The true story of the Citizens' Council: Work of researcher, archivist makes important part of group's history available to the public

 

Researcher Stephanie Rolph's 2018 book,

Researcher Stephanie Rolph's 2018 book, "Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954-1989" uses much of the 400 audiotapes from the Citizens' Council Forum broadcasts that are a part of Mississippi State University's collection. Rolph transcribed the tapes over 18 months beginning in 2006 for her research on the Citizens' Council as the basis of her doctoral dissertation. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Mississippi State University Archivist Jessica Perkins-Smith was instrumental in making 270 audiotapes from the Citizens' Council Forum broadcasts and transcripts of the tapes by historian Stephanie Rolph, accessible to the public through the university library's website. Perkins-Smith used a grant to have the tapes and transcripts digitalized. They are now available at http://lib.msstate.edu.

Mississippi State University Archivist Jessica Perkins-Smith was instrumental in making 270 audiotapes from the Citizens' Council Forum broadcasts and transcripts of the tapes by historian Stephanie Rolph, accessible to the public through the university library's website. Perkins-Smith used a grant to have the tapes and transcripts digitalized. They are now available at http://lib.msstate.edu.
Photo by: Slim Smith/Dispatch Staff

 

 

 

Slim Smith

 

 

In 2006, Stephanie Rolph descended into the bowels of Mississippi State University's Mitchell Memorial Library to begin research on her doctoral dissertation on the Citizen's Council Forum, a series of TV/radio shows that aired first locally, then nationally, from 1957 to 1966. 

 

Rolph listened and carefully transcribed hundreds of hours from the more than 400 shows that had somewhat mysteriously come into the library's hands in the early 2000s. 

 

The first Citizens' Council was formed in Indianola in October 1954 -- the white supremacist response to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, handed down just four months earlier, that mandated racial integration of public schools. Over the next 35 years, the Citizens' Council expanded into communities throughout the state and spread to neighboring states, evolving in its language but never in its fundamental support of white supremacy -- before it quietly disbanded in 1989. 

 

It took Rolph 18 months to complete her work. After earning her doctorate from MSU in 2009, Rolph donated her transcripts of the show's audiotapes to MSU Libraries, where they became a valuable resource for visiting historians and researchers, but remained largely inaccessible to anyone else. 

 

 

 

Seizing an opportunity 

 

Rolph's painstaking work might have remained in relative obscurity were it not for the arrival of Jessica Perkins-Smith to the MSU library in 2016. 

 

"The Citizens' Council had always been one of my research interests going back to my undergraduate years at Millsaps," said Perkins-Smith, now the university archivist. "When I got here, we had lots of other Citizens' Council collections -- pamphlets and publications and things like that -- and they were heavily used. 

 

"After I had been here a while I learned that we had these tapes," she added. "Nobody had asked to listen to the tapes. I don't think anybody listened to the tapes since Stephanie." 

 

About the time Perkins-Smith learned of the tapes, she noticed a call for a grant issued by the Council On Library and Information Resources called Recordings at Risk. 

 

"They were specifically looking for audio and video recordings at libraries that might be of risk of being lost because the format was old or degradation of film and things like that," she said. "I immediately thought of the Citizens' Council tapes when I saw that email." 

 

As part of the grant application, Perkins-Smith was instructed to send the tapes to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, where they were reviewed to see if the tapes were a valuable collection at risk of degradation. 

 

"They could see that some of the tapes had dry-rot or had snapped in places already," Perkins-Smith said. "They felt like because the contents were so valuable, and they were really at risk and weren't accessible to users, they would be a good use for the grant." 

 

The NDCC wrote a letter of support for Perkins-Smith's grant application, as did Rolph. 

 

The grant was awarded. The tapes and Rolph's transcripts were sent to the NDCC to be digitalized. 

 

"We got a hard-drive with the metadata," Perkins-Smith said. "From there, it was several months of work for me matching the transcripts to the digitalized tapes and creating subject headings so the collection would be search-able." 

 

Working with Emily Smith, the library's digital products expert who uploaded the material, and the MSU web services department, which maintains the online collection, those audio recordings and Rolph's transcripts of 270 "Forum" programs are available to anyone with access to a computer. The collection is available on the Mississippi State University Libraries website at http://lib.msstate.edu. 

 

Perkins-Smith said she chose 270 tapes and transcripts based on several priorities. 

 

"The decisions were based on what our researchers here would be interested in, which is Mississippi, primarily," Perkins-Smith said. "Anybody that was a Mississippi politician or a Citizens' Council member from Mississippi. They were the first. Then it was national politicians, people like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Then it was topics that our researchers tend to be interested in, which is civil rights, race, education and other big topics." 

 

 

 

Bigger than Mississippi 

 

For many Mississippians, the Citizens' Council is remembered as an organization whose influence and interests were confined to Mississippi and revolved exclusively on the issues segregation and, later, the Civil Rights Movement. 

 

But as Rolph's research on the "Forum" tapes, which she used to support a broader examination of the Citizens' Council in her 2018 book, "Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954-1989,' shows, the ambitions of the Citizens' Council expanded across the nation and internationally to places such as Rhodesia and South Africa, where the group's support of white supremacy was welcomed in those minority-ruled nations. 

 

"The Citizens' Council was the epitome of white resistance to civil rights," Rolph said. "My book is a new take on that. It puts it in its national and global context. It was anything but provincial. I think that surprises people." 

 

First produced as a television show by WLBT in Jackson and aired on Sunday afternoon, the Forum program was narrowly focused in the early years. 

 

"At that time, most of people on the show were Jackson Citizens' Council members, politicians, leaders of local churches and occasionally, a couple of congressmen," Rolph said. 

 

Most of those early programs were devoted to fighting school integration. 

 

When the decision was made to move the program to Washington, D.C. and convert to a radio format, a broader range of topics were chosen. 

 

"That also changed their guest list pretty dramatically," Rolph said. "You started seeing U.S. senators and congressmen, occasionally military guys. 

 

"Barry Goldwater was on in 1960," she added. "Strom Thurmond was the most frequent guest. California newspaper editor William Shearer, who spearheaded efforts to get (George) Wallace on the ballot in California, appears as early 1964. By the time you get to 1965, 1966, the program features more Mississippi-based folks, but it is also recording programs in support of the white minority rule of Rhodesia and South Africa and explaining why the system of apartheid -- they called it separate development -- was actually good for the people of color in those countries." 

 

Perkins-Smith said it's clear the program attracted a national audience, although it's difficult to measure precisely. 

 

"In its literature, the Citizens' Council said it was on more than 1,000 radio stations across the nation," she said. 

 

 

 

What happens to the 'losers'? 

 

The prospects of transcribing hundreds of hours of tapes weren't the drudgery one might suspect, Rolph said. It contained more than a few surprises. 

 

"Just as an example, I was shocked that they weren't talking overtly about race more," Rolph said. "They were finding other ways to talk about race without saying it. It happened a lot earlier than historians understood. Historians had said you see the shift away from race language to things like individual rights after the early '60s. But in the tapes, I'm seeing it as early as 1959. The council had been known for terrorizing black people and keeping white moderates at bay. What surprised me was that the popularity of that rhetoric is places like California after the Watts riots. It was critical in getting George Wallace on the (1968 Presidential) ballot." 

 

For Rolph, the story of the Citizens' Council "Forum" presents a fascinating question that is often neglected by casual observers. 

 

"When social change is upon us, and one group is pushing for a change and another group holding on for dear life to the world they know, you have to follow both groups forward," Rolph said. "What happens to the group that quote 'lost?' They don't disappear. They put their energy in other places. I think that's one of the fascinating aspects of the Citizens' Council story." 

 

"That's one of the things they were doing on the shows in the mid-60s," Perkins-Smith said. "They realized the Voting Rights Act was going to pass, that the Civil Rights Act was going to pass. They realized in order to stay relevant, they had to broaden their reach." 

 

Rolph said the later years of the Citizens' Council efforts were devoted to finding a "home" for its ideology in national conservative politics, and she believes the echoes of those old shows can be found in today's conservative politics on subjects such as education and immigration. 

 

 

 

The question of relevance 

 

Along the way, and many times since, Rolph has encountered the kinds of questions that often confront historians: Why does this matter? Why bring up all of this old stuff? That's not how it is today. 

 

"I only hear that two or three times a day," Rolph deadpanned. 

 

On Tuesday, before a Congressional hearing on the rise of white nationalism, conservative commentator Candace Owens, a black woman, said in her testimony the idea that white nationalism is growing is fear-mongering by Democrats and that the "Southern Strategy" employed by the Republican Party to capture conservative Southern voters by appealing to anti-black sentiments "never happened." 

 

In response to Owens' testimony, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted: "Everyone in America should hear this young lady. No one has articulated the truth more clearly. A profile in courage." 

 

The Citizens' Council Forum tapes are a strong rebuttal to that argument, using the words of those voices who made the argument Owens suggested never happened. 

 

Likewise, the vestiges of the earliest days of the Citizens' Council are found in the debate over education in Mississippi. 

 

"What were they invested in after they 'lost' the segregation battle?" Rolph asked, "The way it matters most now is our private school system. (The council) accepted the fact they weren't going to win the battle to keep public schools segregated. Private schools were the answer." 

 

There is evidence that it's still the answer, 30 years after the Citizens' Council disbanded. 

 

In this year's session, $2 million was appropriated by The Mississippi Legislature for special education students to attend private schools after under-funding public school special education by $30 million. 

 

"The few resources our state has for education are split," Rolph said. "Legislators may not be funding private schools, but legislators who went to private schools or send their kids to private schools, they are not invested in public schools."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

 

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