George Lewis. The White South and the Red Menace: Segregationists, Anticommunism, and Massive Resistance, 1945-1965. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. x + 228 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2753-1.
Reviewed by Paul Harvey (Department of History, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs)
Published on H-South (May, 2005)
Anti-Communism, Segregationism, and the Nationalization of Southern Thought; or, Of Unhappy Endings
The roots of segregationist resistance is "in" as an historical topic, with thought-provoking surveys of segregationist thought (more specifically, the weakness of religion as a factor among the philosophies of segregationism) in David Chappell's A Stone of Hope: Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, and a spirited rebuttal of Chappell in Jane Dailey's "Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown" in a recent Journal of American History.
The original scholarship on segregation and massive resistance emerged soon after the major period of the civil rights movement, and included significant studies of the White Citizens' Councils as well as various vigilante groups. More recently, scholars have turned their attention to themes and patterns in segregationist thought, style, and practice, attempting to discern both what lay behind the sometimes fanatical and always futile resistance to desegregation in law, as well as to understand the relative weakness (looked at in historical perspective) of what was over-optimistically labeled "massive resistance" by those who sought to organize white southerners into a mass movement that would confront and beat back the genuine mass movement confronting them in the 1950s and 1960s.
Lewis's work is a fine contribution to this conversation. His careful, subtle, and well-researched study elucidates the extent, meaning, and eventual fate of the thread of anticommunism in segregationist thought and practice. Anticommunism, he suggests, was necessary to, but hardly sufficient for, segregationist thought and the practice of massive resistance. Some defenders of the white South genuinely saw their struggle as part of the same struggle that the United States was waging against communism abroad. These white southerners exploited anticommunism as skillfully as they could, targeting and sometimes successfully destroying groups (such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare) that counted a very few actual present or former Communists as members, and attempting to do the same to individuals (such as Myles Horton, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and many others) who "associated" with communists or "com-symps" and thus could be attacked, with some tiny shred of plausibility, as being fellow travelers. Other political leaders of the white South--notably including demagogues such as James O. Eastland--seized on anticommunism cynically, as a useful tool to tar and feather anybody of any political philosophy who dared suggest that apartheid in America had to go. Many other segregationists, Lewis finds, distanced themselves from anticommunism as a primary theme, finding McCarthyism distasteful as well as self-defeating, and instead focusing on time-honored themes of local control, states rights, and other like constitutional doctrines.
In short, Lewis paints a very closely detailed portrait of anticommunism and the fight to preserve Jim Crow. Segregationists were capable of picking and choosing their battles as well as the weapons for those battles. Anticommunism was certainly part of that arsenal, but to understand how and when and why it was used, one must closely examine particular incidents and individual struggles. Lewis does precisely that in the last substantive chapter in the book, which covers the fate of various segregationist leaders and organizations in the upper South, notably Virginia and North Carolina. In those states, pressures from "below" by grassroots groups to energize massive resistance by connecting it to the struggle against communism was largely ineffectual. Indeed, the most significant grassroots leader in North Carolina turned out to be Wesley Critz George, a University of North Carolina scientist whose entire doctrine of segregationism arose from his pseudo-scientific beliefs in racial genetic purity. When others insisted that he consider additional arguments, such as constitutional doctrines or anticommunist ideas, he resisted them, insisting that he would stay within his own sphere of expertise. Given the kinds of ugly crap that he came up with supposedly within his scientific sphere of knowledge, one can only be grateful that he demurred from intervening in the socio-political arguments.
In most recent historical works, the Cold War, anticommunism, and civil rights have been examined most closely from the other side. In particular, Penny von Eschen (Race Against Empire), Mary Dudziak (Cold War Civil Rights), and others have suggested how much Cold War rhetoric provided space for civil rights leaders and desegregationists both locally and nationally to plug Cold War themes into the cause of dismantling Jim Crow at home. The Cold War could not be won, many argued, as long as the Evil Empire on the other side could point to the gross violation of freedom and democracy in the self-proclaimed homeland of liberty.
When I relate these arguments to my students, they respond to them immediately, enthusiastically, and instinctively; and, indeed, in recent classes, when I have asked students to explain the success (to the degree it was one) of the Civil Rights movement, they invariably point to the struggle against Hitler's Aryanism and Soviet Communism as key factors. "Local people" are all the rage in civil rights scholarship, but they have not yet made it to the general consciousness of undergraduates, so far as I can tell, most of whom appear to have little or no belief that local people can effect political change of any sort, and not a single one of whom has ever heard of even such a nationally known "local person" as Fannie Lou Hamer.
In these classes, the near unanimity of student opinion expressed compels my contrarian soul to suggest to them counter-arguments. For example, despite the excellent works cited above on the usefulness of the Cold War in civil rights rhetoric, I am still not convinced that the effect was all that salutary. That is to say, just as a counter-proposition, I suggest to students that perhaps the predominant effect of the Cold War on the freedom struggle was to make it even more difficult than it already was to effect substantive social change in the South, since anything that challenged the status quo was subject to red-baiting as well as race-baiting. Such a view makes the triumph of civil rights even more remarkable, because it occurred in a context in which challenges to the "American Way of Life" could easily be tainted by accusations of sympathizing and fellow-traveling with our enemies abroad. When the NAACP could be shut down in some states as a communist-front organization in spite of countless hours spent producing pamphlets such as "The Communist Party: Enemy of Negro Equality," and investigating anybody in the group with the slightest suspicion of fellow-traveling, then the success of the movement, particularly in the context of the 1950s and early 1960s, still astounds me.
Lewis's book will make me temper the polemics just outlined in that last paragraph. Anticommunism in the South certainly has had a long life. It predated McCarthy, of course, and lived on long afterwards through the Massive Resistance and through the entire course of the freedom struggle in the South. One would never want to underestimate its significance. But one would not want to overestimate it either, after reading this careful historical analysis.
In the longer run, perhaps the true significance of anticommunism among southern conservatives lies not in its relatively unsuccessful role in stemming the civil rights crusade, but instead in becoming an instrumental part of the complex of conservative ideas of stability and "order" that took root nationally in the decades postdating the civil rights movement. I was, in fact, playing precisely with this point when I came to Lewis's conclusion, where he suggests a similar argument. After detailing some historic roots of southern conservatism from the nineteenth century and through the Agrarians of the 1930s, he then proposes the following useful suggestion, which I certainly hope other scholars will take up as a challenge:
"[T]he conservatism that grew in stature in the postwar decades not only shared the Agrarians' belief in slow, organic change but also reflected the fundamental belief that any ideology that embraced a program of planned change should be demonized. In that context, then, anticommunism was the perfect weapon for southerners wishing to oppose the federal government's attempts at forcing racial change in the South. Equally important, the way in which the new conservative ideology relied upon traditional southern ideas increasingly allowed southerners the national voice that many had for so long craved. By the late 1960s, a strong sense of tradition, the maintenance of 'social stability,' an antipathy toward centralized government, and, of course, a staunch anticommunist outlook were no longer simply and solely the preserve of one peculiar, anachronistic region of the United States" (p. 174).
This victory came too late, Lewis concludes, to "alter the outcome of the civil rights struggle." Nonetheless, "some of the more reputable tenets of the Massive Resisters' ideology were now national rather than simply regional" (p. 175). Who says history has happy endings?
. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Jane Dailey, "Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown," Journal of American History 91 (2004): pp. 119-144.
. Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) and Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
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Paul Harvey. Review of Lewis, George, The White South and the Red Menace: Segregationists, Anticommunism, and Massive Resistance, 1945-1965.
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