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Publications Book Reviews
George Lewis. Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement

George Lewis. Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement. Hodder Arnold, 2006, 254pp.

The first thing one observes about George Lewis's book is its cover image. It is a photograph of elementary school children and women protesting against desegregation in New Orleans in 1960. In the picture's foreground stand two women yelling vociferously along a sidewalk. At their flank a schoolboy holds a placard which reads: "All I want for Christmas is a clean white school." Other women and children stand in the background completing the scene, one holding a placard that refers to states' rights, as others gaze toward the street. Two are present for the event wearing kerchiefs and curlers, perhaps having rushed out of their homes to partake in the morning's activities. Above the scene is the book's title, Massive Resistance. To the reader who is perhaps unfamiliar with the general topic of this book, text and image might represent a peculiar contradiction. Did 'massive resistance' amount to what is visible in the photograph on the book's cover? Is this all that stood in the way of African-Americans struggling to gain their civil rights? In both cases the response is a clear no. Women and children yelling from sidewalks with placards was one of many responses used by those in the American South in opposition to desegregation. In short, this book by George Lewis unravels the complex and intricate webs that were part and parcel of what is referred to as massive resistance. His scholarly approach, impressive organization of the material, and the overall quality and clarity of his narrative collectively contribute to Massive Resistance being an important contribution to the field of American studies.

Lewis's acumen is evident right from the beginning of his book. He traces the historical evolution of the term massive resistance and explores the variety of contexts in which it was deployed. Starting with Senator Harry Flood of Virginia, elements of the mass media, and the historiography of the movement, Lewis carefully penetrates the layers of meanings, uses, and interpretations of massive resistance, ultimately bringing clarity to this contested term. In the main, massive resistance was the response of various elements of white society in the South in opposition to the federal government's plans to desegregate southern society during the latter part of the 1950s and through the first half of the 1960s. Lewis dismisses the standard historical explanations that viewed massive resistance as distinctively being carried out by southern political elites or having merely manifested itself at the well-known sites of segregationist protest such as Little Rock, Ole Miss and Birmingham. Instead, Lewis merges these traditional studies with the activities and tactics occurring at the grassroots level, revealing a movement of southern white resistance that was both diverse and fluid. Regarding the beginning of the movement, Lewis rejects the notion that the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision was the single event that started massive resistance. Citing Brown, he argues, as the catalyst represents a misreading of the movement which he identifies as more multifarious and complex in character. As "an amorphous beast," massive resistance, according to Lewis, must be viewed as a "phenomenon that was too sprawling, and simply not sufficiently obedient, to have been ushered into existence by a single landmark event" (24).

Dividing the movement into three historical periods of resistance activity, Lewis proceeds to examine its various manifestations. Systematically, he explores each distinct phase in successive chapters, covering the tactics used in various states, the role of the South's political elite and Citizens' Councils, the actions of state legislatures relative to the issue of states' rights, the role of the mass media, as well as white justifications for discriminatory policies as a product of long-standing southern culture and tradition. In all these instances and the particular case studies he evaluates, Lewis is extremely articulate and thorough without being overly legalistic or superfluous in his explanations. The first period of focus covers the immediate years following the Brown decision of 1954 up until the 1956 signing of the Southern Manifesto, which signaled the start of the second period of segregationist resistance. Finally, the third period included the first half of the sixties, a time when the movement gradually lost its strength at the political and social levels.

During the immediate post-Brown period, there seemed to have been a failure on the part of the opponents of desegregation to put forth a coherent, unified political position, revealing the inherent fractures and tensions that were part of the massive resistance movement. The 1956 Southern Manifesto, a document drafted by the South's political leadership, represented an attempt to fuse key segregationist positions and locate their struggle within a constitutional-judicial framework. As Lewis notes, by the sixth draft finally enough signatories were in agreement on the document's content. Seeking to broaden their appeal and base of support, segregationists also took advantage of the Cold War atmosphere which dominated the period. Communist involvement in the civil rights movement was a common line preached by those eager to maintain the status quo in the South. For the federal government, however, 'winning' the Cold War in the postcolonial developing world required disassembling the racist-segregationist system that thrived in the American South. How else could the U.S. preach the virtues of American democracy over Soviet communism to Asians and Africans compelled to choose sides in the superpower struggle for global power and influence? Ultimately, a federalized National Guard and specific battle groups of America's military elite were called on not to fight invading Soviet forces, but rather to escort and protect African-American high school students in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, where resistance to desegregation intensified in the late fifties.

The overall Southern response to federal intervention through the actions of the Supreme Court, the executive branch, and the military was to claim that states' rights were being violated. Segregationists also felt pressure from the NAACP and sought to devise strategies to preempt the efforts of that organization. Propaganda, intimidation, and violence were some of the main tactics used against NAACP activism. White southerners resisting change, Lewis points out, "used a panoply of resistance measures" such as ideological, rhetorical, legislative, or violent means, to maintain segregation. Furthermore, they took action not only at the state level, but also at the local level; they also resisted in rural areas, not just in urban centers. Their success in delaying the process of desegregation is evident by considering the following statistics Lewis provides his readers. By 1965, ten years after the historic Brown decision, "less than 3 percent of the South's African Americans attended school with whites, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1 per cent" (114). Clearly, compliance with desegregation was not occurring due in part to the effective strategies and tactics deployed by segregationists.

While massive resisters continued to pursue their agenda, forces engaged in the struggle for civil rights and desegregation challenged the institutionalized system of racism that predominated in the South. Their resolve along with the commitment of the federal government led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result, segregation and political disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South were illegal. Regarding the dissolution of massive resistance, Lewis reminds his readers of the following. Just as massive resistance is difficult to define and pinpoint in terms of its chronological beginning, it is likewise problematic to identify its demise. Astutely, he connects the gradual dissolution of the movement through its transformation into ideological respectability as a force in national politics in what has been referred to as 'new conservatism,' a movement that peaked in the 1980s during the Reagan administrations.

After reading Lewis's book, one will come away with a clearer understanding of the forces and dynamics that comprised the massive resistance movement. His focused coverage of its trajectory, key aspects of its historiography, superb utilization of documentary evidence, and his effective use of an array of local and national episodes, well known and less known, all contribute to giving the reader a deeper understanding of the segregationist movement in the South. Massive Resistance is an important and much needed contribution to historical scholarship on an important and perhaps neglected side of the civil rights era. If one were to choose one book on this particular subject, I believe this volume should be the one.

Joseph Michael Gratale
The American College of Thessaloniki

 

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