Date of Award

1-1-2011

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

History

First Advisor

Patricia A Sullivan

Abstract

During the 1950s and 1960s, the nation viewed Mississippi as the 'most terrible place in America,' known for mobs, kidnappings, and lynchings. Due to this well-publicized violence, many regarded all white Mississippians as the same--violent, backward, and racist. The period from 1944 to 1964, with Theodore Bilbo's race-baiting Senate campaign, formation of the Citizens' Council, lynching of Emmett Till, rioting in Oxford, assassination of Medgar Evers, and murder of three civil rights workers, the state certainly earned this reputation. Singer Nina Simone insisted that 'everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!,' but this dissertation reveals that there is much that we did not know about the state during the pivotal civil rights years. In the process of telling this familiar story, many previous studies oversimplified segregationists and, in the process, missed a great deal. By studying white Mississippi press coverage, this work reveals a more nuanced response than the popular stereotype suggests, exposing multi-faceted, complex, and conflicting opinions on race in this often-misunderstood state. By analyzing the media produced by white Mississippians for white Mississippians, one can understand how 'normal' people understood the racial crisis consuming their state.

For much of the twentieth century, Mississippi was a "closed society" that stubbornly defended the "southern way of life." The loudest voices in the press fit this description with their frequent attacks on blacks and the "Yankee" federal government. They were not the only voices, however, because Mississippi had a host of progressive editors that fought against the "closed society" mentality, with three Pulitzer Prize winners and a few other astonishingly moderate racial voices. This dissertation presents the dominant hard-line segregationist thought, as well as this small band of courageous editors that tried to see Mississippi through the darkness, enduring burning crosses and boycotts for their unpopular stands. Mississippi is far too complex for clear-cut villains and heroes, however, as even the most open-minded voices sometimes lapsed into southern defensivism. This is what makes Mississippi so intriguing, as it shows a state wrestling with what it meant to be white, southern, and American, and its trying struggle during the civil rights years shows why the state fought the losing battle for so long.

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