David L. Chappell, Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 1996

The following is a book review of David L. Chappell’s, Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 1996. This book review examines Chappell’s argument of how the white south was divided, and how black southerners were able to take advantage of these white divisions in order to advance civil rights.

David L. Chappell, Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 1996

Book Review by Tom White

 David L. Chappell’s Inside Agitators, is a fascinating examination of how the civil rights movement was able to “sway a southern white majority, and eventually an apathetic national population, a reluctant Congress, and a temporizing federal executive…”[1] in order to advance its own agenda of rapid de-segregation in the south. Chappell examines how the disenfranchised black minority, who were outspent, outvoted, and outgunned, were able to exploit the divisions which existed within the white population in order to advance the civil rights agenda. Chappell’s examination focuses on how black southern leaders through a careful understanding of past history, were able to use many of the same arguments of past southern dissenters such as Atticus Greene Haygood, Lewis Harvie Blair, and George Washington Cable in order to develop a strategy that would “take advantage of the subtle, shifting divisions among their white southern neighbors.”[2] The south of the civil rights era of the 1950’s -60’s was comprised of “three kinds of white people…extreme segregationists, who were willing to fight; middle-roaders who favored segregation but would sooner see it destroyed than to take personal risks to defend it; and the tiny minority who would…support action to undermine segregation.”[3] The central argument of Chappell’s Inside Agitators is that southern leaders were able to exploit the divisions within the “three tiered pattern”[4] of white opinion by appealing to their different self-interests, desires for social peace, and even their sense of morality.

Southern leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s realized that they themselves were responsible for changing southern race relations, that previous attempts by white dissenters alone resulted in only token gains. In order to have any success at ending segregation, black civil right leaders must be able to overcome white resistance. In order to overcome this resistance it was imperative for the civil rights movement to understand the white majority, since this was the group the movement depended on “for changing national policy as well as local practices.”[5] Black leaders in the South were careful to learn from the previous efforts of white dissenters and “learned not to repeat the[ir] mistakes”[6], while at the same being careful to study what strategies showed promise.

The white population within the south fell within a three tiered pattern, with one tier representing a small percentage of whites willing to actively support de-segregation. This group was supportive, providing many of the practical necessities which the civil rights movement needed, such as legal training, money, and social connections. The other end of the tier was comprised of hard line segregationists who were willing by any means such as bombing, violence, and social disorder to undermine any de-segregation attempts. It was the white majority or middle roaders, however, that the civil rights sought to divide or separate from the extremist right in order to advance de-segregation. Civil Rights leaders understood that the white majority that comprised the middle tier were comprised of southerners who were opposed or indifferent to segregation, and that the same arguments employed in the past by dissenters such as Atticus Greene Haygood, Lewis Harvie Blair, and George Washington Cable could be used again.

Civil rights leaders utilizing the same argument from past dissenters as part of their strategy, appealed to the economic self-interests of the middle tiered white population, making the argument that segregation was simply bad for business, an argument which would prove a pivotal part of future campaigns. The movement’s strategy was intended to show that the enforcement of segregation, and the terrorist tactics used by hardcore segregationists was having a negative effect on the local economy, on social peace and would result in middle roaders breaking ranks with the segregationist tier. Civil rights leaders also understood the power of boycotts and protests, and that by engaging in these activities the very social peace and economic development that “segregation was designed to establish”[7], would be exposed as a fallacy. Once this fallacy was exposed, many within the white majority who were not steadfast in their commitment, such as local businessmen, would realize that enforcing segregation led to disorder and that under pressure they would break ranks, and seek negotiation. Southern campaign cities such as Montgomery, Alabama, Tallahassee, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas would serve as proving grounds for the movement’s strategy aimed at separating the white majority from the segregationists, and that white middle roaders would be instrumental in negotiating de-segregation.

The first civil rights era campaign in Chappell’s Inside Agitators which illustrates the movement’s strategy of dividing the white majority from the segregationists was Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery found itself in a busing boycott in 1955 as a result of a defiant Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. From the beginning of the Montgomery campaign, the civil rights movement was able to count on support from whites who were sympathetic to the cause. Individuals such as the Reverend Glen Smiley and Bayard Rustin proved instrumental by indoctrinating “ the ranks in the principles of nonviolent warfare”[8], while other sympathetic whites such as Clifford and Virginia Durr provided legal counsel. Utilizing white dissenters in a support role, the movement’s leaders set their sights on targeting the white majority.

One of the points that Chappell discusses in the Montgomery campaign that worked to the advantage of the movement is that “segregation could not command whole hearted moral support”[9], because to do so was often difficult, and insulting to both black and white alike. As the busing boycott continued and remained in the headlines, often as a result of the extreme segregationist actions, white businessmen began to feel the economic pressure. The “white businessmen of Montgomery were vulnerable to bad publicity”[10] that both the segregationists and the movement was generating, they needed an out.

The movement’s task became finding a “weak point in the segregationist armor and pounding away at it.”[11] The movement used the extreme militant response of the segregationist faction which underestimated the movement and the white community to their advantage, by exposing their violent tactics to the rest of the country using the news media. The desperate racist ideology and actions of the segregationists, which were now being viewed on television sets throughout the country, actually “helped embolden and solidify the movement’s appeal to southern whites in general”[12] who wished to further distance themselves from this group. The white majority, who were not fully committed to segregation, capitulated to the movement’s strategy which targeted economic self-interest, and exposed the violent tactics used by militant segregationists. Both of these actions had the effect of dividing the white community, and forcing a settlement on segregation, making it “clear enough to white southerners that segregation …was not living up to its promise.”[13]

Two other southern campaign cities Chappell examines in which the civil rights movement made significant inroads were Tallahassee, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas. In Tallahassee, movement leaders encountered “the same three-tiered pattern in white opinion”[14] that was present in Montgomery. The middle tier had been essentially silent regarding the de-segregation issue, and according to Chappell “this silence practically guaranteed the emergence of the kind of black militant leadership that had emerged in Montgomery.”[15] Beginning with a bus boycott, movement leaders went about employing a similar strategy that was used in Montgomery, intended to sway the white majority from the segregationist fringe.

Tallahassee’s segregationist white leadership was aimless and seemed “to encourage vigilantism” which easily resulted in alienating the white majority from the militant segregationists. The extreme tactics of the segregationists, which included violence “struck a chord in those white citizens who wanted to see an end to violence and disorder”[16], and reinforced the idea to the white majority that segregation was a lost cause. The movement’s non-violent protest strategy exposed the ugly face of segregation for what it was, and this action effectively divided the white majority who were more deeply divided than Montgomery. The outcry from the white majority finally prompted Florida Governor Collins to step into the fray “convinced that the average white citizen did not object to non-segregated seating on a bus…or riding in the elevator…or patronizing the same stores.”[17] The intervention of the Governor not only ended the bus boycott, but resulted in Governor Collins “taking precisely the line that the NAACP”[18] leadership had advocated all along, which was an end to obstructionist segregation.

In Little Rock, Arkansas the same strategy of division which worked in both Montgomery and Tallahassee was employed here as well. Chappell describes the segregation struggle of Little Rock as not “merely black against white but one kind of white person against another.”[19] Arkansas had already been engaged in desegregation to a great degree, but it had been a gradual process. The civil rights movement was not interested in some form of gradual or token segregation, but instead wanted to see desegregation accelerated, beginning with Little Rock schools. The movement, as it had in both Montgomery and Tallahassee, was dealing with an entrenched segregationist faction that was “well known to the black community; their vulnerabilities and self-delusions were well understood.”[20] As they had successfully done in previous campaigns, the movement’s leadership sought through non-violent confrontation to expose the segregationist’s propensity toward unorganized violence, which served to drive a dividing wedge between the segregationists and the white majority. The movement’s disciplined strategy as had been the case in previous campaigns, soon forced a confrontation with the white Arkansas leadership. The leadership which was pressured through a combination of both federal intervention and the white majority was finally forced to end segregation.

The civil rights movement leadership understood the white southern community probably better than they understood themselves. Movement leadership operating on shoe string budgets, along with cadres of volunteers were able to effectively use their knowledge of the white citizenry through a strategy of non-violent confrontation and economic pressuring, dividing the southern white populace. The discipline, moral and political strategy of the movement exposed the impracticality of trying to maintain segregation, proving that the very things that segregation was intended to provide, namely social order and prosperity simply did not exist. Chappell’s Inside Agitators makes a very compelling argument by illustrating how the civil rights movement was able to exploit the differences which existed within the three tiered white population, and by doing so were able to make huge inroads in eliminating segregation within the south.


[1] David L. Chappell, Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 142

[2] Ibid, 212

[3] Ibid, xxiv

[4] Chappell, Inside Agitators, 84

[5] Ibid, xxiii

[6] Ibid, 49

[7] Chappell, Inside Agitators, 213

[8] Chappell, Inside Agitators, 59

[9] Ibid, 63

[10] Ibid, 73

[11] Ibid, 74

[12] Ibid, 75

[13] Chappell, Inside Agitators, 82

[14] Ibid, 84

[15] Ibid, 86

[16] Ibid, 92

[17] Chappell, Inside Agitators, 94

[18] Ibid, 96

[19] Ibid, 99

[20] Ibid, 121

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