The Way We See It: Massive Resistance, Southern Myth, and Media Suppression

David James Wallace, University of Colorado at Boulder


In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling mandating the nationwide integration of schools, segregationist leaders in the South set out to organize a region-­‐wide "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court’s decision. Over the next decade, leaders of massive resistance would clash with civil rights advocates and the federal government in efforts not only to directly prevent integration, but also to defend the merits of segregation and the "southern way of life." The media played a central role in this struggle, and segregationists sought to influence media coverage of the South and the movement through traditional public relations strategies. However, when it became clear that the national media, and a small minority of southern journalists, would not simply submit to southern myth, ideology and tradition, segregationists looked to not only punish their intransigence but to remove them completely from the public sphere.

This dissertation explores the role and methods of media suppression during the period of southern "massive resistance" to desegregation. It places these attempts at media suppression within a broader context of segregationist-­‐ and state-­‐supported public relations strategies founded on propagating key ideals concerning race relations and southern society. The dissertation argues that certain news coverage and opinion in northern and southern media outlets threatened the ideology and myths behind massive resistance, leading to segregationist backlash aimed at silencing criticism, dissent and public debate of both the civil rights issue as well as segregationist responses. It views the media as a battleground on which movement advocates and opponents clashed in struggles over ideology and how they each would be defined within the public sphere. Overall, the attacks against the northern media and moderate southern journalists demonstrate the pervasiveness of social control in the civil rights movement South. Segregationists understood the threat open public debate posed to their social system, and, as a result, desperately fought to prevent the free flow of information. From rural Mississippi weeklies to The New York Times, no voice of dissent was safe.