The boogeyman is critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship covering how race governs law and society — and it has become a catchall phrase encapsulating resistance to a changing America and efforts to preserve white rule.
This reactionary war on CRT reveals conservative angst over multiracial democracy, demographic shifts and heightened national awareness of racial injustice and inequities. Painting the study of civil rights and race as Marxist, racist, divisive and harmful to White children, a White resistance movement of politicians, funders and organizations reveals its fear of losing power. It is a coordinated and planned attack funded by wealthy conservative donors and waged by right-wing think tanks.
The goal? Criminalizing and scapegoating anti-racism advocates and educators. If successful, this push would erase Black people from history and retain Whiteness as the predominant cultural narrative in America. We know this because it has happened before. During the 1950s and 1960s, segregationists did the same as they railed against civil rights by forming a massive resistance to racial integration. They organized through pressure, intimidation, violence and police action to preserve Jim Crow laws and maintain white supremacy.
Today’s anti-CRT campaign builds on the legacy of White Citizens’ Councils. This “white-collar Klan” or “uptown Klan” formed after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which made segregated public education unconstitutional. These councils consisted of business and civic leaders who distinguished themselves from the more violent rhetoric of the Klan, while sharing their ideas.
WCCs regarded integration as a threat to the Southern way of life. “Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction,” said Robert Patterson, founder of the first White Citizens’ Council in Indianola, Miss., in 1956. “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.”
The councils used economic pressure and boycotts against supporters of civil rights. They evicted, fired and denied credit to Black people who participated in civil rights activism, and published full-page newspaper ads listing the names of White supporters of integration in the community. Integration evoked fears of Black people taking over, outvoting and competing economically with Whites, and White women dancing with and marrying Black men. At a time of increased political visibility and cultural influence for Black people, the White Citizens’ Councils considered rock-and-roll — which threatened to bring together young people across races — as “vulgar, animalistic,” and “a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro,” and “part of a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.”
The pressure campaign had powerful allies. In 1956, reflecting the call by Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.) for “massive resistance,” 96 lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives signed the Southern Manifesto. The document condemned the Brown decision as unconstitutional and a “clear abuse of judicial power.” It claimed that integration would destroy public education, and so its signatories encouraged states to resist implementing it. “It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races,” read the Manifesto. “Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems.”
A sophisticated legal tactic employed by Southern lawmakers to defend white supremacy, the Southern Manifesto united state legislators against Brown and prompted Southern states to pass resolutions nullifying the Supreme Court decision and undertake tactics to block desegregation. Further, the Manifesto, which invoked the Founders and constitutional arguments for states’ rights, made an appeal to protecting traditional American values, something that would define the modern conservative movement.
King called the WCCs a “new modern form of the Ku Klux Klan” that threatened and intimated Black people as well as White people who sympathized with them and stood for justice. “They piously claim that they don’t believe in violence, but we know all too well that their methods and public denouncements create the very atmosphere for violence,” King said. He was right. In 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a founding member of the Mississippi White Citizens’ Council, murdered Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader and state field secretary of the NAACP. Evers’s murder was a pivotal and galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement, with the March on Washington held two months later, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year. After two deadlocked juries in 1964, Beckwith was finally convicted of the murder in 1994.
The White Citizens’ Councils also had ties with the John Birch Society, a far-right fringe group formed by wealthy business executives advocating for limited government, with the goal of “Destroying the Communist conspiracy … or at least breaking its grip on our government and shattering its power within the United States.” Together, in 1966, they filed a petition with the federal government to investigate whether King and 100,000 civil rights activists were communists. The John Birch Society opposed civil rights legislation and said the civil rights movement was being created by Moscow, which wanted a “Soviet Negro Republic.” Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society, and his son Charles, one of the wealthy conservatives who fund the think tanks pushing the anti-CRT campaign, was a lifetime member until 1968.
With the end of legal segregation, the White Citizens’ Councils waned in popularity and declined in membership. In 1985, the WCC was reincarnated as the Council of Conservative Citizens, which began with a mainstream veneer before transitioning into an explicitly white nationalist organization that “oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind.” CCC received support from conservative Republican elected officials and inspired Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.
Five decades after the WCCs were at their height of influence, their philosophy and tactics persist today in the 21st-century conservative movement. For example, states have enacted laws banning the teaching of racial history, white supremacy, the civil rights movement, the 1619 Project and any subject matter that, in the language of a Texas law, causes a student to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Texas is looking to go even further than a recent law that bans the teaching of the 1619 Project. In Tennessee — where the bust of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest was finally removed from the Capitol in July — White protest groups such as Moms for Liberty oppose a pre-K-12 English and language arts curriculum that teaches students about Ruby Bridges, one of the first Black students to integrate the New Orleans public schools.
In Missouri, GOP state lawmakers held a hearing on critical race theory — a form of “psychological terrorism” against children, according to a White parent who testified. No Black people were invited to testify. And Rydell Harrison, the first Black superintendent of the predominantly White Easton-Redding-Region 9 school district in Connecticut, resigned after White groups derided his launch of a diversity, equity and inclusion program They accused him of being a “left-leaning, liberal thinking” activist with an agenda to indoctrinate students with CRT.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” wrote George Orwell in “1984.” Employing the techniques of the White Citizens’ Council, a 21st-century White resistance movement threatens to turn back the clock on civil rights and racial justice and create a new future built on erasing the past.