Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University 2004

The following is a book review of Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University 2004.

Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University 2004

Book Review by Tom White

Jeff Woods’ Black Struggle, Red Scare focuses upon one of the most turbulent periods in civil rights history, the South of the 1950’s and sixties. A central point of Woods’ theme is a phenomenon which Woods calls “southern nationalism.”[1] Southern nationalism according to Woods was the desire to protect the “southern way of life”[2] A life which stood in direct defiance to national authority and at its core was grounded in the firm belief of white supremacy. The south during this turbulent period was predisposed to the communist Cold War hysteria which also gripped the rest of the country. International communism had already made great victories in China, Cuba, and the Soviets had also launched a spacecraft into space in 1957. Adding to the communist fervor gripping the South was the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 which was followed by the Eisenhower administration’s decision to send federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. The south prior to this time period had pretty much been given a free hand in maintaining a racially separate society, but now felt their way of life threatened by federal intervention. The main argument of Jeff Woods’ Black Struggle, Red Scare, centers on how southern nationalists seized upon the communist fervor gripping America, and then sought to link this anti-communism with the civil rights movement as means of discrediting the movement.

Southern nationalists, fearing that a “groundswell of local black activism”[3] threatened their concept of southern democracy, responded with a campaign of legislation, investigations, half-truths, and infiltrations all designed to harass civil rights organizations. Woods argues that southern nationalists “using House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as models…converted and constructed law-enforcement agencies to pursue subversives in the civil rights movement.”[4] The idea behind this strategy was that civil rights organizations would be forced to spend so much of their time and valuable resources defending themselves from claims of communist infiltration, that they would no longer be able to pursue black civil liberties or de-segregation lawsuits.

Woods contends that one individual who probably had the most significant impact in the southern nationalist’s campaign of red baiting was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, an individual with strong “segregationist convictions”[5], inspired the “network of red and black investigators.”[6] Under Hoover’s direction the FBI was relentless in its investigations of civil rights organizations, paying particularly close attention to the NAACP. Hoover, like the southern nationalists he inspired, shared much in common with their segregation ideologies including a stance against mixed marriage and education. Woods contends that “southern state law enforcement agencies mirrored the activities of the federal Bureau throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.”[7] The FBI also shared with these state agencies any material real or suspected, which linked civil rights groups with those of communists. What made the involvement of the FBI’s involvement all the more damaging in the southern red scare was the fact that the FBI was considered the most elite investigative force in the country, and by implying a red link to civil rights groups the implication of such a claim became all the more devastating.

Another tactic employed by Southern nationalists was the use of propaganda to try to smear civil rights groups and sway public opinion. Southern nationalists relied upon a network of “newspapers, radio programs, and television shows”[8] throughout the south all aimed at warning southern Americans about the communist conspiracy which was driving the civil rights movement. One group in particular was the Citizens’ Councils, which pulled out all stops in trying to get their red scare message across. The Citizens’ Councils as part of a smear campaign went so far as to print in their 1961 copy of the Citizens’ Council periodical, that the Congress of Racial Equality’s “rider invasion”[9] were intrinsically linked to the communist party, and also the freedom riders were “doing Khrushchev’s work.”[10] This smear campaign by southern nationalists didn’t stop with just civil rights groups, but included anyone who promoted de-segregation, including the Kennedy administration.  Citizens’ Councils tried to link the Kennedy administration with communist Cuba because of its support of desegregation, and did this by printing up bumper stickers and circulating cartoons with captions that read “the Castro brothers have moved into the White House…Battle of Ole Miss: Kennedy’s Hungry, and Brotherhood by the Bayonet.”[11] Southern nationalists used propaganda in an attempt to influence public opinion and to pressure organizations including the Kennedy administration so that it would back away from their de-segregation positions.

Other prominent southern nationalist figures who were successful in keeping the link of communism infiltration with the civil rights movement in the forefront were people like Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace went on record stating that he resented the continued “fawning and pawing over such people as Martin Luther King and his pro-Communist friends and associates.”[12] Wallace was not alone in his sentiments as South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond also echoed a similar communist claim, despite the objections of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy who was on record stating that “the government had no evidence that any of the top leaders of the major civil rights groups are Communists.”[13]

Southern nationalist elected officials did much more than publicly link the civil rights movement to communism; they also engaged in a legalistic strategy enacting “so called” anti-communism legislation, whose real intention was designed to maintain white supremacy within the south. Chief amongst this group of legislators were Mississippi Senator James Eastland, Louisiana Senator Willie Rainach, and Georgia Congressman James Davis who were successful during the 1950’s in pushing through legislation which defied the Supreme Court’s ruling aimed at “establishing police enforced segregation in the state’s schools”[14]and they accomplished this by linking de-segregation to the “carpetbag NAACP”[15], an alleged communist controlled organization. Southern nationalist leaders were relentless in their efforts, which was aimed particularly at the NAACP whose “primary focus was preventing segregation in the south by discrediting the NAACP.”[16] The legalistic strategy employed by southern nationalists had gained in momentum during the 1950’s. In fact according to Woods “by the end of 1956, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi had all instituted laws and investigations designed to harass the NAACP while Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas succeeded in banning the organization’s actions outright.”[17] Southern nationalists all over the region never missed a beat using the communist scare strategy to their every advantage. Following the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, southern nationalists were quite successful in inciting popular communist fears in order to advance segregation policy, by also blaming it for a whole myriad of unrelated social, economic and political issues.

In the end however the southern nationalist strategy aimed at preserving segregation and their “southern way of life”[18] was ultimately unsuccessful. Although southern nationalists as Woods points out had “come closer than ever to creating a southern red scare that would capture middle America”[19], their failure can be measured by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southern nationalists had for a period of time been quite effective in hindering the advancement of civil rights in America, by linking it to the hysteria which gripped so much of America during the early stages of the Cold War. Martin Luther King testified to this fact during his testimony at the U.S. Court Appeals in Washington during the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) case in 1964. During King’s testimony he talked about the toll that state harassment had taken on the civil rights movement stating “the fear of such possible [communist] accusations, regardless of their lack of basis in fact, effectively deters many who would otherwise be disposed to participate (in integration activities)…”[20] However, social attitudes began to change in the south by the time Richard Nixon won the presidency. Many of the former leaders of the southern nationalist movement had died or retired, and with their departures the investigative powers of HUAC’s and Citizens’ Councils also waned. By 1975 Congress abolished HUAC, and the Senate had ended the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). The Pike Committee which convened during the 1975 time period discredited many of the federal investigative agencies which were involved, going so far as to state that “the FBI record on secret activities demonstrated a ‘pattern of reckless disregard of activities that threatened our constitutional system.”[21] As America entered into a period of Cold War détente, marked by normalized relations between China and the Soviet Union the very issues with which southern nationalists had built their communist linked strategy became no longer relevant. Although the southern nationalist agenda did experience a certain amount of limited success by bottling up the resources of civil rights groups through harassment and intimidation, they ultimately lost their one major battle which was to preserve a white supremacist society.


Woods, Jeff. Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2004.

[1] Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2004), 2

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, 85

[4] Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare, 85

[5] Ibid, 91

[6] Ibid, 86

[7] Ibid, 93

[8] Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare, 143

[9] Ibid, 149

[10] Ibid, 152

[11] Ibid, 155

[12] Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare, 175

[13] Ibid,176

[14] Ibid, 57

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid, 60

[17] Ibid, 68

[18] Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare, 257

[19] Ibid, 197

[20] Ibid, 193

[21] Numan Bartley, The New South, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995) pp.406-416, in Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2004), 257

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