The Dark Side of the Civil Rights Movement
The dominant narrative of the civil rights movement is a story about selfless Whites fighting Southern injustice. Usually the movement is presented as made up of devout Christians and freedom fighters, struggling against the prejudices of ignorant Southern Whites. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is the civil rights movement was plagued by the same forces that plague any setting where Whites and Blacks intermingle: violence, theft, criminality, resentment, and sexual dominance.
White civil rights workers who left the North to organize resistance to Southern segregation approached their jobs with religious fervor. One White woman captures this spirit: “There is no doubt in my mind this is worth dying for. … This love is growing every day and will continue to expand and expand until it defeats all hate all over the world” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 133). Please note the woman’s messianic mentality: she wants to defeat hate “all over the world.”
White civil rights workers were shocked to discover that local Blacks in Mississippi resented and resisted White domination of the civil rights movement. Grassroots Blacks wanted local, Black control of civil right organizations and sought to ensure White men and women were in a subordinated, powerless position (Rothschild, 1982, p. 132). Blacks believed Whites were smug and acted superior to Blacks (Watson, 2010, p. 267). On the other hand, White civil rights workers came to view Blacks as essentially lazy and stupid (Watson, 2010, p. 267). White volunteers were greeted with suspicion and mistrust.
Many civil rights organizations broke up because of racial and gender differences. For example, at a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conference in Waveland, Mississippi, many attendees walked out because of the brutal hostility between Whites and Blacks (Watson, 2010, p. 268). White civil rights attendees spoke about race with a candor that would get them prosecuted for hate speech in Europe today. They referred to Blacks as “bullshitting Negroes” (Watson, 2010, p. 268). For their part, Blacks simply refused to take orders from White people (Watson, 2010, p. 268). The rancor between Whites and Blacks culminated with SNCC expelling all White members from the organization (Watson, 2010, p. 269).
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the civil rights movement for White women volunteers was “the sexual test” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 137). Black male staffers used their position of power to force White women to have intercourse with them (Rothschild, 1982, p. 137). This was very common. Two volunteers described it as a “rite of passage before women could be considered serious workers” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 137). As one author reports “Every Black SNCC worker with perhaps a few exceptions counted it a notch on his gun to have slept with a White woman — as many as possible” (Watson, 2010, p. 230). What was the result of this racial fraternization? Venereal disease spread throughout the ranks of the SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) (Watson, 2010, p. 230).
Blacks viewed liberated White women from the North as easy. Because Northern White women wore makeup, earrings, and low-necklines, Black civil rights workers viewed them as promiscuous (Watson, 2010, p. 230). Female White civil rights workers sometimes lived up to their Black colleagues’ expectations by having sex with as many Black men as possible. Mary King recalls how White women “Fluttered like butterflies from one tryst to another” (Watson, 2010, p. 230). Many White women slept with Black men because they felt guilty for racism and wanted to prove loyalty to Black men (Rothschild, 1982, p. 137).
For their part, Black men were filled with hostility towards White women. Trainers for civil rights organization warned White women about the hostility Blacks felt for them (Rothschild, 1982, p. 138). Blacks would often physically and verbally abuse White women (Rothschild, 2010, p. 139). Blacks took great delight in having sex with White women in the back of their cars in White areas of Jackson, Mississippi (Rothschild, 1982, p. 139). At times White women were also assaulted and raped by Black males in the movement (Rothschild, 1982, p.139). Sometimes one Black would beat and attempt to rape up to three White women at once (Rothschild, 1982, p. 139). When White women complained about this treatment, they were simply sent home and the Black male received no punishment whatsoever (Rothschild, 1982, pp. 138–139). As one White woman wrote, “It’s quite obvious that they’re after a White woman. … I’m quite disillusioned about that” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 138). One White worker explains a Black staff member’s animosity towards White women: “he had a real deep-seated emotional hatred … and bitterness against White people. So that he hated most of the girls who were White, and most of the guys who were White, but he took out his hatred on the girls (Rothschild, 1982, p. 139).
Black civil rights workers did more than sexually and physically abuse White workers. Sometimes they actually tried to kill them. One White worker complained about a Black predator who attacked numerous White women. The Black attacked her with a hatchet. The woman describes the attack in her own words: “He was holding a hatchet, and he said, ‘I’m going to whup you good.’ And I said, ‘Go right ahead.’ So he started hitting me over the head with the hatchet, and I put my hand up. And the hatchet had a case around it, but the case didn’t cover the blade part, and the blade hit my hand, and my hand got cut open. That’s really what happened” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 140). What was the White woman’s response to this abuse? She blamed White people for the Black’s behavior: “His emotional disturbance is a result of what the White people have done to him” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 141). Most White women didn’t complain about violence or rape in order to help the movement succeed (Rothschild, 1982, p. 142). One has to ask the question: if Blacks will do these things to White people that travel across the country to help them, what will they do to those of us who just want to be left alone?
The unbridled sexual interest Black males displayed for White females caused deep rifts in the civil rights community. Black women gravely resented the attention Black males gave to White women (Watson, 2010, p. 267). As one Black woman noted, “the Negro girls feel neglected because the white girls get the attention” (Watson, 2010, p. 267).
Blacks would often drink and abuse White women workers (Rothschild, 1982, p. 144). Sometimes brave northern Whites would join in the abuse of White women (Rothschild, 1982, p. 144). One woman describes what it was like: “They’d pour out all their hatred — racial hatred — at us. It was just so painful. It tore me up inside” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 144). What is amazing is these women volunteered to work in the South and stayed throughout the abuse!
A few brave White women did complain of the abuse — anonymously. Ruby Doris Smith Robinson submitted a list of abuses for the SNCC staff to rectify at a staff retreat in 1964. The leadership callously mocked the paper. Stockely Carmichael’s response was especially telling: “The position of women in SNCC should be prone” (Rothschild, 1982, p. 146).
Blacks also indulged in a petty criminality that left many White volunteers shocked. One White worker wrote (Rothschild, 1982, p. 73):
Staff and volunteer discipline has broken down so far that the state headquarter has had several race riots, white workers are often subject to severe racial abuse and even violence from negro workers, staff and volunteers have assaulted fellow workers, cashed checks (for their own personal use), clothes and supplies have been stolen totaling several thousands of dollars. Negro workers are frequently played-up-to and looked-down-on by White workers; juvenile delinquency sometimes appears to have taken over certain offices. … Many workers drive cars as fast they can, figuring COFO will pay their fines and get them a lawyer no matter what they do. Former SNCC staff going to Tougaloo steal and act rowdy in the Jackson office, etc …
This quote could be from any Black-dominated space: a school, a prison, or a mayor’s office.
The civil rights movement was awash in racial resentment, violence, and sexual abuse. The abuse continues today in schools, streets, and jails across the nation – and the world. If Northern volunteers, who fervently believed in their cause, couldn’t make multiculturalism work, it will not work when normal people implement it. Multiculturalism began in failure. It is ending in failure. We shouldn’t stake our case against multiculturalism in terms of racial dominance, but in terms of free association. We should treat Black and Brown people the way we want to be treated: let them run their communities as they see fit and we can do the same. There is universal desire for sovereignty across all communities and ethnicities. Thus, identitarianism is a universalism.
Rothschild, Mary Aickin. (1982). A case of black and white: Northern volunteers and the Southern freedom summers, 1964–1965. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Waton, Bruce. (2010). Freedom summer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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