Mothers of Massive Resistance: A Review

By Emily Spezia-Shwiff

            Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae focuses on the movement white women founded during the 20thcentury to resist desegregation. Gillespie McRae argues that white women decided to advocate for preservation of segregated schools for the sake of their children, invoking white motherhood as the source of their inspiration and tool of resistance. She states that previous scholarship looked at resistance to the desegregation movement top-down, focusing on the legislative and judicial system rather than the grassroots massive resistance movement. White women were key players in both fields but were especially prominent and essential in the grassroots movement. 

Gillespie McRae cites the stories and words of many women through her book, including Florence Sillers Ogden, Mary Dawson Cain, Cornelia Dabney Tucker, and Nell Battle Lewis (236). These women, especially Florence Sillers Ogden, wrote many newspaper columns that illustrate their points of the rhetoric of massive resistance. Gillespie McRae shows how white women relied on the public school system to educate her children on the principles of white supremacy and to teach them how to act as the superior race in their everyday lives.

            A large part of Gillespie McRae’s argument is that white women “defend[ed] segregation in the name of white motherhood” (133). She argues that white southern women leaders used “white motherhood” to convince other women to join their movement. They also used the concept to justify their actions to themselves and the public. These actions included regulating how history was portrayed in the public school textbooks (naming the Civil War as the “War among the States,” claiming that the cause of the war was disagreements over states’ rights, putting a lot of the blame of the war on Abraham Lincoln, limiting the amount of Black history present, etc.), resisting school integration, and later resisting the busing movement. These women believed that segregation was God’s will (Gillespie McRae 171) and that they must defend it to follow that will and to protect their children. They resisted through public protest, petitions, in-person appeals to the legislature, campaigning for electoral candidates, and writing newspaper essays and editorial letters advocating the preservation of segregation. These efforts were considerable, affecting the landscape of the South and the ability to implement desegregation.

            While Gillespie McRae does a good job of detailing the white mothers’ movement, she fails to consider the role of Black motherhood and how this movement affected Black families. She left out the voice of Black mothers. Gillespie McRae does discuss how the moment affected Black history, such as the manipulation of textbooks to erase Black history (Gillespie McRae 58), but she does not discuss how Black families reacted to this movement and how/if they responded. Though this book focuses on white mother’s resistance to desegregation, it would have added a layer to her narrative to include how Black mothers reacted to this movement and whether they acted. It is unlikely that Black women watched these protests without any response. Considering how vocal Black people were in discussing Brown v Board of Education, both in print and in speeches, it is unlikely they did not engage with the white mothers’ protest of massive resistance.

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