Professor Stephanie Rolph expected to find a mountain of racist material when she started researching the white supremacy group Citizens’ Council, but what she found, instead, was much more frightening and pernicious.
The historian found a horde of Citizens’ Council members who used subtle language, community status, and outright power to sway the nation toward the white supremacy viewpoint.
“These guys were not members of the Klan,” she told a group who gathered in the Slemp Student Center to hear her lecture. “They were bankers, attorneys, and teachers. That made them incredibly dangerous.”
These Citizens’ Council members could call in the mortgage of a person who did not share their views on segregation, or simply take other subtle action against an enemy without even the hint of violence.
“It was economic terrorism,” Rolph explained.
Rolph, a professor at Millsap College in Mississippi, was a guest lecturer for the month-long Black History Month Lecture Series. Rolph’s topic was the Citizens’ Council and white supremacy.
“I’m the speaker who brings the room down,” she quipped before getting down to business.
She described how she spent two years transcribing 400 radio broadcasts made by the Citizens’ Council. The group produced the radio show from 1958 to 1966. She expected to find plenty of racist language and racist thoughts, but that was not the case.
“They were really not talking about race,” she said.
The radio show producers had a diverse group of guests, including priests, ministers, lawyers, and governors. They spoke about water rights and other topics of interest.
“It was not the language I expected,” she said. “These guests were not losers.”
While they smarted from losing the desegregation battle, they found other ways of “reappropriating” their whiteness, she said. They wielded power in other ways, she explained. The Citizens’ Council was a nationwide group. They organized primarily against school desegregation, she added.
“They were quite relevant across the country,” Rolph said.
The group worked straightaway to boost private schools, especially in the south, and to convince parents to send their children to those institutions. Even parents of limited means were convinced to sacrifice to educate their children in the private schools.
Rolph said the Citizens’’ Council partnered with South Africa and the Republican Party. The group’s most significant work, school segregation, came after the Civil Rights years.
“They found ways to reconcile and come to terms with losing that particular battle,” she said.
Financial boosters of the private schools could control the educational content, and that caused many students to have to “relearn” history once they were in college, she said. The private funds also had a negative impact on public education, she explained.
The group would harass political parties and basically force the party to change. Citizens’ Council boosted George Wallace’s campaign. The campaign purchased the addresses and names of Citizens’ Council members for $250,000, Rolph said.
The group worked hard to promote the idea that colleges were communist hubs and liberals were teaching the nation’s children. The group also watched moderate whites and all blacks to see what they were doing. The Council also instructed followers how to “claim their whiteness.”
In many ways, the Citizens’ Council helped the conservative movement grow, she explained. The group had tons of members in California and big support in New York. The radio shows were recorded in House and Senate recording studios on Capitol Hill. The group was only billed at cost for using the studios.
The nation is looking at white supremacy squarely in the face today, she said. The white supremacy march in Charlottesville should come as no shock. The white collars the racists wore were not a surprise.
The BHM Lecture Series will continue on Feb. 18 when Professor Tom Costa will present his poignant presentation on “runaway Slave Advertisements in Colonial Virginia.” The lecture will begin at 1 p.m. in the Slemp Student Center Fifth Floor.