Friday, 4 March 2016

The Gentle Weapon: Social Ostracism as a Weapon of Massive Resistance in Montgomery Alabama

Yesterday, 2nd March 2016, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Helen Laville (University of Birmingham) as part of the 2015-2016 seminar series. In what was a fascinating and informative talk, Dr. Laville discussed ‘The Gentle Weapon: Social Ostracism as a Weapon of Massive Resistance in Montgomery Alabama.’ This area of research developed out of a book project, titled ‘Women, Guided and Misguided: Organized White Women and the Challenge of Race Relations 1930-1965’ and concerns the opinions and reactions of women to segregation and integration in the South. The paper Dr. Laville gave yesterday focused more specifically on the efforts of citizens in Montgomery, Alabama to repress support for racial integration in their city in the years after the bus boycott. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr. Laville’s talk began with an event: a secret interracial meeting of a women’s prayer group at St. Jude’s Hospital on September 27, 1957 in Montgomery. In the midst of the civil rights movement, these women, under the auspices of the ‘Fellowship of the Concerned’, met to discuss their role after a string of events, including the Bus Boycott and an historic Supreme Court decision, had brought the issue of integration in the South to the fore. With a copy of the newspaper that reported on the meeting, it was clear that these moves were not welcomed by a large contingent of the local community. As the paper reported,

Montgomery, our home town, the Cradle of the Confederacy, long regarded as a stronghold of the Deep South now holds the distinction as being the site of a recent itner-racial (sic) meeting devoted to the general theme of “the problem of integration.”

Indeed, the racism that respectable white southerners had hidden behind a veneer of civility and respectability was forcefully challenged by moves to integrate the south. For example, Car Tags were also printed in the newspaper report to reveal the names of those attending the rally. (Although it was the names of the husbands that were printed, the newspaper went to great lengths to show that no men attended the event). As Dr. Laville highlighted, this was part of a larger effort by groups like the White Citizens Council (WCC) to make a pariah out of anyone who did not fully embrace segregation.

Fearing that the wall representing segregation would come crushing down if even the slightest crack appeared, these groups moved quickly to supress support for racial integration. As Dr. Laville demonstrated, not all of these integration opponents were comic-book southern racists, exemplified by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The WCC for example, was seen as a respectable alternative to the KKK. They preached a policy of law and order, and their attempts to silence moderate women in the south tended to rely on forms of social and economic isolation, rather than intimidation or physical harm (that is not to say that all of the WCC’s supporters marched to the same drumbeat though).

Nevertheless, by focusing on the WCC’s attack on this small interracial women’s prayer group, Dr. Laville used this episode to examine the extent to which the WCC sought to define massive resistance as a socially acceptable position, encouraging women to use their social influence to exclude and supress any suggestions that the city yield to racial integration. Social ostracism became the ‘gentle weapon’ as society shunned those that supported the civil rights movement, however subtly. It was not clubs, fire hoses, or vicious attack dogs, but this form of deep-seated psychological pressure still had an impact and the pain of social persecution was very real for these women.

Therefore, in an engaging talk, Dr. Laville provided a more nuanced – and accurate – understanding of what white southerners believed and what they did in reaction to integration in southern communities. Away from the headline events of bus boycotts, restaurant sit-ins, and harrowing protest marches, the subtle resistance or support of the civil rights agenda by white women is an important and underdeveloped field of scholarship. Indeed, it is only through projects like these that we can get a well-rounded view of history.

The seminar series will continue next week (Wednesday 9th March) with Professor Elizabeth Natalle (University of North Carolina at Greenboro) 'Michelle Obama and the Rhetoric of American First Lady Politics.' Here Prof. Natalle will share a case study of Michelle Obama's highly successful Let's Move! campaign in which the strategy of using co-rhetors to create communal agency for change has lowered childhood obesity and influenced federal policy for healthy eating. This will take place in Room 208, 2 University Gardens at 5.15pm. All very welcome!

Joe Ryan-Hume

PGR at The University of Glasgow

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