Mothers of Massive Resistance

Why do white supremacist politics in America remain so powerful?

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae argues that the answer lies with white women.

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, a young white mother near Wilmington, North Carolina, received the news with resolve to circumvent the ruling, using “nerve and plenty of hell in the personality.” Mrs. Hugh Bell organized the Pender County Association for the Preservation of Segregation and spent the summer circulating a petition to continue segregated schools “no matter the consequences.” By August, the association had obtained nearly 5,000 signatures representing over one-third of the county ’s white population and associate member delivered it to the governor of North Carolina in October.

The next summer, Bell tried to rally newspaper editors and segregationists across the state. In a letter to the Raleigh News Observer, Bell explained her commitment to school segregation as an attempt to protect her two little girls and to secure states’ rights. She intended to put her typewriter to use for “the cause.” For others, she wrote, “maybe it will take a little violence,” glibly noting that “it was too bad about the murder of the fourteen-year-old negro boy,” but wondered if “this could be only a mild beginning.” Included with the letter was the lengthy “New Hanover County Preliminary Report” which she had helped compile and distribute. Filled with questionable quantitative and anecdotal evidence, the report cataloged the deleterious effects of school desegregation, predicting the decline of the family, the schools, the state, and the nation. It acknowledged parental fears that their white daughters would marry someone’s black sons and that academics would suffer as black students with low IQs and high sex drives diminished the education of white students. These problems would be compounded by “the negro teacher,” who subjected to “subversive propaganda,” sees the world in a way “antagonistic, to the white philosophy of life.” These malignant consequences would ripple across the nation, the report predicted, as integrated schools fulfilled the wishes of communists and infiltrated the minds of America’s youth with a “one-world” doctrine.

Examining racial segregation from the 1920s to the 1970s, Mothers of Massive Resistance explores the grassroots workers who maintained the system of racial segregation and Jim Crow. For decades in rural communities, in university towns, and in New South cities, white women performed myriad duties that upheld white over black: censoring textbooks, denying marriage certificates, deciding on the racial identity of their neighbors, canvassing communities for votes, and lobbying elected officials. They instilled beliefs in racial hierarchies in their children, built national networks, and experimented with a color-blind political discourse. Without these mundane, everyday acts, white supremacist politics could not have shaped local, regional, and national politics the way it did or lasted as long as it has.

With white women at the center of the story, the rise of postwar conservatism looks very different than the male-dominated narratives of the resistance to Civil Rights. Women like Nell Battle Lewis, Florence Sillers Ogden, Mary Dawson Cain, and Cornelia Dabney Tucker publicized threats to their Jim Crow world through political organizing, private correspondence, and journalism. Their efforts began before World War II and the Brown decision and persisted past the 1964 Civil Rights Act and anti-busing protests. White women’s segregationist politics stretched across the nation, overlapping with and shaping the rise of the New Right. Mothers of Massive Resistance reveals the diverse ways white women sustained white supremacist politics and thought well beyond the federal legislation that overturned legal segregation.

Oxford University Press

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