With 'Resegregation,' Old Divisions Take New Form

Conservative Group Evokes South's Segregationist Past

By Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post
Friday, April 9, 1999

CARROLLTON, Miss. Time doesn't stand still in Carroll County, but it moves slowly.

A rippling Confederate flag and a memorial to the Confederate soldier -- "Truth Crushed To Earth Will Rise Again" -- cast a long afternoon shadow across the courthouse in the town square.

Up the hill from the square, 425 white children and teenagers attend a private school that was established in 1969, after the Supreme Court in 1968 strengthened its decision to end segregation in the public schools.

This is a dirt-poor county in central Mississippi that straddles the Delta to the west and the Piney Woods to the east, about a two-hour drive north of Jackson. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was born here. He left as a toddler when his father moved down to Pascagoula to get work in the shipyards.

Carroll County is a stronghold of the Council of Conservative Citizens (C of CC), an organization that has promoted racist views and has come under national scrutiny in recent months because a number of high-profile politicians, including Lott, have spoken at council meetings.

While the civil rights revolution is taught in history classes, the remnants of Jim Crow live on in much of Mississippi. Both the council and a post-civil rights system of white private schools reflect a new form of segregation, or "resegregation." Here, the council and private schools are defensive, holding actions against the continuing integration of the races in public accommodations, the workplace and politics.

"Carroll County and this area is very racial, prejudiced still. Underneath they are still fighting the Civil War, emotionally, psychologically, but in different ways now," said Eli Witshire, 61, who lives in the county.

In North Carrollton, about half a mile from here, Bobby Cox, 62, runs a business replacing broken car windows. Cox speaks a language not heard much anymore in America: "There's not one that won't steal from you. That's the way they're bred," Cox said of blacks. "The white folks is the ones supporting the public schools. They don't pay no damn tax."

It was the "white folks" who deserted the public schools when desegregation was mandated, severely weakening support for public schools. In many Mississippi communities with large black populations, the segregated system of public schools has in theory been replaced with integrated schools. In practice, however, whites who go to the public schools are most often the poorest and cannot afford to attend one of the private academies found throughout the Delta. The academies, Christian schools and other private institutions have become the schools of choice for middle-class whites in heavily black communities.

This resegregation is so ingrained, most people in Mississippi don't appear to give it a second thought.

If the white academies meld into the Mississippi landscape, so too does the Council of Conservative Citizens. The May 12, 1998, meeting of the Greater Jackson council at 7 p.m. at Penn's Fish House was, for example, just one of more than a dozen meetings routinely listed in the Clarion-Ledger, including a class on osteoporosis at the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center, an AARP meeting at the Golden Key Center and the monthly meeting of the Mississippi Association of Government Purchasing Agents at the attorney general's office.

The Council of Conservative Citizens is the outgrowth of the white Citizens Councils of America, an overtly segregationist organization founded in Indianola, Miss., on July 11, 1954, less than two months after the day known among some whites here as "Black Monday," when the Supreme Court handed down the desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

The original Citizens Councils were not just accepted in Mississippi, they dominated state politics. By 1956, the Citizens Councils claimed a membership of 80,000 in the state and 250,000 in nine southern states. In 1960, the councils effectively elected Ross Barnett as governor and played a crucial role in George C. Wallace's victories in neighboring Alabama.

Leaders of the Citizens Councils portrayed themselves as a "better class" than the back-country rednecks who wore sheets and burned crosses in the Ku Klux Klan. Council members wore suits and ties, ran the local department stores and pharmacies, were elected mayor and were town doctors and dentists.

Robert Patterson, a plantation manager in Indianola, was the driving force in the creation of the Citizens Councils. In 1956 he wrote: "Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction. Segregation represents the freedom to choose one's associates. Americanism, State sovereignty and the survival of the white race. These two ideologies are now engaged in mortal conflict and only one can survive."

In 1968, the Citizens Councils opened national headquarters in Jackson, and the Clarion-Ledger, then under conservative ownership, printed an eight-page section dedicated to the event.

The 30 years since have not been good to the Citizens Councils. Membership steadily declined, and, with it, power. The futility of the call for "massive resistance" became increasingly apparent, as racial barriers in jobs, voting booths, public accommodations, restaurants, colleges and schools fell by the wayside.

By the late 1980s, the Citizens Councils were for all practical purposes defunct. But at the same time, racial questions acquired new strength as polarizing issues, with the new vocabulary of federal "giveaway" programs, "special preferences," "crack-induced" crime and "single mothers" "dependent" on government checks and food stamps for survival. The centrality of these issues in the 1980s inspired leaders of the fading Citizens Councils to think that it might be possible to establish a new white advocacy organization.

In 1988, leaders gathered in Atlanta and joined with a diverse group on the political right -- some activists from the John Birch Society, others who had worked in the segregationist administrations and campaigns of Wallace of Alabama and then-Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia, and some who supported the white regime in South Africa -- to form the Council of Conservative Citizens.

The new group picked up the old councils' mailing lists and began to form branches throughout the South, particularly in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, as well as in cities such as St. Louis, where opposition to court-ordered busing produced a groundswell of white opposition to federal intervention.

Over a decade, the Council of Conservative Citizens has built up a claimed national membership of 15,000, with the largest number in Mississippi. Operating far to the right on the political spectrum, the C of CC can easily be dismissed. Mississippi state Rep. Ken Stribling, a Republican from Jackson, said: "We are talking about people in their seventies, just old conservatives, you know, Trilateral Commission mentality, John Birch Society, letter-writing types."

While to some degree Stribling is correct, the group remains a force to be reckoned with in the South. The C of CC has begun to develop ties to right-wing political movements in Britain and Europe and has formed an alliance with "racialist" thinkers in and out of academia. A bipartisan resolution pending in Congress condemns the group for its "racism and bigotry."

But in Mississippi, conservative Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) stands proudly with the group, declaring that he is not "going to, just because it's politically correct, demonize the CCC. There are some very good people in there with some very good ideas. All this stuff about them being racist, that's hearsay, as far as I'm concerned."

Across the South, the C of CC is aligned with pro-Confederate flag groups that wield strong influence in state politics. In South Carolina, it played a crucial role in the 1998 defeat of Gov. David Beasley (R), who had tried to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol.

The 1998 defeat of Beasley and the near defeat in 1994 of then-Gov. Zell Miller -- a Georgia Democrat who also sought to take down the Confederate flag -- has made southern politicians of all stripes wary of the C of CC and its allies in the Southern Heritage movement.

One of the most controversial aspects of the organization is its promotion of views stressing racial difference and its position that the United States has traditionally been a white, European culture, threatened by the values and cultures of blacks and Hispanics. The group's national board includes self-described "racialist" Jared Taylor, the Yale-educated author of "Paved With Good Intelligence," which argues that people of different races have different levels of intelligence.

In recent months, the C of CC has become a political hot potato for Lott. The Senate majority leader has spoken to the organization a number of times -- at local and national gatherings -- has entertained its leaders in his Senate office and has twice appointed the head of the Mississippi branch, Bill Lord, to serve as his Senate campaign chairman in Carroll County.

While controversial nationally, the council raises few eyebrows among white Mississippians. At least two current Republican candidates for governor have spoken to the group, which claims that some 34 state legislators are members.

This split has caused a dilemma for Lott, whose national ambitions, including possible selection as a vice presidential running mate, are threatened by his ties to the C of CC. While Lott has renounced the views promoted by the group, he has been careful to avoid a high-visibility repudiation that could backfire among his core supporters of very conservative whites.

But even in Lott's Carroll County birthplace, while race remains a dominant issue, the tenor of the discussion has undergone change, even if muted.

Laverne H. Stanford, who runs a feed store on Route 82 with her husband Harmon and for more than 30 years has been active with the Citizens Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens and the local private academy, couches her arguments not in the language of segregation but in the newer language of "choice." She is not against integration, she said, but "I think they need freedom of choice. If people want to go, fine, if they don't, let 'em go where they want to. To me, there is nothing fairer than that."

Carroll County

Population: 10,000
White 58%
Black 42%

Percent in poverty
Carroll County 21%
U.S. 14%

Median household income
Carroll County $22,300
U.S. $34,100

NOTE: Figures are 1996 estimates
SOURCE: U.S. Census

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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