Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement

By Cope, Graeme | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement


Cope, Graeme, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement. By George Lewis. (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006. Pp. vi, 254. Acknowledgments, notes, select bibliography, index. $29.95, paper.)

Over the last twenty years, studies of the civil rights movement have been hugely enhanced by a change of focus from national protest organizations and their leaders to local groups and unsung community activists. Scholars such as John Dittmer, Charles Payne, and J. Mills Thornton III have demonstrated that the movement was a much more diverse and variegated phenomenon than earlier research suggested. Lewis's work represents a belated but comparable trend in examinations of the movement's opponents. Massive resistance, he concludes, was such "a multi-headed Hydra" that "[i]t is . . . essential to envision [it] not as a single homogeneous movement but as a conglomeration of concomitant conversations of resistance" (pp. 8, 185).

Drawing on a solid range of secondary literature, his own knowledge of border-state archival resources, and the "White Resistance and Reprisals" reels of the microfilmed papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lewis treats the development of massive resistance as a multifaceted evolution, from its first mention by Virginia senator Harry Flood Byrd in February 1956 to the rebirth of many of its less overtly racist ideas in national neoconservative discourse from the mid-1960s. Although he extends the notion of massive resistance beyond its common association with school desegregation to include campaigns against the civil rights movement at large, his treatment of events in such theaters as Albany, Georgia, Oxford, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama is more limited and much less dependent on primary sources than the robust consideration of school matters and, more broadly, events before 1960.

Lewis argues for a three-phase evolution of massive resistance, with each phase not so much strictly chronological as distinguished by the outlook and methods of the particular resistance group or groups most active at a given time. In the wake of the May 1954 Brown decision outlawing school segregation, Lewis suggests, while state leaders blustered and floundered, grassroots organizations such as the citizens' councils seized the initiative and carried the burden of opposition. The appearance of the Southern Manifesto in March 1956 signalled not only a more sophisticated intellectual defense of the southern way of life but also a period of legislative vigor designed to thwart both local activism and what was seen to be federal intrusion into traditional state responsibilities, contrary to the provisions of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. …

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