Such official rhetoric mischaracterizing local protests as the result of external influences and security threats is unfortunate, but not unusual in American history. Between the 1940s and 1960s, Southerners seeking to protect racial segregation papered over homegrown anger and demands for change by dismissing activism as the result of outside organizers and communist meddling. The goal was to silence critics and build alliances with white Americans who prioritized national security ahead of domestic equality. Though such rhetorical attacks did not save Jim Crow, they ultimately weakened the civil rights movement’s ability to address the deeper social and economic inequalities that today are at the heart of the Floyd protests.
The rhetoric of outside agitation evolved from a Southern segregationist mind-set that prioritized a rigid social order. Beginning in the 1880s, the hierarchical and patriarchal system of Jim Crow separated the races based on the presumed inferiority of African Americans and the need for supposedly superior whites to manage society. A strictly enforced color line limited African American opportunities in the South, with aggressive policing and brutal, informal violence suppressing dissent. This allowed segregationists to perpetuate the fiction to themselves and the wider country that African Americans were content in their inferior position.
Whenever African Americans challenged the Jim Crow system, segregationists preserved this fiction of contentment by blaming outside agitators. Targets in the first decades of the 20th century included major civil rights organizations like the NAACP and organizers such as the Mississippi-born Ida B. Wells, who often operated out of more permissive, though still segregated and sometimes dangerous northern cities. In the 1930s, Southerners also began criticizing the federal government, linking its past interventions during Reconstruction to the moderately reformist efforts pursued by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration during the New Deal.
As the 20th century progressed, segregationists increasingly lumped these threats together under the umbrella of communism. Historian Jason Morgan Ward has noted the ideology’s emphasis on social equality struck at the heart of the parochial, hierarchical Jim Crow system, while its atheism offended the Christian sensibilities of many Southerners. It thus became a perfect boogeyman to rally Southern society against potential challenges. “America is white,” Mississippi Gov. Martin Conner said in the 1930s, “not Red, not Black.”
But even where African Americans advocated for communism in the South, it was not an alien, outsider force controlled from Moscow, but something deeply local. The egalitarian, race-blind society envisioned by communism appealed to many African Americans seeking social and economic equality. In the 1930s, a small movement had success organizing farmers in Alabama. Yet blacks adapted communism to fit their goals and priorities: the Alabama communists even opened their meetings with prayer.
Still, relatively few civil rights organizers of the 1950s and 1960s did more than flirt with communism. There were a handful of party members and former fellow travelers, such as Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin, most of whom hailed from the North. But party ideals often conflicted with reality. The American Communist Party alienated many blacks when it followed the Soviet Union in prioritizing class conflict over the problem of racial inequality.
Even sympathetic civil rights organizers did not wholly align with communist goals, and many of the religious leaders at the heart of the Southern civil rights movement viewed the ideology with suspicion. Martin Luther King Jr. most famously summarized the role of communism in the civil rights movement when he quipped “There are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida.”
But segregationists did not actually care much about ideological affinities. Whether it was a local pastor challenging Jim Crow or a federal official threatening the sacrosanct idea of states’ rights, Southern civic leaders and politicians were happy to brand them all communists. The goal was not to accurately describe their ideologies but to put civil rights leaders on the defensive and tarnish the movements in the eyes of average citizens, especially in the South. The narrative of external, communist infiltration allowed even moderate southerners to patriotically defend segregation rather than confront their own participation in a violent system of racial inequality.
The advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s provided an additional incentive for tarring civil rights advocates with the communist label: winning influential allies outside the South. Anti-Communism became a national preoccupation, and many centrists and conservatives cared more about security and winning the Cold War than pursuing domestic equality. Speaking against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond lamented that “Negro agitators, spurred by communist enticements to promote racial strife” had “steamrolled” the Senate into passing a bill he considered unconstitutional. The segregationist Thurmond cannily framed the issue; he was joined in voting no by Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater among others, who personally opposed segregation but argued the law was the first step toward centralization and the destruction of a free society.
Segregationists used this coalition to harass and undermine the civil rights movement. Powerful Southern congressmen such as Texas Rep. Martin Dies and Mississippi Sen. James Eastland directed congressional committees that investigated spurious communist connections to major civil rights organizations. Their digging inspired more persistent and effective investigative bodies at the state and local levels. The Federal Bureau of Investigations was closely tied to these committees, and Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered exhaustive surveillance of civil rights organizations. Finding minimal communist influence, agents nonetheless harassed and even blackmailed key leaders such Martin Luther King Jr.
The conflation of protest with external agitation and communism did not defeat the civil rights movement, but it had serious effects. Harassment led leaders like King to distance themselves from some leftist allies and silenced some of the most radical proponents of civil rights, notably entertainer Paul Robeson who was blackballed for his communist sympathies. Subtler effects included self-censoring by movement leaders in an attempt to avoid championing causes that were too radical. For example, the NAACP abandoned its 1940s campaign to have the United Nations investigate human rights violations in both the South and the North to win national support for its narrower but less politically charged challenge to Jim Crow segregation.
The result is what scholar Mary Dudziak has called “a narrowing of acceptable civil rights discourse.” Overcoming this forced compromise proved difficult when organizers sought unsuccessfully to address broader inequalities of economics, housing and other social issues in the later 1960s. Their linguistic and tactical reticence helps explain why the civil rights movement faltered after defeating Jim Crow, and why economic inequalities and aspects of structural racism ranging from the educational achievement gap to unemployment to police brutality have continued into the present.
The lesson of this experience is that blaming outside agitators only serves to deflect from the very real injustices experienced by African Americans and other underrepresented groups. This tactic allows politicians and everyday citizens to perpetuate fictions about how well local and national communities function while avoiding their own complicity in tolerating and even exacerbating inequalities. While segregationists could not protect Jim Crow with this rhetoric, they built sufficient support to limit the goals and achievements of the broader movement for black rights. The country prioritized exaggerated narratives of order and security over justice, allowing inequalities to fester and deepening fissures in American society that are bubbling over again in 2020.