Mothers of Massive Resistance is about the story of grassroots resistance to racial equality undertaken by white women. They are at 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 day care decisions. Their work shored up white supremacist politics and shaped the segregated state. White women were the mass in massive resistance.
For decades, white segregationist women had worked to combat white apathy, training whites to support a Jim Crow world through their social, economic, political, and cultural interactions. Working largely unopposed, they had counted on national and state-level institutions—the Democratic Party, the federal and state judiciaries, Congress, laws, and customs—to be at least
complicit if not co-workers in their white supremacist project. Even with wayward whites, the system of segregation seemed fairly sturdy, rarely threatened, and very well maintained.
But World War II solidified and expanded federal intervention in the economy and opened up economic opportunities for working-class Americans, prompting a southern diaspora. Fighting Nazi Germany engendered national conversations on the ideological kinship between fascism abroad and America’s own white supremacist practices. Black Americans capitalized on their new electoral power outside the South, their greater economic stability, and their military contributions to wage the Double V campaign (for black Americans, a victory at home and a victory abroad). An international revulsion at extreme state-sponsored racial and ethnic discrimination intensified their resistance to persistent and widespread inequality, political and economic disenfranchisement, and lack of access to equal facilities. White southerners responded with a cacophony of the oft-repeated fiction of a content black population in need of white oversight—a fiction as crucial to the reign of Jim Crow as laws and lynch mobs. The Democratic Party surveyed wartime economic needs and new demographic realities and realized that a new national political calculus was in the making. The segregated South watched warily as one of its most reliable institutional allies courted new constituencies, supported an expanded warfare state, and shifted to the left, equivocating in its support of their Jim Crow system.
With most whites nowhere near ready to admit that black southerners were disaffected with the South’s racial hierarchy, segregationists turned their ire toward the Democratic Party, accusing them of wavering in their devotion to a Jim Crow nation. They argued that the Democratic Party had slighted white southerners for a new political coalition filled with northeastern intellectuals and newly urbanized African Americans and unionized industrial workers. Many segregationists feared that when the Democratic Party sacrificed the Solid South they would also sacrifice segregation.
How to address such a political betrayal by their former ally mobilized many white women across the South, even if it produced little strategic cohesion among them. Some white women segregationists embraced the business conservatism that welcomed federal money for economic growth but not social change. Others held a hard-line opposition to an expanding federal government, no matter the loss of funding, continuing a larger critique against the New Deal.
Still others remained “separate-but-equal” liberals, arguing for the expansion and improvement of black facilities. In the wartime years, however, that position lost its viability. A few white southern liberals quietly believed in a more equitable world but doubted that segregation would disappear. And then there were those who feared it would and moved to combat the threat by working on all the political terrains they had cultivated in the interwar period—social welfare, public education, electoral politics, and storytelling.
In the interwar years, white segregationist women had played a creative role in reinforcing, shaping, and even building their South’s system of segregation. The threats of the wartime years moved white segregationist women to a position of defense, seeking allies, exposing enemies, and being extra vigilant. They still worked to sustain the system, but they also moved to protect it, worrying as much about outside threats as they did about apathy among their neighbors. For many, the Democratic Party destabilized racial segregation. In their quest to defend the segregated South, the most dedicated segregationists married their opposition to the Democrats to national conservative organizations lobbying for their own partisan interests. Massive support for segregation transformed into massive resistance.
Southern white women reconfigured white supremacist politics during this time in three ways. First, they understood Eleanor Roosevelt as embodying the political betrayal of the Democratic Party. For some women, the fractures in their partisan loyalty became salient in their wartime critiques of the First Lady. She served as a gendered threat to racial segregation and a racialized threat to white southern womanhood.
Second, segregationist women couched the labor policies of the federal government as threats to the segregated economies, homes, and hometowns they were preserving for their white soldiers.
Third, various white women sought to remedy the Democratic Party’s betrayal by breeding political dissent. Their opposition to the national Democrats served as an early sign of partisan disaffection and pointed to the eventual southern partisan realignment that has often been located with uprisings of a later date—the Dixiecrats, Eisenhower’s southern appeal, and Goldwater’s popularity. In their partisan critiques, they contributed to the rehabilitation of a national conservatism, the weakening of the Solid South, and the persistence of a politics of white supremacy.
In August 1942, white and black club women and church ladies of Salisbury, North Carolina, prepared for the visit of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Time magazine reported that white residents, still reeling from efforts of black Boy Scouts to integrate the July 4 parade, had not wanted her to come. But on August 14, she boarded a train for the cotton mill town where she toured the YMCA and the YWCA and visited Cannon Mills, a non-unionized factory with 16,000 workers.
Afterward she met Livingstone College’s black students and faculty with whom she would spend the remainder of the day. That evening she addressed a crowd of nearly 2,000 at the General Convention on Christian Education of the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. During her visit, she ate lunch with various DAR, UDC, and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) members, and at night she dined with black women and men.
Breaking white southern rules of racial etiquette outside the South was one thing, but such a move even in the self-styled progressive state of North Carolina was quite another. Having chosen to take interracial dining south of the Mason-Dixon line, the First Lady was an affront to segregation’s customs. As a result, the white women of Salisbury, ministers’ wives, YWCA women, and the Cannons refused to provide overnight accommodations for Mrs. Roosevelt. In fact, not one middle-class or elite white woman in Salisbury opened her home to the First Lady. At the end of a long day, Eleanor Roosevelt boarded the train and headed back to the nation’s capital. For the sake of her “colored friends,” one Salisbury resident surmised, she had “insulted the whole state.”
This was not the first time Roosevelt’s dining habits had provoked criticism among white segregationist women. During the New Deal, some white southerners believed that Eleanor Roosevelt was a bellwether for the administration’s domestic policies, particularly those having to do with race. As such, she was worth monitoring.
In 1941, columnist Florence Sillers Ogden had commented on the First Lady’s attendance at Harlem Hospital’s graduation ceremonies for “colored” nurses. Ogden had noted that a few of the nurses came from Mississippi and Texas, and four had accepted southern posts to serve black communities from segregated hospitals. In this way, Harlem Hospital’s nursing school accommodated itself to the South’s Jim Crow order. When Mrs. Roosevelt went to Mother Zion Church, she could have behaved, Ogden wrote, as “a queen ... condescending to her subjects,” which would have aligned with white southern practices of attending a black church fundraiser, going to a black performance at Hampton Institute, or mourning at the funeral of a black acquaintance. But Roosevelt had not bid the nurses farewell at the ceremony’s end. Instead, she had gone home with some, had mingled with their families and friends, and then, she had written, “we all had supper.” In Ogden’s view, the First Lady “had gone too far.” Hovering high on the hierarchy of sins against Jim Crow, breaking bread across the color line was heresy, perhaps as much a threat to Jim Crow as interracial consensual sex. In her column, Ogden wondered if Roosevelt knew that “she is advocating quite another thing for the rest of us.”
Even so, the First Lady’s Salisbury or Harlem dining arrangements could hardly have constituted a substantial threat to racial segregation, but by 1942, the political allies that white southern women had long counted on to help them maintain racial segregation had begun to slip. Eleanor Roosevelt functioned as a lightning rod on whom white women could locate the threats to Jim Crow without acknowledging black resistance. For segregationists, she served simultaneously as a symbol of the Democratic Party and of the power white women had either to cultivate or to destroy the white supremacist South.
In the racialized civic life of the South, threats to racial segregation were often couched in specifically gendered terms, tying constructions of white womanhood to political policies that supported white over black. In fact, white motherhood and womanhood had become a kind of racial performance inseparable from upholding the color line. Good white mothers reared children who maintained appropriate racial distance, made sure that schools taught a curriculum in line with white supremacist politics, and told stories that educated the larger public on the “naturalness” of racial segregation. Respectable white womanhood relied on the cultivation (at times) of physical, political, and social distance from black men, women, and children. Good white motherhood came to be defined by the same complicated rules except that white mothers had to guarantee that their children learned and adhered to the lessons of segregation. Their duties to the Jim Crow order rested on their progeny. Conversely, if white women and mothers did not follow segregation’s dictates, then they threatened the foundation of white supremacy.
Eleanor Roosevelt stood in stark contrast to this formula, imperiling not only white southern women’s gender roles but also the very system of segregation itself.
For newspaperwoman Mary Dawson Cain, the subversive racial power of the First Lady had national repercussions. In October 1942, Cain published an open letter to Eleanor Roosevelt blaming her for the three brutal lynchings of two black teenage boys and a Laurel, Mississippi farmer. Calling Roosevelt the “ring leader of ... racial agitation” and one of the “Southerner-haters,” Cain imputed this wartime resurgence in lynching to Roosevelt. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, who seemed to court social equality, most black southerners, Cain noted, remained in the South—a testament, she believed, to their fondness for white southerners and their satisfaction with segregation. Cain quoted a black Mississippi man who claimed that “the Negro is not interested in social or racial equality,” and reported a conversation between Clayton Rand, a conservative newspaper publisher in Gulfport, Mississippi, and a black janitor in which Rand asked the custodian if he was a member of the “Eleanor Equality League.” The janitor responded “that lady don’t know her place.”
To celebrate southern racial harmony, Cain ignored the exodus of black southerners seeking wartime jobs, rising NAACP membership, and an emergent civil rights movement. When racial strife erupted in northern and western cities teeming with new southern migrants, Cain attributed the urban violence to the First Lady’s willingness to socially mingle with African Americans. Dismissing persistent structural problems and wartime overcrowding, Cain said that Roosevelt had caused the violence by raising expectations for social equality.
Cain’s letter blaming Eleanor Roosevelt for urban violence found readers across the nation. In November, she received a copy of the Black Dispatch, Oklahoma City’s African-American newspaper, which had reprinted Cain’s letter and called it “absurd.” Cain responded by taping the Dispatch article on the window of the Summit Sun’s office so “all my colored friends here see how my effort in their behalf was rewarded.” As evidence that black southerners liked segregation, Cain noted that two of her black friends had brought her flowers in the wake of her letter and lamented that Roosevelt had “revived the ghosts of the KKK.”
In the same month, Cain denounced the federal government for forcing public officials to eat and to share restrooms in federal buildings with black citizens. She attributed the mixing to Roosevelt and her communistic cronies who had cast aside “States Rights and white supremacy.” Exhibiting the political shift that some white women across the South had made, Cain had taken Eleanor Roosevelt’s social visits with black men and women and connected them to a betrayal of an organic order that “protected” blacks and whites and then accused the Democratic Party of failing to support the white South.
Other white women, even young girls, made their own connections between Eleanor Roosevelt’s actions and the relative security of racial segregation. In 1944, Roosevelt attended the opening of a canteen for soldiers in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Following the CIO’s non-discriminatory policy, black and white soldiers and their dates danced and dined together.
Subsequently, accusations flew around the South that Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged such interracial mingling, and Louisiana congressman Charles McKenzie asked the First Lady if she sponsored interracial dancing. She claimed that he was misinformed but noted that when an interracial union sponsored a canteen, they could not exclude one group. People, she wrote, had the right to choose their own friends. Two 12-year-old white girls from Rayville, a country town in McKenzie’s congressional district, wrote Roosevelt to complain of her interracial activities. Claiming that “I usually do all my own thinking,” one girl wrote, “What I think about white girls dancing and associating with the colored, and your entertaining them at the White House, I am not able to put into words.”
Writing on a school day, both girls reminded the First Lady that they would not attend integrated schools, and one said that she would rather “finish her education at home.” News of Eleanor Roosevelt’s attendance at a CIO function had traveled over 1,000 miles in less than two weeks, and by the time it arrived in Richland Parish, at least two girls at the local segregated elementary school knew that Roosevelt’s actions meant the erosion of their Jim Crow world. It meant more than dancing. It meant integrated schools. In 1944, a decade before Brown, they had internalized arguments that linked black and white physical contact to political and economic equality brought about by school integration.
While the two Rayville girls were younger than most, white women across the South had absorbed similar lessons about Roosevelt’s damage to the Democratic Party. Some suspected that her actions would result in the white South voting against President Roosevelt. From Trenton, Alabama, to Lakeland, Florida, white women concluded that Eleanor’s actions hurt her husband, were politically selfish, and were even those of a traitor, a crime punishable by death. Others turned from the political to the personal and expressed doubts about the health of the couple’s marriage, linking Roosevelt’s interracial politics to her own desire for interracial sex.
Puzzled by Roosevelt’s “inexplicable” association with African Americans, one woman wrote that the president did not “pay any attention to you or you wouldn’t be preaching what you are.” An “outraged” Florida woman wondered if the First Lady would “have enjoyed seeing your daughter Anna being hugged by those negroes,” while another predicted that Eleanor Roosevelt would welcome the marriage of her sons to black women. In the ultimate challenge to racial segregation and to the national proliferation of one-drop rules, one woman predicted that Roosevelt’s behavior would lead to interracial marriage and flood “the nation with mulattoes.”
For the white women and girls who wrote to the First Lady protesting her racial transgressions, their letters spoke to the inextricable link between intimate matters and white supremacy. How they thought about the futures of their children or their childhood, their bodies, their sexual desires, their physical health, their school days, and their Saturday nights merged into ideas about white motherhood, white womanhood, and interracial democracy. In many ways, the segregated social order defined them. The emotional intensity of their letters and their resolve to prevent change spoke to an investment in racial segregation that was deep and volatile.
Constructions of white womanhood denied the possibility of a white woman’s desire for black men while simultaneously making such desire an act of political sabotage on the Jim Crow system by a “bad” white woman. At the most individual level, the bodies of white women functioned as repositories of Jim Crow’s rules. In racializing womanhood, white women embodied a political system that elevated whiteness and imbued women with political power based on their exclusion of African Americans. Ideally, this separation protected and preserved their bodies, in direct contrast to the open access to black bodies for labor, sex, and violence.
When Eleanor Roosevelt dissolved the physical distance between white and black, she threatened not only white womanhood but also the white supremacist order. If the wife of a Democratic president would do such things, the political boundaries that protected their identity as women and the racial order in which they lived threatened to dissolve. The result of that erosion at its most basic was interracial marriage and interracial children, the ultimate rebuke of white women’s segregationist work.
But maintaining segregation was not only about politics and sex. White women across the South also framed the wartime threats of industrial and domestic labor in terms of Eleanor Roosevelt. Some white women complained that domestic servants kept leaving for the promise of better jobs to the north and west. Others, as Howard Odum’s Race and Rumors of Race indicated, discussed wartime domestic labor shortages in terms of “Eleanor Clubs.” These allegedly secret organizations of black domestic workers sought to invert the social and economic order by making white women wait on them. Throughout the wartime years from Washington, D.C., to the Deep South, rumors proliferated that the war would get black women out of white women’s kitchens and put white women to work cooking and cleaning for their former black employees. From Virginia, Mrs. James C. Cowan criticized Eleanor Roosevelt and a Democratic administration for reviving “the servant question in Washington” and for lobbying for social equality. Talking about Eleanor refocused broad political, economic, and social changes into individual homes. By naming these underground activities “Eleanor Clubs,” white southern women were able to recast what was black women’s rising labor independence and more generally an emerging, powerful, civil rights campaign as the work of a white female authority figure.
From Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae. Copyright © 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.