I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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Fact checking Gov. Barbour: Some notes on the origins of the Citizens Council in Yazoo City

Anyone who has lived in Mississippi long enough to remember the early sixties or late fifties (or who has read about it) has to be shocked by Gov. Barbour’s attempt to present to Citizens Council, either in Yazoo City (or anywhere) as a force for racial reconciliation.

Of all the odd books in my personal library (and there are many odd ones), the oddest may be one related to the Citizens Council, a presentation copy of a book by journalist John Bartlow Martin called The Deep South Says Never.

The book is odd not because of its content, exactly– it is an early (1957) accurate depiction of the point of view of Southerners poised to resist-to-the-end desegregation. Martin begins by describing the Citizens Council in Mississippi, and he lets the founders describe it in their own words.

The founders were so sure of the truth of which they spoke that they bought up a supply of this book and gave it out as gifts– this is what we are! My copy is a presentation copy inscribed to one George Godwin “with warm regards,” and signed by Bill Simmons, dated 8/22/57. Bill Simmons was one of the founders of the council, running its office from the 1950s at least until the 1980s, when my sister met him doing a “twenty years after ’64” story for the Clarion Ledger.

(Understand: The forward of this book is by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who notes that the book will serve as a warning of the exact nature of resistance to school desegregation in the South. I wonder if he later came to regret his intimations that the Warren court approach may have been a little to extreme… “IN retrospect, one is now compelled to wonder whether the fabian aproach of the Vinson Court– which sought to secure the result by construing the doctrine of ‘seperate but equal’ literally instead of reversing it– might not have been wiser than the strategy of the Warren Court of meeting the issue head-on.”)

Somewhere along the line, Simmons and the council folks cottoned on to the notion that letting the outsiders understand what they were thinking may not be the best public relation move.

But in 1957, they were happy to have a Yankee journalist lay it out, just like they saw it. For instance, there’s this:

In the Mississippi Delta, segregation may be the leader of the Citizens’ Council pointing to the muddy Tallahatchie River and saying, ‘That’s Emmett Till’s river,’ and laughing ‘You don’t come all the way down to Mississippi and not see Emmett Till’s river.’

Keep in mind that this is a book the Citizens Council gave out to explain itself.  Simmons described how, with the original founder, Robert Patterson, they organized:

W.J. Simmons, who organized the Jackson Council and today shares leadership of the Mississippi Councils with Patterson has recalled “The main way Councils were organized was through the service clubs. Patterson or I would go and make a talke to Rotary or Kiwanis or Civitans or Exchange or Lions. We’d tell them what the Council movement is… Invariably the response was favorable.”

The Councils have a terrible yearning for respectability. Sometimes they even deny using economic pressure on Negroes and whites who favor desegregation– yet it is their chief weopon. Patterson has said, “Any ceonomic pressure taht’s been applied has been spontaneous. And that’s a lot more effective than anything planned.’ ..

Patterson said Mississippi would keep segregation either peaceably or violently The Councils proposed to do it peacably but if they failed ‘We’ll have violence and you’ll know it.'”

The book goes on to describe the council’s role in that early effort for desegregation in Yazoo City alluded to in the Sovereignty Commission memo in my last post on this.

On June 5, just six days after the Supreme Court decree [in the Brown II 1955 implementing the 1954 Brown I), the NAACP state board instructed its branches to ask local school boards to take “immediate steps” to wipe out classroom segregation.  Within a few weeks Negroes filed petitions asking admission to white schools with the school boards in five Mississippi cities– Jackson, Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Natchez, and Yazoo City. …

As noted in the memo from the Sovereignty Commission files, this lead to the formation of the Yazoo City council.

On August 6, Negroes filed a petition in Yazoo City.  The Citizens Council there bought a full page ad in the Yazoo City Herald to print the names and addresses of the Negro petition signers.  “There were about fifty-three signers originally,” Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, recalls, “and when they got through only two signatures remained on it. One of them is living by helping his wife sell mail order cosmetics– couldn’t get any work in town  One man had been a plumber for twenty years in Yazoo City but he lost his business as soon as his name was in the paper.  That very day on the way home he stopped in at the grocery for a loaf of bread and the grocer looked at him in the eye and said, “That’ll cost you a dollar.” He went to Detroit and we got him a job in a factory.”  Wholesalers refused to supply a Negro grocer who had signed the petition, and a banker told him to come and get his money.  He took his name off the petition but it did no good.  He left town.  Another man took his name off the petition but his employer fired him anyway.  A woman went to a grocery and picked out about $10 worth of groceries but when she took them to the cashier the butcher told the cashier,  “This nigger woman is one of the ones who signed the petition,” and the clerk refused her money.  She returned the merchandise.  Other signers of the petition left Mississippi, unable to return a living.

Recall the description of all this in the Sovereignty Commission memo from three years later in my last post:

Several years ago the negroes presented the School Board in Yazoo County a petition with quite a number of negroes names on said petition requesting admittance into their white schools, whereupon the citizens of Yazoo County got busy and very soon had eliminated that situation by having those negroes whose signatures were petitioned to remove same.  However, the good citizens of Yazoo County were shocked into realizing the necessity of binding themselves together and working as a unit to prevent a recurrence.  Yazoo County has a very strong Citizens’ Council composed of the very best citizens of the county.

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