Police turned full-pressure firehoses on civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. During the civil rights era, millions of white Americans joined a widespread, organized, and violent campaign of opposition to racial equality. (Charles Moore/Getty Images, color by Marina Amaral)

History of Racial Injustice: Segregationist Leaders

During the Civil Rights Movement, segregationist leaders devoted their time, money, and influence to oppose racial equality. State legislators, members of Congress, governors, religious leaders, Supreme Court justices, and other powerful officials used their positions to defend white supremacy and thwart the efforts of courageous black activists.

Senators Harry Byrd and Strom Thurmond were among the national leaders of a mass movement of committed, unwavering, and often violent opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In his 1963 inauguration speech, Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed to defend “segregation forever,” while Senator James Eastland of Mississippi urged white voters to “join the crusade to restore Americanism” by defending white identity. Some segregationist leaders used the coded language of “states’ rights” and “law and order” to undermine civil rights goals and perpetuate racial hierarchy.

Public officials who spouted racism from campaign podiums, shut down public schools and parks to prevent integration, and encouraged violence against civil rights activists represented white citizens who applauded their speeches and repeatedly re-elected them to office. Many segregationist leaders are favorably remembered and honored with statues, portraits, and buildings and awards bearing their names.

The failure to identify and denounce the past leaves us vulnerable to repeating it. Remembering the names, actions, faces, and words of segregationist leaders helps us to recognize how their immense power and influence fueled a nationwide campaign to reject racial equality.