New Book: The Southern Manifesto

In his new book The Southern Manifesto: Massive Resistance and the Fight to Preserve Segregation John Kyle Day provides the definitive narrative history of the Southern Manifesto and the systematic resistance to desegregation. This book reevaluates the scholarly interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Southern Manifesto formally stated opposition to the landmark United State Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the emergent Civil Rights Movement.This statement allowed the white South to prevent Brown’s immediate full-scale implementation and, for nearly two decades, set the slothfully circumspect timetable for southern public school desegregation. The Southern Manifesto also provided the Southern Congressional Delegation with the means to effectively delay Federal civil rights legislation, so that the destruction of Jim Crow largely came on white southern terms. 

Day, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas of Monticello, has written a history that challenges the prevailing view toward the national response toward the Civil Rights Movement.Below, we talk with the author about his inspiration for the book, his interest in southern politics and history, as well as his research that uncovered the greatest irony in American political history.

Where did the inspiration come for this book?

As I attended college at the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus, all of my professors in the Departments of History and Political Sciences (both in their lectures and in extracurricular settings) overtly conveyed their support for Democratic political candidates and policies to their students.  Some—including the university’s resident expert on state and local politics who moonlighted as a consultant and confidante for Clinton—even practiced passive aggressive behavior toward and consciously ostracized students that were openly conservative and/or Republicans, and covertly encouraged her personal acolytes to do the same.  I was thus raised and educated to believe, without question, that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal literally saved the United States. 

Accordingly, I was told and only assigned books in class that portrayed the Civil Rights Movement as an integral part of America’s liberal political reform tradition of the twentieth century.  When I learned about the Southern Manifesto and massive resistance, however, I was struck by the fact that most of the signers were both born and buttered New Dealers as well as staunch segregationists. 

To my astonishment, the signers included all of Arkansas’ favorite sons, including the internationally renowned United States Senator James William Fulbright as well as United States Representatives Wilbur Mills and Brooks Hays.   Fulbright and Hays are both honored as distinguished alumnus of my alma mater.  My own university’s College of Arts and Sciences is even named in Fulbright’s honor; the administration placed a statue of him in the middle of campus just after I graduated.

I was thus quite confused as to how these supposed icons of the liberal Democratic tradition could endorse
Author John Kyle Day
such a dangerous and doggerel appeal to racial bigotry as the Southern Manifesto.  That is, how could these heroes of the intellectual circles of my formative years be such ready defenders of such a blatantly discriminatory, even criminal, racial caste system as the South’s Jim Crow?  This supposed paradox, which I found to be more accurately juxtaposition, really stuck in my mind.  

So, as I furthered my education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I wanted to find out more.  In conversations with my mentor, the eminent political economist Robert M. Collins, he encouraged me to pursue this topic as a full length book subject, so twelve years later here we are!

What was the most interesting thing you uncovered during your research?

I am fascinated by the way the politicians who participated in the drafting of the Southern Manifesto struggled to reach a consensus on the exact wording of the statement.  Yet, once they did, the produced a document that harnessed the white South’s defiance of desegregation into a legitimate political program that stifled substantive civil rights legislation on the national level. 
In The Age of Reason (which my father often read to me at bedtime when I was growing up), Thomas Paine famously described political office as a craft akin to jockeyship.  Indeed, the Southern Manifesto is a classic case study of just how office holders in the American political system can turn a grass roots movement like massive resistance to their own advantage and then channel it into a program that serves their own ends.

Unfortunately, the political machinations that produced the Southern Manifesto also demonstrate how pathologically brilliant yet surlily misguided politicians like Democratic United States Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr., of Georgia won over the court of American public opinion in order to deny basic human rights to black southerners nearly one hundred years after their constitutional rights were granted during Reconstruction.

And did you discover anything that was surprising to you?

Yes.  I was surprised to learn that there are still a number of mendacities about the legislative struggles of the Southern Manifesto that prevail both among the general public as well as among academics like myself.  Here, myth has clearly triumphed over fact.  For example, the Southern Manifesto was not written primarily by then Democratic United States Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.  The document that ultimately appeared was a collective effort led by Russell, even though Thurmond was able to steal most of credit in the press.  

Further, what both the contemporary as well as present day public think about how the United States Senate worked in the 1950s is largely inaccurate too.  Namely, my research demonstrates that contrary to today’s popular opinion today, in many respects then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson proved to be the single greatest obstructionist to substantive federal civil rights legislation during his tenure in the Senate.  This fact may be the greatest irony of modern American political history. Indeed, Johnson’s cowering to the South’s congressional political power in the 1950’s actually positioned him to receive the lion’s share of the credit for the passage of the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

This troubling discovery leads me to believe that when we as Americans build up our heroes by dedicating statues and naming schools, public buildings, and scholarships after politicians, we need to be sure that we have the complete story before doing so.  Namely, after completing this book, I really question just how welcome black people feel on the campus of my alma mater, which pays homage to Fulbright, a man whose professional political career was maintained through a concerted defense of white supremacy.  This is a fact that I just would not have considered twenty years ago as white undergraduate student from the Ozarks.