Jason Morgan Ward: The Short Distance from Civil War to Civil Rights

We welcome a guest post today from Jason Morgan Ward, author of Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965. After the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, southern white backlash seemed to explode overnight. In Defending White Democracy, however, Ward argues that southern conservatives began mobilizing against civil rights some years earlier, when the New Deal politics of the mid-1930s threatened the monopoly on power that whites held in the South. In this guest post, he brings together two significant anniversaries taking place in 2011 that have not often been discussed together, but should be.—ellen

[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]

Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965, by Jason Morgan WardThis year marks two momentous and inseparable moments in the history of American race relations: the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. That most commemorations of the former have neglected to mention the latter reveals a nagging reluctance to connect too directly the Civil War and the modern civil rights movement.

But for white southerners in the mid-20th century, the link between Civil War and civil rights was crystal clear. Their forebears, after all, had not stopped fighting in the war’s wake. Mixing lethal force with legal schemes, white counterrevolutionaries overthrew Reconstruction and built a new order that disfranchised and segregated African Americans. If white supremacy could be won, it could be lost, and that lesson was handed down through memory—remembrances so fresh and vivid that civil rights opponents routinely denigrated their adversaries in language borrowed from earlier generations. As one white Mississippian pledged in the 1940s, “[We] put down carpetbag rule 70 years ago, and [we] will put it down again.”

The emergence of a broad-based civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s angered many white southerners. It surprised few. Many had watched anxiously for years as pioneering black activists filed lawsuits, lobbied congressmen, and engineered national pressure campaigns against the various statutes and subterfuges erected to eliminate African Americans from politics and maintain the color line. Jim Crow, the racial order that civil rights activists fought to destroy, did not simply materialize from thin air but had been carefully constructed from the ground up in the decades after the Civil War. White southerners realized this. Some even remembered.

In May 1943, a white lawyer from the Arkansas Delta wrote Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo. He admired the senator’s fierce defense of the poll tax, the pay-to-vote law that eight southern states still used to discourage African Americans from voting. The House had voted to outlaw the tax, thanks in large part to a national pressure campaign, but southern senators had successfully bottled up the bill with the threat of filibuster. The lawyer praised Bilbo and his colleagues for their stand, and shared a memory of a time before Jim Crow:

My Father . . . is past 87 years of age . . . still hale and hearty. He tells me that he was a big boy when the Civil War was over. That negroes used to line up for two blocks long to vote. . . . He said that the Ku Klux Klan scared them away from the polls a little and kept them from voting. Sometimes, just before the polls would open, two well known bad men would get into a fake pistol fight right among the negroes . . . and they would run off so far that it would take so long to come back that the polls would be closed. He said that they soon caught on to these things, but when they put the $1.00 poll tax to them they faded out of politics like dew in August before the morning sun. . . . They do not know how seriously the people in the South consider the negro question. Lots of Southern people would die and go to Hell lots of times before they would become subject to the negro race.

This memory, handed down from father to son, reminds us that the distance between Civil War and Civil Rights is shorter than many realize. A century separates the firing on Fort Sumter from the Freedom Rides, but the ongoing struggle to build a new world in the war’s wake connects the two eras through generations of protest and resistance.  This notion confounds those who seek to separate the Civil War from the fundamental questions of slavery and citizenship, or who choose to remember the Civil Rights movement as a time when the South suddenly awoke from a seventy-year slumber of disfranchisement and discrimination. The contrived and artificial separation between these two eras would seem strange both to those who fought Jim Crow and those who rallied to save it.

Memory indeed connects these eras in southern history, but the term risks creating an artificial distance between them.  If we go back to the roots of the civil rights movement—the generations of struggle to win back the vote, the campaigns to dismantle the color line that white southerners built in the war’s wake—and we acknowledge the ongoing struggles the Civil War left unresolved—the place of freed slaves in southern society, the white supremacist counterrevolution that continued the Confederate dream, ended Reconstruction, and temporarily quashed interracial democracy—then the two eras become one narrative, bound not just by distant chords of memory but by a continuum of struggle. After all, if Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr., have to share a public holiday in the state of Mississippi, then we should at least be able to talk about them in the same blog.

Jason Morgan Ward is assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965.