In the fall of 1954, tensions were rising in Mississippi. The Supreme Court had decided Brown v Board in May, and NAACP chapters around the state were preparing to bring school desegregation suits. Meanwhile, the first White Citizens’ Councils–determined to uphold segregation–had already formed and were on their way to spreading throughout the South.
In October, Byron De La Beckwith of Greenwood, Mississippi, wrote to Senator John Stennis urging him to stand strong against the forces of integration:
This is to let you know that I insist that you openly, clearly, and definitely fight and destroy all those persons in any way connected with integration. Segregation must be maintained at all cost & with any means we find most expedient. I pledge my life to maintain segregation. We must…destroy all those associated with integration.¹
Stennis lamely replied, “Dear Friend Beckwith, I certainly appreciate your letter in which you so forcefully expressed your views on segregation.” It was Stennis’s custom to indulge the violent fantasies of his white constituents with formulaic friendly replies, as he did on this occasion. In contrast, when the NAACP wrote to him, he studiously ignored their queries. In February of 1960 the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP asked Stennis to do something about the Citizens’ Councils:
We want to be free. We want the truth to be known about the Negro in Mississippi. All Negroes are entitled to equal justice, many of whom are afraid to voice their sentiments because of economic reprisals sinfully heaped upon them by their white employers. They are afraid to speak the convictions of their souls because of the hate virus spread by the White Citizens Council and similar organizations. May we impress upon you, Mr. Stennis that America cannot maintain its great heritage with its citizens half free and half slaves?²
As usual, Stennis did not respond to his black constituents. After all, he was busy supporting the Citizens’ Councils behind the scenes. He understood, correctly, that the NAACP was a mortal threat to the white supremacy he held dear.
Though the NAACP by the 1950s and 1960s already had a reputation as the cautious and stodgy old guard of the civil rights movement, it played a crucial role in the struggle. Everyone from white terrorists to U.S. senators correctly perceived that the NAACP was one of their most dangerous opponents.
And so, in the summer of 1963, Byron De La Beckwith would finally make good on his violent intentions. He assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in the driveway of his own home.
Today, long after other civil rights organizations have faded, the NAACP is still around. And it’s still doing vital work, especially through the legal defense fund. The NAACP is at the forefront of efforts to protect voting rights and resist the resegregation of schools. Joining the NAACP adds your money (a small amount!) and name to the national clout of the organization, but it’s also a way to organize locally, as you can connect with the chapter in your area.
On this shameful day, as a barbarous administration comes to power, let’s take action. Do something positive. Join the NAACP. It–and you–will be needed in the years ahead.
¹Byron De La Beckwith to John C. Stennis, October 25, 1954. Series 29 Box 1 Folder 38. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.
²Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP to John C. Stennis, February 18, 1960, Series 29 Box 7 Folder 16. John C. Stennis Collection, Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.