"A Richmond Institution": Earnest Sevier Cox, Racial Propaganda, and White Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

On a Saturday morning in the early 1960s, an elderly man strode into the offices of the Richmond News Leader with a bulging scrapbook under his arm. "I am Colonel Cox," he announced. "Earnest Sevier Cox." The name meant nothing to James P. Lucier, a former college professor who had moved to Richmond to work for segregationist editor James J. Kilpatrick. To a newcomer, Cox "appeared to be simply another of the amiable eccentrics for whom a newspaper office is a magnet." Lucier had no idea that the soft-spoken octogenarian standing before him was a revered figure within an international network of white supremacists. The colonel came by the office seeking a publisher for his latest manuscript, an autobiographical account of the racial mission that had taken him around the globe in the years before World War I. Before long, he was regaling the newspaperman with stories of his travels through Africa, Asia, and South America. Lucier recalled how the colonel's "electric white hair crackled with conviction" and "pale blue energy glimmered in his eyes" as he recounted his racial awakening along the banks of the Nile. The confrontation with colonialism had convinced Cox that a superior white culture was imperiled by its contact with the colored races, and therefore he had spent the balance of his life working for racial separation. First as an antimiscegenation crusader and then as an advocate for black repatriation, he worked tirelessly for a white America. He cultivated alliances with black nationalists and urged white racialists to rally around the Back to Africa movement. He even took his case to the halls of Congress, testifying on behalf of a proposed bill for a federally subsidized repatriation program. "The Colonel spoke of the matter as still pending," recalled Lucier, "and he expected to be called back at any time to testify once more."1 But Lucier's depiction of a charming old adventurer with outmoded ideas belied the resurgence that the aging colonel enjoyed in the midst of the postwar civil rights movement.

The lifelong racial mission that led from the heart of Africa to the offices of the Richmond News Leader reflected both evolution and persistence in white supremacist strategy and ideology. From the end of World War I to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, Cox carried on his crusade against an integrated America from a tiny apartment in Richmond. He was wholly devoted to the cause of racial separatism, consistently advocating government-sponsored removal of American blacks to Africa. Although historians have emphasized Cox's prominent role in antimiscegenation and colonization campaigns during the 1920s and 1930s, they have paid less attention to his continued influence within a national and international web of right-wing racialists after World War II.2 In the 1940s and early 1950s, Cox counseled southern statesmen and radical right-wing militants as the threat of federally mandated integration loomed large. Although he never lost sight of the ultimate goal of an all-white country, he wholeheartedly embraced and supported massive resistance to the Brown decision. At the same time, diehard segregationists and their sympathizers nationwide viewed Cox as an elder statesman who could lend an aura of scholarly restraint and respectability to a movement associated with violence and demagoguery.

The correspondence between Cox and his admirers reveals that the boundaries between "respectable" segregationists and radical racialists were never impermeable. Furthermore, his correspondence with a global network of white supremacists reveals that southern segregationists were neither isolated nor aloof from the wider world of radical right-wing politics. More importantly, the story of this quiet old man from Richmond shows that white resistance to civil rights was a movement of competing ideas and strategies that cannot be reduced to emotional reaction or racial instinct. Although most prominent segregationists dismissed black colonization as an impractical and extreme measure, the racial pessimism underlying the repatriation argument linked Cox to more prominent defenders of segregation. …