By Dr. Rebecca Brückmann
At first Ruby Bridges thought it was Mardi Gras, which was always noisy. Soon, the six-year-old first-grader, the first and only African American pupil at William Frantz Elementary School in November 1960, realized that the crowds that screamed, scuffled, and pushed were hostile.
Six years had passed since the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional in public schools in its Brown v. Board of Education decision. Federal judges still had to enjoin more than 700 state and local officials in the Pelican State, however, to enable two elementary schools, Frantz and McDonogh 19, to be desegregated by four Black girls. Massive Resistance, southern politicians’ and grassroots’ activists’ countermovement to the Court’s desegregation verdict in particular and the Black Freedom Struggle more generally, fought tooth and nail in its defense of white supremacy. White supremacist women played vital roles in Massive Resistance, which “Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood” illustrates by the way of three case studies. New Orleans is, perhaps, the most shocking.
In the Big Easy, local white neighborhood women were not only amid the commotion during weeks and months of white supremacist unrest, but they led the charge in front of the schools. A notoriously vulgar group of white supremacist women, nicknamed “The Cheerleaders” by the police and local media, physically attacked moderate parents, reporters, and bystanders, hurled eggs and rotten fruit, shouted racist slurs at Black passersby, and threatened to poison and kill six-year-old Ruby, often carrying a blackfaced doll in a coffin in front of the school to frighten her. In his Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck rightly described the women’s daily protests as “a frightening witches’ Sabbath.” The Cheerleaders put on an outrageous show to keep the crisis alive. “Little Rock slowed you down,” a placard the women brought to their protests read, alluding to the 1957 desegregation crisis in Arkansas’s capital that necessitated President Eisenhower’s deployment of the 101st Airborne Division, “but New Orleans will stop you cold.”
In my book, I examine the social backgrounds, motivations, and broader politics, strategies, as well as media and public reactions to white supremacist women’s groups who were active in Massive Resistance from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Whereas the historiography of Massive Resistance has long focused on the masculinist rhetoric of segregationist activism and its concomitant ideal of (passive) Southern white Womanhood, white women were active proponents and self-conscious agents in white supremacist agitation. In a comparative social and spatial history of white supremacist women and their actions in Little Rock, Arkansas, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Charleston, South Carolina, this study focusses on the everyday culture of white supremacy that drove “ordinary” white supremacist women, and on their tactics to legitimize and expand their public presence in an era of gendered separate spheres.
Maternalism and (exclusively white) children’s welfare often served as these women’s rhetorical device, but female white supremacists extended their politics beyond the battlegrounds of public education. In particular, working-class women pursued an aggressive “street politics” of white supremacy that contrasted with the more traditional, political actions of middle-class and elite segregationist women. They consciously sought to elicit shock value with their actions, and the Cheerleaders, for example, delighted in the newspaper coverage that detailed their transgressions.
My research explicates that female segregationists were motivated by what they saw as a loss of everyday white (women’s) privileges, tied to a clear class consciousness and their resentment of what they perceived as white “elites” as well as blatant anti-Black racism. White supremacist women’s groups’ common denominator was a firm belief in white supremacy and a perceived need for its active defense. These white women patrolled the boundaries of white supremacy through a variety of tactics that they adapted to different phases and audiences. Their activism manifested through public, stylized resistance performances and through community-oriented, disciplinary actions towards white people who, in their view, subverted a white supremacist front. These women filled the spaces of power that the wrestle between local, regional, and federal powers had left unattended and thus shaped white community responses to desegregation.
Ruby Bridges, nonetheless, persevered. She graduated from the integrated Francis T. Nicholls High School twelve years later.
Rebecca Brückmann is an assistant professor of history at Ruhr University, Bochum.
Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood: White Women, Class, and Segregation is available now at UGA Press: https://ugapress.org/book/9780820358628/massive-resistance-and-southern-womanhood/