Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood. White Women, Class, and Segregation

Brückmann, Rebecca
Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South
Anzahl Seiten
284 S.
$ 32.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Helen Anne Gibson, Nordamerikanische Geschichte, Universität Erfurt

Rebecca Brückmann’s monograph is an unambiguous depiction of white women’s racism that opens the door for shifts in white collective consciousness. Brückmann’s analysis is imperative to collective reckoning with what Denise Ferreira da Silva terms “the political architecture of the global present,” and to possibilities for decolonial redress.[1]

In 2009, fifty years after the height of the white supremacist movement known as massive resistance, former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder deemed an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch expressing “regret” over the paper’s historical role in fanning the flames of hate “evasive.”[2] Massive resistance was a racist movement of defiance of both the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education rendering segregation illegal and the Court’s subsequent mandate to desegregate public schools in southern and border states. The Times-Dispatch editorial, Governor Wilder said to a packed audience at the Virginia Capitol Building, reminded him of the song “Miss Otis Regrets She’s Unable to Lunch Today, Madame.”[3] “She’s not sad about it,” Governor Wilder continued. “She’s not sorry about it. [laughter] She just can’t make it.” He went on to decry “all of the effects on human lives, families, communities and the nation itself,” saying that the state had “lost four generations of people” to the effects of massive resistance.[4] In recalling his initial reaction to the Brown decision, Governor Wilder remembered his surprise that “nine white men have recognized that they were wrong.”[5]Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood is not a tale of redemption or regret, but rather a rich account of multifarious ways in which white women led the racist movement against the desegregation of schools in the mid-twentieth-century United States.

Rather than focusing on the pain of people (Black children and parents) experiencing racist terrorism, bodily threats, and lost opportunities, Brückmann exposes in vivid detail white women’s commitment across class lines to an ideology that Cheryl L. Harris has famously termed “Whiteness as Property.”[6] Working-class white women leading massive resistance to desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas and New Orleans, Louisiana “understood whiteness as property and exhibited a class-related fear of being further displaced,” Brückmann shows (p. 182). This understanding of “ownership” of the privileges of whiteness was shared by elite female leaders of massive resistance in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of Brückmann’s third case study. Analyzing historical actors little recognized in the historiography of massive resistance, Brückmann foregrounds states other than Virginia, which is often considered the origin of the movement, and people other than male public figures. She demonstrates that a “white supremacist sense of entitlement underlay the women’s perception that they were being deprived of a natural right” (p. 188). Exposing the racist vitriol of both the “Miss Otis Regrets” and “‘white trash’” posturing of Southern women, Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood is an imperative appraisal of the ideology of whiteness as (profoundly gendered) property (p. 186).

In her monograph’s five chapters, Brückmann explicates Cheryl Harris’s argument in “Whiteness as Property” that “Brown disregarded immediate associational preferences of whites, but sheltered and protected their expectations of continued race-based privilege.”[7] For Brown’s most ardent female opponents in Little Rock, New Orleans, and Charleston, this desired race-based privilege was synonymous with what Harris refers to as “the old property interest in whiteness”—“the argument that the rights of whites to disassociate is a valid counterweight to the rights of Blacks to be free of subordination imposed by segregation.”[8] Brückmann analyzes white women’s efforts to frame their terrorization of Black students during massive resistance as part of an argument in favor of an alleged right to disassociation. From behind the guise of “a quest to preserve (imagined) racial purity embodied in white southern womanhood,” white supremacist women of both working-class and elite backgrounds sought to enshrine disassociation as a race-based privilege (p. 39).

Brückmann’s analysis begins with an introductory chapter on “White Supremacy, White Women, and Desegregation” and an overview of massive resistance in Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In Chapter 2, she analyzes the tactics of white, working-class “Mothers’ League” members in Little Rock, who attempted to maintain whiteness as property by “creating a public space for their actions through the legitimizing force of maternalism” (p. 45). Brückmann’s analysis is notable within the historiography of massive resistance for her emphasis on the fact that Mothers’ League members and their counterparts in New Orleans, the “cheerleaders,” created a “carnivalesque performance space” from which to spew their hate in the name of maternalism (p. 150). Analyzing the interplay of performance and ideology, she highlights the fact that the Little Rock women’s goal of promoting white supremacy and an alleged right to disassociation was supplemented by explicit references to fascism. In their battle to preserve whiteness as property, Brückmann writes, the women “appropriated antifascist and antiracist rhetoric for segregationist purposes, comparing desegregation and federal interventions to the rise of Nazism and creating a performance of righteous resistance” (p. 86).

In Chapter 3, Brückmann analyzes the racist performances of the “cheerleaders,” another group of white, working-class women who received copious support for their “reign of violence” in the form of inaction on the part of “the majority of the city’s government, the police, the Catholic Church, and the business and civil community” (p. 125). Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood frequently allows the “cheerleaders” to speak for themselves, letting their vitriol ooze out of quotes in the book’s most hard-hitting chapter. In Chapter 4, Brückmann’s emphasis on white women’s corporal performance gives way to analysis of their ideology, such as Charleston’s “Grassroots League’ members” framing of desegregation as “a communist-inspired attack on constitutional government and on white privileges” (p. 162). This chapter emphasizes individual, elite Charleston women’s intertwining of “anticommunism, white supremacy, and conservatism” in the context of massive resistance as helping lay “the groundwork for the New Right” (p. 157). Whether as “trash” or as conspiratorial letter writers, Brückmann makes clear that white supremacist women in Little Rock, New Orleans, and Charleston used their gendered spheres of influence to steer massive resistance to desegregation.

Massive Resistance and Southern Womanhood is a brilliantly analyzed book about the people who helped maintain educational apartheid in American schools. This monograph is important because in Virginia and in many other states, massive resistance to desegregation is still alive. As Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams put it on a panel at the event at which Governor Wilder also spoke in 2009: “[F]rankly, I think that the spirit of Massive Resistance permeates Virginia society, political and otherwise, to this day. I hope we’re not here to eulogize Massive Resistance—[…] Because the stake hasn’t been driven in that heart.”[9] Rebecca Brückmann’s monograph figuratively sharpens the stake over the heart of massive resistance in Little Rock, New Orleans, and Charleston by taking gender and class seriously, showing the movement for what it was and arguably still is: an unabashed, frequently white-women-led reign of terror in the name of whiteness as property.

[1] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Unpayable Debt, London 2022, p. 49.
[2] Governor L. Douglas Wilder, Keynote Speech, in: The 12th Annual Virginia Political History Project (eds.), “With All Deliberate Speed?”. Massive Resistance in Virginia. Official Transcript,, Virginia 2009, pp. 51, 53 (03.03.2023).
[3] This reference is an implicit ode to a beloved interpreter of Cole Porter’s song from Newport News, Virginia, Ella Fitzgerald.
[4] Wilder, Keynote Speech, p. 53.
[5] Ibid., p. 49.
[6] Cheryl L. Harris, Whiteness as Property, in: Harvard Law Review 106,8 (1993), pp. 1707–1791.
[7] Ibid., p. 1753.
[8] Ibid., p. 1750.
[9] Michael Paul Williams, Panel Four. What are the Lasting Effects of Massive Resistance?, in: The 12th Annual Virginia Political History Project (eds.), “With All Deliberate Speed?”. Massive Resistance in Virginia. Official Transcript,, Virginia 2009, p. 70 (03.03.2023).

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