Their courage was met with outrage. Sixteen of the town's most prominent men called for a public meeting, to form a White
Citizens' Council and respond to the petition. Several hundred turned out on a hot June night, including journalist Willie Morris, who watched in mute disbelief as the best men of the town outlined their response:
Those petitioners who rented houses would immediately be
evicted by their landlords. White grocers would refuse to sell food to any of
them. Negro grocers who had signed would no longer get any groceries from the
wholesale stores. "Let's just stomp 'em!" someone shouted
from the back, but the chairman said, no, violence would be deplored; this was
much the more effective method. Public opinion needed to be mobilized behind
the plan right away.
An advertisement in the Yazoo Herald soon followed. It offered "an authentic list of the purported signers," along with their addresses and telephone numbers. "Published as a public service by the Citizens' Council of Yazoo City," it read across the bottom.
The craftsmen could not find work. Those with jobs were fired. So were their spouses. Merchants refused to sell them groceries or supplies. The three black merchants who had signed were cut off by their wholesalers. The grocer had his account closed by the bank. One by one, they took their names off the petition. It did no good. Soon enough, 51 names were deleted from the petition. The other two had fled town before withdrawing.
The Citizens' Council eventually swelled to some 1,500 members. Over the following year, it expanded its activities, pressuring the few registered black voters to withdraw their names from the rolls. The local chapter of the NAACP folded. The Council did not resort to violence. It did not need to.
Nor did it manage to keep the Klan out of town. In
fairness to Barbour, though, it's worth noting that it registered its principled opposition. "Your Citizens' Council was formed to preserve the separation of the races," it explained, "and believes that it can best serve the county when it is the only organization operating in this field." Unlike the NAACP activists, the members of Klan Unit 727 were neither targeted nor driven from town.
When integration finally came in 1970, it really was notably non-violent. The Weekly Standard piece captures the era well. Most white families soon withdrew their children from the public schools. Violence was spurned because, as Barbour accurately recalled, "the business community wouldn't stand for it." But that followed a decade and a half of successful resistance, orchestrated by the very Citizens' Council that Barbour chooses to celebrate as a bastion of respectability.
If Barbour wants to praise the good people of Yazoo City for their extraordinary restraint in not employing violence as they hounded from
their community those black parents brave enough to demand a decent education
for their children; to laud their public disavowal of the local Klan even as they
turned a blind eye to its activities; or to extol their grudging cession of the
inevitability of court-ordered integration after fifteen years of stalling, for
its absence of lynchings or riots, that's his prerogative. For the rest of us,
though, Yazoo City should serve as a poignant reminder that the civil rights
struggle really was "that bad."
This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.