Strom Thurmond Trent Lott Lydia Chassaniol
(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
We have been asking how a Mississippi State Senator can be a proud member of the most racist organization in America without drawing comment from the regional media. Even when Lydia Chassaniol addressed the annual gathering of the resegregationist Council of Conservative Citizens, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger declined comment.
I realize that my repeated references to a faithful Methodist and loyal Republican makes me look mean, cheap and petty. What has Lydia Chassanoil ever done to me?
Nothing personal, but Senator Chassaniol happens to be the walking embodiment of a question: How far has small town Mississippi traveled down the civil rights highway?
Mississippi, like every state in the Union, is a complex tangle of individuals and interests. In a controversail article in Look, Hodding Carter II, a Mississippi Delta newspaper editor, challenged the White Citizens Councils. Retribution came swiftly. A member of the Mississippi House of Representatives called the article a “Willful lie by a nigger-loving editor” and the House put the question to a vote.
By vote of 89 to 19, the Mississippi House of Representatives has resolved the editor of this newspaper into a liar because of an article I wrote. If this charge were true, it would make me well qualified to serve in that body. It is not true. So to even things up, I hereby resolve by a vote of one to nothing that there are eighty-nine liars in the state legislature.
The 0utcome of the vote suggests that Carter was swimming against a strong tide.
More representative of mainstream opinion in the state is Strom Thurmond, the man who ran for President on the segregationist State’s Rights ticket in 1948. Harry Truman had recently integrated the US Army and Thurmond didn’t like it.
Strom Thurmond stood for the same resegregationist policies the Council of Conservative Citizens currently endorses, but Thurmond took his stand back when segregation was cool. For the most part, Dixiecrats like Thurmond never changed their stripes. Speaking in the Dirkson Senate Office Building on the occasion of his political mentor’s 100th birthday, Lott raised eyebrows across the nation.
“I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
Lott later suggested that he had been quoted out of context. But consider this. When Thurmond spoke at a Ronald Reagan rally in Mississippi in 1980, Lott expressed the same views in public: “You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
The unavoidable import of these remarks is that if the Jim Crow segregation had remained in force America would be a better country.
Lydia Chassaniol agrees with this sentiment–or so it seems. When Jesse Jackson remarked that he would like to castrate Barack Obama for talking down to black folks, Chassaniol was surprised by the muted response from the media:
The calm with which this has been reported pales in comparison to the coverage of the innocuous remark made by then Sen. Trent Lott several years ago at the 100th birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Lott didn’t threaten anyone, but merely wished an elder statesman a happy birthday and said things might not have been so bad if he, Thurmond, had been elected President over half a century ago. While we’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President, we do know that no one was physically threatened by what he said, and yet, there was a maelstrom of media coverage condemning Lott.
Chassaniol can’t prove that a segregated America would have been a better America, but she is certainly open to the possibility.
In 1960, when Lydia Chassaniol was attending elementary school, Mrs. Claudia Hill Minga of Winona, MS wrote an anguished letter to the Jackson Daily News. The letter caught the attention of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a nefarious arm of state government formed to snoop on civil rights activists. Between 1960 and 1964, the Sovereignty Commission secretly funded the White Citizens Council (the forerunner to the Chassaniol’s Council of Conservative Citizens).
After closely observing both the Democratic and Republican conservations on television, with a deep resentment of the insults to our Southern delegations; and especially noting the obsequious deference and the glad-hand extended by the Kennedy-Johnson duo to the Negro representatives of the NAACP as they enthusiastically assured them of their support and the enforcement of their demands, I a sixth generation Democrat, realized that I was a woman without a party.
In my opinion, any Southerner with respect for himself, the future generations and his Caucasion blood, could not possibly accept the infamous civil rights planks of either party.
However, Mississippians have received new hope and optimism from the recent organization of the state of Independent Electors headed by Governor Ross Barnett and loyal state officials and citizens who refuse to forfeit our state’s rights and personal freedom or yield to the domination of Negroes and white “liberals”. We shall fight valiantly and fearlessly and though we should be defeated we shall under no circumstances be found “on a longely island, waving a white flag” in cowardly surrender, according to the jeering, sneering prophesy of Bidwell Adam.
Mrs. Claudia Hill Minga,
The reference to Bidwell Adam may give the impression that somebody in Mississippi (besides Hodding Carter) was questioning the fight for segregation. Not so. Adam, a former Mississippi Lt. Governor (pictured at the left), was state chair of the MS Democratic Party when Ross Barnett took up residence in the governor’s mansion in 1960. According to a Time article in 1959, Barnett won the election by employing the most appalling rhetoric the South has ever heard: “The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him. His forehead slants back. His nose is different. His lips are different, and his color is sure different.”
Barnett’s first act as Governor was to arrange a conference of Southern governors to stand four-square for segregation. “I am going to put forth every effort,” Barnett promised, “to organize Southern Governors to create and crystallize public opinion throughout the nation with reference to our traditions and Southern way of life.”
Bidwell Adam was delighted with this development: “I want to say I’m thankful to God that Ross Barnett has saved Mississippi,” he told the press.
In 1963 when 200,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial to demand “jobs and freedom” for African American, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger gave the rally a passing mention. The next day’s headline was more direct: WASHINGTON IS CLEAN AGAIN WITH NEGRO TRASH REMOVED.
This was a time when nothing good could be said about Negroes or civil rights. When Lydia Chassaniol was a school girl, an ugly synergy between hate and resentment controlled Mississippi politics, spilling over into the criminal justice system.
James. P. Coleman, the man Ross Barnett succeeded as Governor, called in the FBI in 1959 when a crowd in the southern Mississippi town of Poplarville tried to break into the local jail to lynch a black man accused of raping a white woman. The move won warm praise from Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, but Bidwell Adam was unimpressed. “Wilkins gave Coleman a nice bouquet of roses wrapped in gold foil,” Adam charged, “to sew up the 25,000 Negro votes.”
Were there 25,000 black voters in the state of Mississippi in 1959. According to Randall Kennedy, “In many rural areas, black voters were virtually non-existent; in Mississippi in 1955, fourteen rural counties with large black populations had no black registered voters.”
When a band of civil rights workers passed through Winona in 1963 all hell broke loose.
But that’s the next chapter of this story.