Mississippi’s Defiant Years
Reviewed by Gordon C. Henderson
Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 18-19
Mississjppi’s Defiant Years, 1953-1973: An Interpretive Documentary With Personal Experiences, by Erle Johnston, with a Foreword by William F. Winter (Lake Harbor Publishers, Forest, Miss., 1990. $24.95; xxxii, 430 pp.)
Erle Johnston is a newspaper editor from Forest, Miss., who served first as director of public relations and then as head of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission from June 1960, until July 1968.
The book has 415 pages of text divided into eighty-six brief chapters. The topics, about what one would expect to see in a book about this period, include initial resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown decisions of 1954 and 1955; the unpledged elector campaign of 1960: the Ole Miss crisis of 1962; the civil rights summer, the Goldwater movement, and the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, all from 1964; the work and influence of the Sovereignty Commission and the Citizen Councils; desegregation of the public schools; the challenge to the renewal of the license of WLBT; and, of course, politics, politics, and more politics.
Johnston’s newspaper experience, his participation at the highest levels in several political campaigns, and his eight years with the Sovereignty Commission give him the best of insiders credentials. We might expect, therefore, that this book would offer insight into the thinking of those white Mississippi leaders who in this period waged a concerted campaign to maintain segregation at home and fight civil rights efforts both at home and throughout the country. But if you pick up this book expecting to find analyses of decisions and events in this period that only a quintessential insider could provide, you are bound to be disappointed.
And that constitutes the first serious failure of the book: the failure of the author to use his insider status to bring us smack into the center of decisions that were being made by Mississippi’s white leaders in this period. Its second failure lies in its too superficial treatment of the events it chooses to report on. Two cases in point. Johnston’s coverage of the Ole Miss crisis of 1962 tells much less about that happening than will be found in chapter seventeen, ‘The Fall of Ole Miss,” in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters; his coverage of the Jackson movement is nothing like what John Salter offers in his book, Jackson, Mississippi.
Further, this is a book that largely views historical analysis as the recital of events. If one wanted to exemplify value-free social science, this book would serve nicely. Its too-glaring tendency merely to recite that first this happened, and then that happened. and here’s what happened after that; without any effort to measure the significance of events, or relate them to others, or to assess short- or long-tern consequences, can make for a very frustrating evening of reading. particularly when one realizes that explaining what choices leaders faced, what information they had before them, what they reckoned to be goals and the relative worth of means is exactly what an insider like Johnston could surely have told us of if he chose to. His background as a newspaperman may be showing here: newspaper style does emphasize the reporting of events and newspapers generally avoid analysis except occasionally on the editorial page.
Mississippi politics–like the politics of the other southern states–has always had an appreciable number of persons who–to say the least–are properly described as colorful characters. And many of these Mississippi characters appear in the pages of Johnston’s book. But in Johnston’s book they are almost colorless. Jim Neal, a legislator and radio personality is one such, but Johnston does not even identify him as he himself wanted to be know, namely as “Farmer Jim” Neal. Mary Cain, a major player of conservative politics and as colorful as any personality of this period, is similarly portrayed as quite ordinary. Bob Patterson, Semmes Luckett Ellis Hadron, W.M. Caskey, Tom Ethridge, William Simmons, Walter Sillers–every one of them a distinctive personality–are all mentioned more than once, but like Cain and Neal, they are painted in shades of pale grey.
Nor does Johnston recall for us the colorful language of politics. Johnston reminds us that an important slogan of the Paul Johnson campaign for governor was “Stand Tall with Paul” but he neglects to tell us how often Johnson succeeded in whipping up a crowd by declaring that “All the NAACP stands for is Huggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums.”
There are so many things hinted at but never probed that we leave the book frustrated. What programs were developed for the Citizens’ Council Forum and why was Johnston pleased when funding for the forum from the Sovereignty Commission was cut off? What exactly did the Sovereignty Commission feed to the FBI and did Johnston regard FBI personnel in Mississippi as antago-
nists or sympathizers? What measures did the Sovereignty Commission take with the media to encourage them to toe the “party” line?
And what were the arguments Sovereignty Commission speakers used to defend segregation when speaking before northern audiences, appearances that Johnston believes were persuasive and well-received? I have particular trouble with Johnston’s recounting of this activity. I came to remember that on several occasions speakers used by the Sovereignty Commission–including Governor Barnett and University of Southern Mississippi President W.D. McCain, to name just two–used what they believed were “facts” to boost the picture they offered of the Mississippi they defended that were not facts at all but, indeed, outrageous distortions of social data.
For example. The Clarion-Ledger for Sunday, Jan. 20, 1963, carried a news item headlined “Jackson Among Four ‘Best Educated’ Cities in U.S” In the article which followed data on education, home ownership, unemployment rate, median school years completed, the number of two-car families, and other data all taken, the article said, from the 1962 City and County Data Book were used to show that on everyone of the measures cited Jackson was close to being at the top among the nation’s cities, almost in a class by itself Soon after, these data appeared in speeches made by persons who, like Governor Barnett and President McCain, were among the speakers hired by the Sovereignty Commission to defend Mississippi and its ways before northern audiences.
The Clarion-Ledger article was, from beginning to end, a massive instance of disinformation. Were these gross errors brought to the attention of the Clarion-Ledger? Of course, more than once. Did it make any difference? Of course not And that was far from the end of the matter. As late as 1969, the City of Jackson published a slick public relations brochure which drew upon the same error-ridden data and called them “remarkable figures.” Were these among the data Johnston saw as well-received by northern audiences?
For the reader who knows little about the course of civil rights in Mississippi in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties and who is unlikely to set out to read a Mississippi newspaper from this period, the book may be of value.
For anyone for whom a new volume of memoirs from this turbulent era in our history is an occasion for great excitement at the prospect of still more insider information about these events, this book is bound to be a great disappointment.
Political Scientist Gordon C. Henderson taught at Millsaps College from 1952 to 1965, and even in other of those “defiant years” was a frequent resident of Mississippi.