REVIEWED: Mothers of Massive Resistance


Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae (History/Politics/White Supremacy Movements, 2018).

Massive Resistance is the term social scientists usually give for how some white Americans sought to oppose racial desegregation, especially in the South in the 1950s and ’60s. The usual focus of scholarly and/or academic studies of this history is on the activities of male resisters, whether openly violent (such as Klansmen) or those who fought a losing battle against real equality in the courts (politicians, etc). This book maintains (and goes to great and convincing lengths to prove) that women were a vital (if often overlooked) force in this opposition. In fact, female activists were in many ways the ‘mass’ in ‘mass resistance.’

The author builds her case methodically with a general overview beginning in the Jim Crow south of the 1920s. She spotlights in detail the relevant actions of four prominent southern women: Nell Battle Lewis, Florence Sillers Ogden, Mary Dawson Cain and Cornelia Dabney Tucker. All grew up in various parts of the segregated south and the book identifies four areas in which these four (and many others) sought to maintain, grow and later defend the system of legalized white supremacy they were born into. These broad areas of work were local social welfare programs (under the guise of so-called ‘separate but equal’ doctrine), public education (also with special concentration of a traditional womanly role focusing on what’s ‘best’ for their children), electoral politics (women having finally gotten the vote by the ’20s) and popular culture (revolving around fictional stories, as well as sanitized memoirs and outright propaganda portraying racial separation in beneficial terms).

The author shows these women were by no means monolithic in the details of what they believed, or what methods and means they focused on. Each was an individual with her own history, outlook and personality. One was for years a relative moderate, trying to make the fatally flawed idea of ‘separate but equal’ live up to its alleged meaning. Others were more traditional. None of the four were usually supportive of the wanton violence that often accompanied ‘keeping blacks in their place.’ Yet as Gillepsie McRae shows, each supported and worked hard to reinforce the rigid ethnic boundaries they knew.

Things grew more intense as time moves forward and demands for change disrupt the self-serving illusion of ‘the contented negro.’ The author also shows how the southerners battling against court decisions of the 1950s onward allied themselves with right-wing activists in the rest of the country. It becomes clear that the rise of the New Right was intimately related to the struggles against integrated schools and society at large.

Finally, the author also destroys the odd myth (common in some circles) that what happened in Boston (and other northern areas) when school desegration by way of busing came about had a different character and source than the southern experience.

A couple closing notes: 1.)Ms. Gillespie McRae (an Associate Professor of history at Western Carolina University) writes well, but readers should be aware that the painstakingly thorough and academic style, while very readable is also most definitely not what those more familiar with ‘popular’ history writing are used to. 2.) The copyediting of this book is slightly sloppy, with several obvious typos that the reader may stumble over–thereby undercutting a smooth reading experience.

Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile volume for anyone who cares to understand very much of recent American history and gain insight into elements of today’s political landscape.

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