In August 1948, Julius Y. Talmadge called on her fellow Georgia women to turn out and help elect her segregationist cousin, Herman Talmadge, as governor. They must vote for him, she urged, in order to ensure that the Deep South’s “traditions and our way of life will be preserved” against “sinister forces in political parties from the North, East, and West.” Those “sinister forces” were ones that sought to bring Black civil rights to the region.
Although such appeals to “preserve our way of life” mostly died out in Southern politics decades ago, wealthy Georgia businesswoman Kelly Loeffler invoked the idea in a column on December 30—just days before she took the oath of office and became the country’s newest US senator on January 6. Previewing her stance on Donald Trump’s coming impeachment trial, the new Republican senator wrote that she plans to vote to acquit her party’s president in order to protect “our way of life,” as she warned of the dangers of “Mexican drug cartels.”
‘These Arguments Are Always About White People’
Stephanie Rolph, an historian at Mississippi’s Millsaps College in Jackson whose work focuses on the White reaction to desegregation, told Deep South Voice on January 2 that segregationists—like the white supremacist Citizens Council—weaponized the idea of defending “our way of life” in the mid-20th century to keep White Southerners in line behind the white supremacist cause.
“For the Citizens’ Council and its audience—White Southerners, of course, but also White Americans whose support they sought—the call to protect ‘our way of life’ spoke directly to what they considered a unique and practical way to preserve white supremacy,” said Rolph, who is the author of “Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989.”
Loeffler is not the only person within the Republican Party who has recently begun invoking segregation-era rhetoric. On January 9, Tony Gonzales, a Republican US House candidate in Texas, tweeted out a photo of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (who is not his opponent), writing that he “refuse[s] to sit and watch as radical socialist policies threaten our way of life.”
Three days after Loeffler’s column ran, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant sent a tweet warning that his state would take the “first step into a thousand years of darkness” if voters elect Democrat Mike Espy as their next US senator November (Espy would be the first Black Mississippian to serve in the Senate in 139 years). Bryant included in his tweet a video from the National Republican Senate Majority. The video—which flashes clips of Democrats who are almost all either Black, Jewish, or women—warns that “everything is under attack,” including “the (US Supreme) Court,” the Constitution, and “our way of life.”
Loeffler and other Republicans’ appeal to the idea that Democrats, either through impeachment or winning elections, want to “overturn our way of life,” Rolph said, is a message that “has been cultivated forever.”
“Every time period where nativism surfaces is unique to its historical circumstances,” the Mississippi historian said. “It’s hard to get perspective on our particular moment while we’re in the midst of it, but ultimately, these arguments are always about White people—who the good ones are, and who the bad ones are. Any White person who supports the rights, freedoms, and access of nonwhites to the American promise is a traitor to the White superiority.”
‘Clever Jews,’ ‘Socialists,’ and ‘Communists’
Those questions were all at play in 1960s Plaquemines Parish, which sits on the outskirts of New Orleans, after the Crescent City integrated its public schools. In the years that immediately followed, the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council appropriated $5,000 annually for “expenses in defense of segregation,” and warned that the 1964 Civil Rights bill “would impose a federal gestapo to supervise and enforce communistic regimentation of our people and our way of life.”
Leander Perez, a Citizens Council leader and the president of the Plaquemines Council, ran a vicious anti-segregation effort. He sought to root out White parents who were willing to send their children to school with Black kids by arranging for children “to attend an all-White school in Bernard Parish without charge, so their parents couldn’t claim poverty as an excuse for sending them to school with Black students,” James W. Loewen wrote in his 1999 book, “Lies Across America.”
Perez, whose might as a political boss in bayou country extended well beyond his parish, used his power to get parents who sent their White children to school with Black kids fired from their jobs. After a Catholic parochial school in the area integrated in 1962, he instilled such fright in locals that, for four months, not a single child attended the school—and then it burned to the ground in a suspected act of arson. Soon afterward, the Catholic Church excommunicated him; Perez, who nevertheless continued attending mass, claimed the Church was “being used as a front for clever Jews.”
Still, Perez’s efforts earned him a permanent place of honor at Fort Jackson, a masonry fort in his home parish where a plaque bears his name with praise that omits any explicit references to his racist crusade. “This arch dedicated to Judge L.H. Perez by the people of Plaquemines Parish in appreciation of his leadership in restoring Fort Jackson and for his efforts to preserve our liberties, freedoms, and way of life,” reads the plaque, which features the Citizens’ Council’s symbol—a crossed Confederate and United States flag.
During its heyday, the Citizens Council often portrayed civil rights activists as “communists” and “socialists.” To the Council and other segregationists, “communism” and “socialism” often did not refer to economic systems like those envisioned by the communist ideology’s founder, Karl Marx. Instead, segregationists frequently used those as codewords for “civil rights” and advances in equality for non-White people. In her recent column, Senator Loeffler references “socialism” just prior to claiming that Democrats want to use impeachment to “overturn … our way of life.”
“Socialism, and its societal and financial costs, is a very real threat to the freedoms that allow us to prosper as a country. … And despite the rise of Mexican drug cartels in America, the left continues to debate whether we should enforce our laws and secure our borders,” wrote Loeffler. “… But make no mistake. The left’s impeachment circus is about more than just overturning an election, but our way of life. These partisans can’t tolerate President Trump’s accomplishments at home and abroad, and they know they can’t beat him at the ballot box.”
Loeffler, whom Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed after longtime Republican US Senator Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons late last year, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
As Rolph’s comments suggests, white supremacist literature from the time just before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement’s heyday are rife with references to “our way of life.”
In 1948, the Mississippi Democratic Party shared fliers opposing the re-election of President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat. Instead, the party backed Dixiecrat South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, an ardent segregationist.
‘We Are Proud of Our White Blood’
Mississippi Democratic Party fliers with sample ballots in 1948, The New York Times reported, warned of Truman’s “vicious anti-Southern program” and that his re-election would mean “anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever.” Beneath Thurmond’s name on the sample ballot were those of future Dixiecrat Mississippi governor John Bell Williams and Dixiecrat Mississippi Congressman William M. Colmer.
That year, Fielding Wright, Mississippi’s governor at the time, gave his annual state-of-the-state address, in which he made defending white supremacy from a “meddlesome” federal government his top priority. The Mississippi House passed a resolution, backing Wright’s pronouncement.
“Mississippians and Southerners will no longer tolerate these abuses and efforts to destroy the South and her institutions, and hereby pledge our full support to the Governor and his efforts to protect and uphold the principles, traditions, and way of life of our beloved Southland,” the resolution read.
Soon after, Wright joined Thurmond on the State’s Rights Democratic Party ticket as his vice presidential pick. In one newspaper ad that October, the campaign promised voters that “these courageous men…have taken a firm stand for Constitutional States’ Rights Democracy” and “are now fighting for Your Way of Life!”
Below the various tag lines, the campaign promised to “stand for the segregation of the races” and “oppose the action of the Democratic convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting and local law enforcement.” President Harry Truman easily won re-election that year after the Thurmond-Wright State’s Rights Democratic Party ticket won just four states: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, where Leander Perez headed the campaign’s efforts.
By the mid-1950s, reverent appeals to the importance of salvaging “our way of life” (or “our Southern way of life”) became even more ubiquitous. By 1953, Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge, feared that the US Supreme Court might rule segregation unlawful in the then-upcoming Brown v. Board of Education case. In coordination with a former US Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes, a segregationist, Talmadge began pushing his state and other Southern states to pass a law that would abolish public schools and turn them over to private entities if the Supreme Court outlawed segregation.
South Carolina and Georgia both passed the Byrnes-Talmadge proposal. Mississippi, though, surprised in January 1954 when the measure failed there on a tied 24-24 vote, as Mississippi Senator Brinkley Morton warned the bill would create “a Frankenstein monster” that would “destroy public education—the cornerstone of our democracy.” Several months later, on May 17, the US Supreme Court made its ruling, concluding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—and ordered the desegregation of public schools.
In the fallout of the Brown v. Board decision, Southern segregationists rallied more fiercely than ever around the South’s “tradition” of segregation—and the urgent need to salvage it. Fewer than two months after the ruling, the Citizens Council formed in Greenwood, Miss., where it held its first meeting. In one of its pamphlets, the Council claimed it was “the South’s answer to the mongrelizers” and “left-wing do-gooders.
“We will not be integrated. We are proud of our White blood and our White heritage of sixty centuries. … We are certainly not ashamed of our traditions, our conservatives beliefs, nor our segregated way of life,” read the pamphlet. Similarly, in a letter to its Little Rock, Ark., chapter later, the Citizens’ Council called on White residents to organize to defend “our way of life against the chaos and violence of integration.”
‘A Contaminated, Impure Race’
Mississippi’s governor at the time of the 1954 ruling, Paul B. Johnson, vowed to fight integration “to my dying day” because “the White people of Mississippi are not in any mood to accept Negroes in our schools” and “want no colored in-laws.”
“Our way of life has caused jealousy and envy among the back-alley degenerates and guttersnipes of the North and the Marxian Christians who know that a contaminated, impure race is the beginning of the end for that race,” the governor said that August. “Such degenerates have been the forerunners and the motivating powers behind the decision of the United States Supreme Court.”
In October 1954, Tom Pickens Brady, a powerful Mississippi judge from Brookhaven, delivered an address in Greenwood, Miss., in which he laid out the supposed threat to “our way of life” by invoking debunked “race science.” He made that unscientific claimthat “wherever the White race has mingled its blood with the negroid,” “deterioration” follows and “it blows out the light within a White man’s brain.”
Across the Deep South in the aftermath of Brown v. Board, politicians began sounding the “way of life” dogwhistle more fiercely than ever.
“Help Keep Our Way of Life, Help Elect a Man Who Will Fight for It,” read a newspaper ad for Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tom Abernathy in October 1954. The ad promised that the candidate would “preserve racial segregation in Alabama” to “make certain that our civilization is not destroyed” (he lost that election two days later). Similarly, in his 1958 campaign for for Alabama lieutenant governor, Albert Boutwell put out ads in his state’s newspapers promising “to continue his fight for our way of life” against “enemies of the South” in order “to prevent race-mixing in Alabama.”
Concerns about what integration and civil rights would do to “our way of life” filled Southern newspapers’ “letter to the editors” pages. In one letter to the Anniston Star in 1960, a reader complained that, beyond the “Northern left-wing press,” he feared ”many of our own newspapers are sympathetic to an element that seems to be striving to overturn our way of life under the guise of social adjustment.”
Segregationists Feared Civil Rights Would ‘Destroy Our Rights and Privileges’
In June 1955, Georgia Governor Talmadge joined Judge Brady and other Southern segregationist leaders who had gathered for a Citizens Council-organized rally in Selma, Ala.
“We must stand and fight today, tomorrow, and forever against those who would destroy our Southern way of life,” declared Alabama State Senator Walter Givhan, as he introduced Talmadge to a crowd that the Birmingham News claimed numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
Talmadge characteristically launched into a racist spiel, echoing Brady’s race science ideas as he told attendees that “we have but to look to Puerto Rico, to Cuba, or to Brazil to see what happens when you mix the races.” Interracial coupling, he claimed, would “destroy the better qualities of both races,” casting integration as an affront to the almighty.
“The court refuses to recognize (that) it cannot straighten the Negro’s hair or uplift the negro’s nose. Only God can do that,” Talmadge said.
Retired Alabama minister Henry W. Fancher, another speaker, used his opening prayer to remind attendees to think of the children. They are “our most priceless possession,” he said.
“Give us courage to combat those who would destroy our rights and privileges. Help us preserve the rights and integrity of our God-given race,” the Baptist minister cried out to the heavens.
Segregationists pushed claims that segregation was “natural,” Rolph told Deep South Voice, with the aim of “keeping White moderates in the segregationist camp.”
“They were most likely to comply with progress for the sake of economic and political stability. For ‘benevolent whites,’ assuring them that racial difference was real and immutable was a way to assuage their consciences as the rest of the nation disapproved of the Southern system,” she said.
‘Unity of the White Conservative Majority’
As the Civil Rights Movement heated up, Southern politicians grew, if anything, more demagogic. When Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson was running for re-election in 1963, he took out a full-page ad alongside fellow Dixiecrat Carroll Gartin, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor (who bragged that he had authored every piece of pro-segregation legislation from 1952 to 1960).
“The Best Defense for Our Way of Life is Unity of the White Conservative Majority Under Mississippi Democratic Leadership,” a large banner on the ad read.
The ad warned that the Republican Party’s efforts to create a two-party system in the South would usher in calamity.
“Your defense against Mississippi’s handful of Republicans and the possibility of a growing Negro vote is the continued unity of our White conservative majority. And conservative citizens—still a majority in America—see their cities scarred by crime, their development stymied by socialist schemes and high taxes, their governments infiltrated by alien ideologies,” the ad read.
“This is the kind of two-party system these so-called ‘Republicans’ seeks to establish in Mississippi. … As long as one party controls all of the governmental machinery within Mississippi, and as long as that party is dominated by loyal, White conservative Mississippians, you and your loved ones and your way of life are as safe as they can be in this troubled world.”
Within a year, the idea of a solid segregationist Democratic majority in the South would begin to fail. Mere weeks after the State elections that November, though, an assassin killed Democratic President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, elevating Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency. Kennedy’s death galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act, which he had supported, and in the summer of 1964, Johnson signed it into law. That set off a political chain reaction in the South.
Back in Mississippi, the Dixiecrat lieutenant governor, Gartin, urged his hometown law partner, Charles Pickering, to switch to the Republican Party. Pickering switched that summer, citing “humiliation” as Black members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party demanded delegate seating at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, Gartin, with a “D” still affixed to his name, began back-channeling with conservative Republicans who were willing to work with him on his segregationist agenda.
Just after the DNC in September 1964, US Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina—the segregationist who had run as the Dixiecrat candidate for president 16 years earlier—also left the Democratic Party to join the GOP. In a televised announcement, Thurmond claimed that the “Democratic party (had) abandoned the people” and was “leading the evolution of our nation to a socialistic dictatorship.”
‘You Wouldn’t Believe How Bad These People Are’
As the Democratic Party split over civil rights, conservative Republicans began to plot out a “Southern strategy” to help take the South. By 1968, Republican nominee Richard Nixon was reaching out to Southern whites with a message that the likes of Johnson and Gartin had already previewed with their talk of “safety” in a “troubled world” amid “cities scarred by crime”: Law and order.
In the 1960s, Rolph told Deep South Voice, segregationists began sending the messages to White moderates in the South that the “good work of law enforcement” was being tarnished by officers “accused of harassment and brutality toward Black citizens.” White support “for the Civil Rights Movement and true equality began to fracture,” the historian said.
“‘Our way of life’ becomes, ‘law and order, something that whites embrace as natural to members of their race and foreign to others,” Rolph said. “Eventually, law and order comes to replace the ‘natural’ racial difference argument because the implication is enough.”
In his 1968 campaign, Nixon used the language of “law and order” to signal to racist White Dixiecrats while still maintaining plausible deniability that race was on his mind at all when he found himself in the company of White moderates who would have been uneasy with direct racist appeals. Nixon White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman explained Nixon’s thinking in a 1969 diary that did not become publicly available until decades later.
“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” the Nixon aid wrote. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
More than half a century after Nixon left office in disgrace, Donald J. Trump, perhaps more than any other president since, took Nixon’s “Law and Order” playbook and, from the first day of his campaign, began vilifying nonwhite immigrants and tying them to crime.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you,” Trump said the day he announced his candidacy, on June 16, 2015. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
When Trump was not targeting Hispanic or Latino people during the 2016 election, he often targeted Muslims, including Muslim Americans.
“Our way of life is under threat by Radical Islam and Hillary Clinton cannot even bring herself to say the words,” he tweeted in July 2016.
Since the election, Trump has not let up. While talking about undocumented immigrants ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Trump used dehumanizing language reminiscent of the rhetoric Nazis used to describe Jews in the lead up to and during the Holocaust.
“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals,” the Republican president said. Later that year, he falsely claimed that Democrats “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.”
As Trump’s White supporters and White moderates absorbed his repeated efforts to tie immigrants to crime (a fabrication betrayed by studies that show undocumented immigrants are, in fact, significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born American citizens), policies once thought too cruel to be politically survivable became significantly more palatable.
Even many White American moderates began to acquiesce to the idea that, while family separation and the caging of child refugees in border concentration camps is not ideal, perhaps it is necessary for the country’s security—and for the pursuit of “law and order.”
‘White Superiority and Exclusivity is Normalized’
Though numerous criminal investigations have implicated Trump since 2016, and though numerous top aids have either been indicted or sentenced on criminal charges, the Republican president still emphasizes “law and order” in his messages to supporters.
In that political environment, Kelly Loeffler, a new GOP senator desperate to earn Trump’s thus-withheld approval as she fights to hold onto her seat in a special election later this year, chose to ignore the “law and order” issues at stake in the matters at the heart of impeachment in order to, instead, frame the threat of Trump’s removal as an effort to destroy “our way of life.”
Loeffler is not alone. Other Republican senators have also vowed to acquit Trump, including US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, who promised in December that “this sham will come to a swift end in the US Senate”—a far cry from the impeachment oath to do “impartial justice … so help me God” that she and others must swear before Trump’s trial begins.
Trump has benefited from the loyalty of reactionary White America, Rolph said, which he has solidified with his relentless massaging of feelings of White victimization in a culture where historically-oppressed groups have begun to partake in some of the privileges that were once exclusively White perks.
“When you have the added bonus of the law on your side, White superiority and exclusivity is normalized and any challenge to it is foreign, including the White people who are challenging it,” Rolph told Deep South Voice. “Trump’s appeal to his supporters is in his unequivocal defense of the rights of the White majority who, in their mind and experience, have been progressively marginalized as the nation has moved toward more inclusivity and access.”
Follow Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman and on Instagram @ashtoninms. Send feedback to [email protected] and tips to [email protected]. Follow Deep South Voice on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @deepsouthvoice.