How the 'Grassroots Resistance' of White Women Shaped White Supremacy 

In Depth

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.

The anti-integration arguments that Bell and others employed had broad and deep roots across the South and the nation. They did not debut in 1954 as a reactionary response to the Supreme Court’s decision. Political support for racial segregation was generations in the making, which suggests that truncating massive resistance to a decade obscures its political evolution and renders its activists reactionaries. The New Hanover document that Bell distributed drew on stories from both in and outside the South, pointing to the presence of a national network of committed segregationists. The document also spoke to the multiple locations where racial segregation had been and would have to be maintained—dating etiquette, teacher training, public health policies, sexual customs, civic organizations, and in the stories people told. Federal legislation could hardly combat segregationist practices in places that lay far below legislative halls, judicial chambers, and voting booths. Nor could a chronology of massive resistance that relied solely on federal legislation, judicial decisions, and violent uprisings capture how the daily, mundane, and local resistance to racial equality persisted. Finally, in Bell’s defense of segregation were elements that addressed more than the South’s legalized racial divide and formed the foundation of a broader political platform by the Cold War, communism, housing policies, federal aid to education, tax reform and calls for limited government.

These women guaranteed that racial segregation seeped into the nooks and crannies of public life and private matters, of congressional campaigns and PTA meetings, of cotton policy and household economies, and of textbook debates and daycare decisions. Their work shored up white supremacist politics and shaped the segregated state. White women were the mass in massive resistance.

This is the story of grassroots resistance to racial equality undertaken by white women. They are the center of the history of white supremacist politics in the South and nation. While they toiled outside the attention of the national media (for the most part), white women took central roles in disciplining their communities according to Jim Crow’s rules and were central to massive resistance to racial equality. White segregationist women capitalized on their roles in social welfare institutions, public education, partisan politics, and popular culture to shape the Jim Crow order. From there they provided a political education that mobilized generations and trained activists for white supremacist politics. These women guaranteed that racial segregation seeped into the nooks and crannies of public life and private matters, of congressional campaigns and PTA meetings, of cotton policy and household economies, and of textbook debates and daycare decisions. Their work shored up white supremacist politics and shaped the segregated state. White women were the mass in massive resistance.

At times, their political activism connected them to a national network of white segregationists. Far from being regional retrogrades and outsiders in the nation, the South’s female segregationists participated in the same eugenics movement that social workers in southern California did. Protests against Social Security joined segregationists in Texas with anti-income tax advocates from Massachusetts. In the 1950s, coalitions opposing the United Nations welcomed Mississippi’s female segregationists who made political alliances with right-wing West Coast anti-communist organization. When female segregationists called for limits on the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Brown, they received support from conservative organizations in Chicago and Seattle. In a Jim Crow nation, segregation’s female activists imbued women’s civic duties, womanhood, and motherhood with particular racist prescriptions. For many, being a good white mother or a good white woman meant teaching and reinforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere. In the 1970s, the anti-busers of Boston echoed earlier activists for massive resistance when they ignored the persistence of structural racism, elevated individual rights, and made sacrosanct the rights of families to determine their children’s public education. Decade after decade, the South’s female segregationists were part of the widespread political mobilization of American women.

Long before the federal government crafted its opposition to legal discrimination and long after it announced its victory over legal segregation, white women helped to sustain segregation at a local level. Disappointed by the integration of schools and the expansion of voting rights, among other politics, they did not quit. With them at the center, massive resistance is no longer solely about maintaining lily-white schools; rather, it is about sustaining white supremacist politics through a system, however modified, of racial segregation. Responding to local conditions and opportunities, a diverse group of segregationists who differed in terms of dedication, singleness of purpose, partisan allegiance, and strategies sustained the Jim Crow order. Focusing only on the hardline segregationists and not those who spoke in color-blind language or those who found fertile ground outside of the far right makes us miss the widespread commitment to racial segregation and the various ways it continued. Decade after decade, even in the face of apparent defeat, white women remade the Jim Crow order, in part by training new generations of activists and adherents. Their experience told them that white supremacist politics enacted on a local level—in school board decisions, in teacher training, in bureaucratic categorizations, in public welfare policies, and in historical narratives—would prove more difficult to uproot and eradicate than national or even state-level politics.

White women were and remained segregation’s constant gardeners.

In the end, the history of massive resistance that emerges out of six decades of white women’s activism looks different in terms of chronology, duration, geographic boundaries, and political purpose. Working largely outside the realm of vigilante violence and outside the offices where Jim Crow’s legislation was written, white women, nevertheless sustained and shaped the nation’s racial caste system at the community level. From their homes, newspapers, civic organizations, and social welfare offices, they made sure that their white neighbors knew that daily vigilance was the cost of a white supremacist political order. They participated first in massive support for racial segregation and later, when it was threatened, massive resistance. White women were and remained segregation’s constant gardeners.

In 1924, a twenty-eight-year-old, single white school teacher and local registrar, Margaret Aileen Goodman, ran into trouble when she tried to register Mr. William Clark of Rockbridge County, Virginia, under the rules of the state’s new Racial Integrity Act (RIA). According to the law, individuals seeking marriage or those born after 1912 had to certify their racial identity with local officials. The law did not change the definition of black, which had moved in 1912 from one-quarter “black blood” to one-sixteenth “black blood,” but it did change the criteria for whiteness—not one drop of non-white blood.

Clark did not claim Pocahontas as an ancestor, but he was part of a community of people who had been pejoratively called “free issue,” “isshys,” or “little people”—names that indicated an indeterminate racial identity and a “colored but free past.” The RIA eliminated the recognition of individuals with black, white, and Indian ancestors, and Goodman had to classify her neighbors as either white or black. When Clark, whose family had been classified as alternately mulatto and white in an earlier census record, met Goodman, she told him that his family was not Indian; they were not white; they were black. Clark resisted the categorization, and she reported his insubordination to Walter Plecker, her state supervisor, head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and one of the architects of the RIA.

When Goodman faced Clark, she had to take into account local history and practices or loyalty to the Jim Crow state. She chose the state. In writing her letter to Plecker, Goodman invited state intervention and performed vital work for racial segregation. The letter acknowledged the power of a Progressive Era bureaucracy to create an American racial state and Virginia’s requirement that its workers maintain the color line. Why Goodman participated in such an endeavor remained unclear. The correspondence about the Clarks failed to tell whether Goodman’s act arose from a deep devotion to white supremacist ideology, an inclination for bureaucratic officiousness, or a tendency to follow authority figures. But her 1924 letter as well as one nineteen years later noting that the Clarks continued resistance to a classification of “colored” or “mulatto” pointed to her long commitment to shoring up a biracial world. For nearly two decades, Goodman did not defy Dixie’s color line.

Goodman’s embrace of racial standardization put her in the company of other white women, who as new bureaucrats embarked on the sorting out of the American population according to race, ethnicity, delinquency, and mental fitness. Goodman joined women like Mildred Covert whose fieldwork imposed racial classifications and criminality on California’s non-white youth as well as “marriage reformers” from Arizona to Georgia, who turned licensing registrars into “gatekeepers of white supremacy.” Goodman’s letters also pointed to the patriarchal relationships replicated by the state whereby women on the ground implemented policies crafted by male officials, earning professional accolades, community authority, and some income. For Goodman and others, new state authority born of the Progressive Era had created zones of racial work at the same time it created economic opportunities for many white middle-class women.

Women did more than work for the state. In the quest for racial purity, white women constituted both the subjects of racial integrity and its labor force. Women’s bodies were the landscape on which the policing of racial intermixing often took place. If protected from interracial liaison, contemporary race scientists argued, white women would purify and invigorate the nation. If white women sought out sexual liaisons with non-white men, however, they could also serve as potential transgressors, ruining racial purity and by consequence enervating the nation. Beyond their reproductive capacity to strengthen or weaken the nation, eugenicists argued that women carried in their in their very genetic makeup the power to recognize race mixing. They were vital to the enforcement of racial purity.

With access to local knowledge and to institutions, central to the sorting out of race, women designated racial lines, labeled families, and drew boundaries around black and white in their communities. In doing so, white women made decisions that would affect families for the rest of the century.

The fact that women often had the most access to and knowledge of the places where racial classification would occur—the bedroom, the birthing room, and the classroom—enhanced their alleged genetic proclivity for detecting “mixed race” individuals. The midwife had to certify race on birth certificates. Jim Crow state policy instructed the white schoolteacher to report to the school superintendent’s office children she suspected of mixed-race heritage. The social worker recorded the racial identities of the families with whom she worked, deciding race based on a host of behavioral and hereditary observations often mixed with a dose of local gossip. The local registrar had to turn in marriage licenses to each state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. The RIA and accompanying eugenic legislation nationwide created public policies that required enforcement by those with familiar female faces.

These jobs fell mostly to women. In the 1920s, between 80 percent and 90 percent of elementary school teachers were women. At the time Virginia’s RIA became law, there were 6,000 registered midwives and only 1,500 physicians in the state. And women, like Goodman, constituted a significant percentage of the local registrars, public welfare superintendents, and nurses. These statistics signified the white, college-educated women would have to participate in the actual cartography of race. With access to local knowledge and to institutions, central to the sorting out of race, women designated racial lines, labeled families, and drew boundaries around black and white in their communities. In doing so, white women made decisions that would affect families for the rest of the century.

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae teaches history and social science education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. She is the author of Mothers of Massive Resistance.

From Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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