State of Change

Book Examines Role of Mississippi In the Rise of Modern Conservatism

Posted May 14, 2007 at 5:28pm

At the height of the civil rights movement, stories of racism and violence poured out from Mississippi. According to most literature about that time, the state increasingly seemed to be isolated from the rest of the nation, separated by racial extremism and efforts to resist integration.

But 20 years later, Mississippi was the site where the future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, launched his presidential campaign and conservatism was on the rise in America.

In his book “In Search of Another Country,” Joseph Crespino writes about how the seemingly closed-off society of 1960s white Mississippi played a role in the formation of the modern conservatism movement of the 1980s and today.

The book started out as a broader civil rights story, Crespino said, but slowly evolved into a story about Mississippians and how they saw themselves as part of a larger conservative struggle.

Mississippians “felt that the changes, demands and difficulties they were facing were the same kinds of difficulties that other conservative white Americans were facing all across the country,” Crespino said.

An assistant professor of history at Emory University, Crespino argues against what he sees as monolithic portrayals of Mississippi. He writes that the state is critical in understanding the modern conservatism movement.

Crespino, who is from Mississippi, grew up reading articles and stories depicting his home state as the backward and “exceptional state” that was unwilling to go with a national consensus for ending institutional racism.

In his book, Crespino instead focuses on the “strategic accommodations” — some of which were “token concessions to black demands” — that white leaders made in Mississippi during the civil rights era. For example, moderate whites formed the Mississippi State Sovereignty Committee, a group that actively tried to curb white extremism and negotiated with black leaders. But by infiltrating and deterring civil rights activities, the group strategically kept Southern whites in power. Crespino uses recently released documents from the committee to illustrate how the group and moderate whites laid the groundwork for a counter-conservative movement against the liberal social reforms of the 1960s.

Segregationists, for example, linked up with evangelical churches, which saw the changes in the 1960s as part of a larger attack on traditional American values. Fundamentalists and evangelical Christians fought against “mainline protestant groups” that they saw as part of a liberal movement.

These reactions, Crespino shows in his book, made way for the more politicized role of these groups in abortion, gay and women’s rights movements of the 1970s.

Efforts against desegregation in the 1960s provide the backdrop in the fight over federal tax policy toward southern private schools in the 1970s. Private schools played a rallying point for anti-liberal movements.

“Schools are by far the most highly contested space for all this to happen,” Crespino said.

The book highlights some of the most well-known segregationists and white leaders who fought hard against segregation and how they eventually changed stances publicly — including Erle Johnston, who led efforts to revoke Tougaloo College’s accreditation because of civil rights activities on campus, and John Satterfield, dubbed the nation’s No. 1 segregationist lawyer by Time magazine.

Crespino also writes about Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Majority Leader who was one of most powerful conservative leaders in the country in 2002. Conservatives tried to distance themselves from Lott after his controversial statement on how the country “wouldn’t have had all these problems” if segregationist Strom Thurmond was elected president. (Lott has since rebounded politically, having been elected to serve as Minority Whip this session.)

But Crespino points out that while some portrayed Lott as a “dinosaur that doesn’t represent real conservatives,” he was one of the most successful politicians in the past 30 years.

“So my book tries to place white Southerners within the flow,” Crespino said.

Crespino is careful to say, however, that white racism is not all you need to know about today’s conservative movement. Instead, he disagrees with what he sees as a tendency for many conservatives to overlook their racial past.

“The point of the book is to show how [white Mississippians] fit into modern conservative politics and to tell it in a way that is both true and respectful to all actors,” Crespino said.