Newly released recordings of Citizens’ Council Radio Forum show white supremacy’s evolution through the civil rights era in real timeHistorians in the News
Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.
In 2002, Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Memorial Library Special Collections bought 418 open-reel magnetic audio tapes. They contained episodes of the Citizens’ Council Radio Forum, a broadcast program dating from 1957 through 1966. The name might sound staid, even boring, but that bland exterior was intentionally crafted. The first pamphlet this organization published, in 1954, began like this: “Either we will all stay white together, or we will be integrated county by county and state by state.” Anyone wanting to see how midcentury racists courted—and won—mainstream audiences using mass media could do worse than to start here.
Formed in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Educationruling in 1954, the Citizens’ Council represented the “respectable” wing of white supremacist thought in the South for decades, from 1954–89. “These were the guys in white collars, not the guys in white hoods,” historian Stephanie Rolph said when I asked her about the Citizens’ Council’s place in the history of American racism. “For the most part, these are guys who are elders in their church, members of civic organizations, business owners, attorneys, elected officials.”
Mississippi State has recently made digital versions of about 300 of these audiotapes available online as well as transcripts of the tapes made by Rolph in the course of writing her 2018 book, Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989. The tapes were so fragile, Rolph told me, that six or seven of them snapped during the transcription process; seems like this act of preservation came right in time.
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