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Who opposed the civil rights movement?

The civil rights movement refers to the struggle by African Americans and their allies to end institutionalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and racial segregation in the United States from the 1950s to the late 1960s. This movement sought to secure equal rights and opportunities for African Americans in voting, education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and more.

While the civil rights movement had many supporters, it also faced significant opposition from various groups and individuals who wanted to maintain the status quo of racial inequality. Opponents of the movement came from all walks of life and all parts of the country, but were united in their commitment to upholding segregation and white supremacy.

Southern Segregationists

Some of the staunchest opponents of civil rights were white segregationist politicians concentrated mainly in the South. These included governors, members of Congress, state and local officials who utilized their power to block civil rights reforms and maintain Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation.

Key segregationist politicians included:

  • Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who literally stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in 1963 to prevent black students from enrolling.
  • Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who called out the state National Guard in 1957 to prevent black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School.
  • Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who staged a 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and was a founder of the pro-segregation States’ Rights Democratic Party.
  • Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, a plantation owner who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and blocked many civil rights bills.
  • Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, who strongly resisted the court-ordered integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962.

These politicians upheld segregation through parliamentary maneuvers, laws, arresting civil rights activists, and at times ordering violent crackdowns on protestors. They appealed to racist sentiment among some white Southerners who feared black equality and elites who wanted to maintain their privileged status.

Citizens’ Councils

The Citizens’ Councils movement emerged in many Southern communities in response to school desegregation efforts following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. These local groups intimidated civil rights activists through tactics like threatening their jobs, withdrawing mortgages, publishing their names and addresses, and at times violent retaliation.

At their peak in the late 1950s, there were Citizens’ Council chapters in hundreds of counties across the South. The Councils were made up of middle and upper class whites determined to stall integration by any means necessary. Prominent business owners, bankers, lawyers, judges, newspaper editors and politicians joined or supported the Councils.

Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group with a history extending back to the 19th century, experienced a resurgence of activity and membership during the civil rights era. The Klan used cross burnings, bombings, murders, beatings and other forms of racial terror to intimidate African Americans and civil rights workers.

High profile racist murders committed by Klan members include:

  • The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
  • The 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young black girls attending Sunday school.
  • The 1964 murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive.

Klan groups operated with impunity in many Southern communities due to the complicity of local law enforcement and supportive public officials.

White Citizens’ Councils

The White Citizens’ Councils were similar to the Citizens’ Councils but on a regional rather than local level. These groups were made up of elected officials, business elites, publishers, lawyers, judges, plantation owners and other community leaders.

While less openly violent than the KKK, the White Citizens’ Council used their money, power and influence to deny employment, credit or public services to black citizens in order to deter them from registering to vote or participating in integration efforts. Members called for economic retaliation against civil rights advocates. The Councils helped coordinate massive resistance efforts across state lines.

John Birch Society

The John Birch Society, founded in 1958, opposed civil rights reforms as part of a broader far-right agenda. The anti-communist group attacked the civil rights movement as a tool of Soviet Russia designed to destabilize the U.S. and incite revolution.

The group sponsored billboards, radio ads and mailings calling the push for civil rights a communist plot. Society founder Robert Welch and other leaders charged that important civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. were communists. They worked to block civil rights progress through grassroots campaigns.

National States’ Rights Party

The National States’ Rights Party, a white supremacist group founded in 1958, opposed integration and the civil rights movement. Members wore paramilitary uniforms displaying the Confederate battle flag and Nazi symbols.

Party leaders advocated for racial segregation and the rollback of perceived federal overreach on civil rights issues. They used racist rhetoric depicting African Americans as intellectually and morally inferior. Members harassment and intimidation of civil rights activists often turned violent.

Police Forces

Many Southern police forces worked to suppress civil rights activism, break up protests and marches, and enforce Jim Crow laws in oppressive ways. Police frequently stood by as mobs attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators. They rarely intervened even when protesters were badly beaten.

Police forces arrested civil rights leaders on dubious charges, refused to protect black neighborhoods and civil rights offices from bombings and shootings, and at times actively collaborated with the KKK and Citizens’ Councils. Brutal police tactics in response to sit-ins, Freedom Rides and protest marches drew national attention and outrage.

Conservative Republicans

While more liberal Republicans helped pass landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the conservative wing of the GOP opposed these efforts. They charged civil rights bills violated principles of small government, states’ rights and individual liberties.

Key Republican opponents of civil rights initiatives included:

  • Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on libertarian grounds.
  • California Governor Ronald Reagan, who denounced civil rights “extremists” and welfare programs benefitting minorities.
  • Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who directed police to use force against civil rights protestors outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

These leaders capitalized on white resentment over civil rights gains to court Southern white voters and make Republican inroads in the South.

George Wallace and the American Independent Party

After losing his first bid for Alabama governor in 1958 to a more openly racist KKK-endorsed candidate, George Wallace adopted a hardline stance against integration to cement his position as a defender of segregation.

Wallace famously declared “segregation forever” at his 1963 inaugural and backed his words through policies aimed at denying equal rights. After term limits forced him from office in 1966, he ran for president under the newly formed American Independent Party centered around opposition to civil rights reforms, states’ rights and law and order themes.

Wallace carried five Southern states and won 13% of the popular vote in 1968, attracting conservative Democrats alienated by civil rights legislation and Supreme Court rulings. This demonstrated the appeal of backlash politics premised on resistance to integration and racial progress.

Southern Democrats

Southern Democrats in Congress united to obstruct civil rights legislation, even when their Northern counterparts helped push it forward. Southern caucuses in the House and Senate used filibusters, amendments and holds to delay or dilute bills banning discrimination and protecting voting rights.

When Lyndon Johnson pioneered landmark civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, most Southern Democrats strongly opposed these bills and voted against them. Over time, many switched parties and became Republicans due to anger over civil rights stances taken by Democratic presidents and congressional leaders.

White Supremacist Groups

A network of white supremacist organizations across the South opposed racial integration and black advancement through an array of violent and non-violent strategies. These included the White Citizens’ Councils, the National States’ Rights Party and groups like the National Renaissance Party and the American Nazi Party on the most extreme end.

While differing in tactics from open racism to cloaked language about heritage and states’ rights, these groups shared the common goal of maintaining white hegemony and preventing equal civil rights. Their theories of black inferiority fueled hostility toward the civil rights movement’s efforts to dismantle segregation and barriers to opportunity.

White Moderates

While not actively racist, many white moderates in the South and across the U.S. opposed drastic efforts to correct civil rights abuses and achieve racial justice. MLK Jr. wrote from Birmingham jail that he found white moderates more frustrating than extremists because “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.”

These moderates prioritized order over justice. They criticized direct action tactics as extreme and called for glacially-paced change, if any. Their stance helped perpetuate systems of inequality amidst calls for meaningful reform. According to King, their preference for negative peace over justice allowed discrimination to persist.


The civil rights movement faced resistance from a wide array of opponents across the South and America. Segregationist politicians enacted laws obstructing integration and restricting black voting rights. Citizens’ Councils used intimidation to punish civil rights advocates. Police forces repressed activists, while white supremacist groups targeted them with violence. Conservative Republicans opposed civil rights reforms as federal overreach, as did Southern Democrats in Congress.

Despite this resistance, a grassroots civil rights coalition persisted through protests, legal challenges, lobbying and nonviolent activism. Their efforts turned the tide against institutionalized segregation and racial discrimination, leading to landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s banning discrimination and protecting minority voting rights. But the struggle for true racial equality and justice continues decades later against enduring bigotry and structural barriers.