Viola Liuzzo and attempted murder of Leroy Moton, and the beatings of the Freedom Riders. The Ku Klux Klan was not solely responsible for every physical attack on civil rights activists, but its embrace of violence contributed to a culture that allowed the horrific attacks to occur.

With the passage of major civil rights bills in 1964 and 1965, and a resulting increase in economic and political power for African Americans in the state, Massive Resistance went into decline. State leaders slowly came to rely on political support from newly enfranchised black voters, and by the early 1970s, even Wallace had begun to distance himself from open resistance. State lawmakers began to pursue convictions for bombings, killings, and physical assaults related to civil rights-era attacks, and an increasingly middle-class and development-oriented population rejected the rhetoric and actions of massive resistance in favor of efforts toward integration into national politics, economics, and culture.

Despite ongoing inequalities, the civil rights movement brought profound changes to Alabama, and the organized resistance of the Citizens' Councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and political opposition played an important role in that transformation. Ultimately, massive resistance drew attention to continued racial inequality and highlighted the necessity for the fight for civil rights. In Birmingham, for example, Eugene "Bull" Connor's dogs and fire hoses, Klan violence, and stonewalling by white politicians did little to stop the advance of civil rights. Instead, such resistance hastened a shift in national support for the movement, emboldened activists to demand substantive changes, and encouraged the federal government to act more forcefully on behalf of civil rights in Alabama and across the South.

Clearly, the end of Massive Resistance did not translate into racial equality. Instead, subtler forms of inequality became more and more prevalent. Private schools and academies catered to a largely white student population, particularly in majority African American counties. Suburbanization in Alabama cities led to continued residential segregation as whites fled to the suburbs. Overall, progress towards economic and educational equality remains woefully slow.

Additional Resources  

Bartley, Numan. The New South, 1945-1980: The Story of the South's Modernization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

———. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Finley, Keith M. Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight against Civil Rights, 1938-1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

McMillan, Neil R. The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-1964. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Webb, Clive, ed. Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Matthew L. Downs
University of Mobile


Published July 28, 2014
Last updated July 28, 2014