Mothers of White Supremacy: Q&A with Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

About Kelly J. Baker

Mothers of Massive Resistance (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Although historically, White women have supported the political, cultural, and social systems of White supremacy, there’s still a surprising level of confusion and shock when White women today do the same. Media narratives continue to assume, against evidence, that women’s activism must be progressive by definition. A new book, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy (Oxford, 2018), provides a different, more complicated story, carefully considering White women’s activism and defense of racial segregation from the 1920s through the ‘70s.

Focusing on four White women from a variety of political affiliations, McRae documents their efforts to protect segregation from the threats of racial equality campaigns and so-called “White apathy.” Her book corrects previous histories of segregation that focus on Supreme Court decisions, federal law, leaders, and ideologues by examining how segregation is maintained primarily on the local level. White women prove to be the “constant gardeners” of segregation by writing letters and lobbying local officials, by censoring textbooks for public schools and hosting essay contests, by policing racial boundaries of folks in their communities as overbearing neighbors and administrators, and by teaching children racial hierarchies that emphasized White over Black.

White women prove to be the “constant gardeners” of segregation.

In doing this, White women weren’t simply capitulating to men’s preferences under a patriarchal system; rather, White women supported segregation because it benefited them. They affirmed, defended, and praised segregation every day and birthed a particular White supremacist politics—which defends a racial hierarchy of White over Black in institutions, politics, and culture—that still resonates today. This March, McRae spoke to The Public Eye.

PE: When I was writing my book on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan and White religious nationalism, I was arguing against particular historical narratives that claimed the Klan ended in 1930 and that somehow White supremacy ended then too. What historical narratives of segregation were you writing against?

McRae: I was writing against three main trends in the scholarship. First, most scholarship offers a tight chronology of massive resistance—organized opposition to the Civil Rights movement—from 1954 after the Brown decision to 1964 or 1965. This chronology focused on national legislation and for the most part on Southern governors, senators, and elected male officials. The idea that such opposition erupted whole cloth in the aftermath of Brown and ended with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts raised questions for me. What were these protestors doing before 1954? Did they accept the end of their deep devotion to a segregationist state and society just because the federal government declared an end?

Second, the White Southern women who I first met in Civil Rights-era scholarship were progressive women who supported and joined the Black freedom struggle. Their efforts were certainly important, but they did not capture the broader swath of White Southern women. But in scholarship, White women’s work seemed oddly absent. I began to look for women’s involvement in massive resistance.

Finally, stories of segregation and its activists had long focused on the South. The story of segregation dominated by the features of Southern places and events—the literal signs marking White and “colored” access. Other iterations of a Jim Crow order, anti-United Nations or anti-busing protests, were sequestered from the stories of segregation. Yet, the aims and outcomes of women’s grassroots work—not the geographic location, the decade, or a particular political language—should dictate whether the activists were segregationists or not.

You note that part of the reason White women have not made it into the larger history of segregation is that the terms “segregationist” and “White supremacist” aren’t being applied to them. Why have White women slipped these labels?

When I think of White supremacists, a few images come to mind: a [male] KKK rally, White men gathering around a Black man or three whom they have lynched, or George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama. Those iconic images are embedded in American culture—in our history books, movies, and documentaries.

Of course, this does not explain why White women and girls who are screaming at Ruby Bridges or Melba Patillo Beals—equally iconic images—do not produce the thinking that White women are also segregationists and White supremacists. Perhaps it’s because of the hard-to-discard “truth” that women’s maternal nature leans toward progressive political beliefs. Of course, this “truth” is rooted in biological essentialism and reinforced by a dominant historical narrative: Because a woman has the ability to bear children (at least in theory), she believes in taking care of children, which means advocating for public health, good schooling, decent child care, women’s political and economic equality, peace, and an end to child labor. Women’s political ideals, then, arise out of their biological role. Even though this formulation seems ridiculous, it persists, in part because of history. Many suffragists argued that women would clean up politics and make the nation take care of its citizens. Later, the proliferation of women scholars in the wake of second wave feminism provided us with very good histories of women who pushed for a more equitable society.

Finally, by focusing on national voices and elected leaders who opposed the Black freedom struggle, segregationist rhetoric most often came from men. Men’s voices dominated these forums, drowning out the grassroots work of White women who sustained a politics of White supremacy in community after community.

One of the things that I was struck by as I read Mothers of Massive Resistance was the garden analogy that you used to describe segregation and White women’s roles.

The garden metaphor came to me, in part, because my desk, where I spent my summers writing, overlooked my aspiring vegetable garden. And I considered all the work a prolific garden would take: fences, fertilizer, daily weeding, constant vigilance toward new pests, years of prepping the soil. And it came to me—this constant, unheralded, often hidden work was how these White segregationist women toiled. They were constantly looking for threats to segregation and trying to weed them out: interracial marriage, critical historical interpretations of White Southerners, outside influences like the United Nations. They were constantly sowing the seeds of White supremacy for the next generation. Also, gardening is not particular threatening or dramatic, so the garden fit the mundane and quotidian tone of my evidence.

How did motherhood become a way to claim authority and build upon notions of White supremacy?

The irony of using motherhood to claim authority for the four women who frame the narrative is that only one of them was actually a mother. And yet, they all invoked a discourse of public motherhood that tied racial segregation to the duties of White women.

In the Jim Crow nation, being a good White mother was imbued, in many ways, with teaching your children to follow the laws and customs of segregation.

Invoking motherhood meant that they could call on political and cultural authority and call on the state to meet its duties, to provide for public health, public safety, and public education. In the Jim Crow nation, being a good White mother was imbued, in many ways, with teaching your children to follow the laws and customs of segregation. As a White mother, protecting your child in the racialized landscape of the mid-20th Century could mean securing distance between White and Black. That meant preventing interracial sex and marriage, policing classrooms to make sure White and Black children did not learn together, teaching that racial separation was natural and timeless, and telling children stories that reified racial “place” in American society. Part of the power of the system was the way it married daily duties with the prescriptions of White supremacy.

Currently, there’s a renewed attention on women’s activism because of the massive participation in the Women’s March last year. But, it’s worth noting that when the media focuses on women’s activism, it tends to be progressive. Why do you think there’s less attention to the activism of conservative women, especially their support of White supremacist politics?

Louise Day Hicks with Mayor John F. Collins circa 1960-1968. Photo: City of Boston.

Certainly, surprise still persists when women vote for conservative candidates like Roy Moore or when we discover women’s role in White nationalist movements. And yet, the historical evidence abounds of White women participating in and shaping White supremacist politics. But [more generally], the way we discuss political movements has obscured women’s roles. The spokesmen often take center stage, but the mundane and the persistent make movements. This mundane work is often done by women: Jo Ann Robinson and Georgia Gilmore in the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in #BlackLivesMatter; [and, on the pro-segregation side] Louise Day Hicks and ROAR [Restore Our Alienated Rights] women in the antibusing crusades. In minimizing the grassroots work of women, the framing of White supremacist politics is no different.

The inability or unwillingness to look beyond the male-dominated narrative of White supremacy or to consider the complexity and diversity of White women’s political ideologies has provided perfect cover for these women and their work. It has meant that they could be considered outside the mainstream of American politics—anomalies, hardly worth our attention—while they operated inside it.

What do we learn about modern politics if we center the story of White women’s support of White supremacy?

White women’s historical dedication to White supremacy and their persistent, multilayered work might help prevent us from premature pronouncements about the nation’s commitment to racial equality and help us recognize the multiple layers of society where the fight for equality must be waged.

Kelly J. Baker is a historian and the author of Gospel According to the Klan and Sexism Ed.