The Racist Roots of the Nullification Movement

In his recently published book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, historian Tom Woods, a senior fellow at the right wing economic think tank Ludwig van Mises Institute located in Alabama, maintains that the states have the power to nullify laws that in their estimation exceed the powers of Congress granted by the Constitution to enact.

In a segment that also included Monica Crowley, a nationally syndicated radio host and television commentator, as well as Professor Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at the Georgetown University Law Center, last week on Fox's Freedom Watch programme with Judge Andrew Napolitano, the question was asked (at the 2:05 mark) by Judge Napolitano as to why today when people make the argument for nullification the specter of racism is inevitably raised by "liberals and big government types."

I'm not sure I follow Dr. Woods' rambling response that attempted to tie those of us opposed to the view that states have a right to trump Federal law to Adolf Hitler but since he chose not answer Judge Napolitano's question, I will.

The reason we "liberals and big government types" raise the specter of racism is because the last time the nullification argument was raised came in response to the 1954 Supreme Court landmark decision Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that ruled that separate-but-equal public school facilities were unconstitutional. The response in Southern states, where segregation was a God-ordained way of life, was an attempt to nullify the decision and prevent the Federal government from enacting any laws that might impede on white Southerners self-proclaimed right to discriminate against American citizens.

Even before the Supreme Court handed down its decision on May 17, 1954, a day that Southern segregationists still refer to as Black Monday, several Southern legislators had begun legal maneuvers to forestall school integration. And then after the decision was rendered, four Southern States - Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama - went as far as to abolish or defund all or part of their public school systems. In Georgia, the state legislature passed a bill that made it a felony for any state or local school board official to spend any money on an integrated school. In Louisiana, the state legislature attempted to circumvent the decision by passing a law that allowed school officials to sort students by "achievement levels." And in both North Carolina and Florida, laws were enacted to prohibit employment of teachers who advocated for integration.

Meanwhile white Southerners responded by organizing into a new movement called Citizens' Councils -- a forerunner of today's Tea Party movement. The inspirational leader of this movement was a circuit court judge from Mississippi named Tom P. Brady. In the aftermath of the decision, Judge Brady wrote a pamphlet entitled Black Monday. Here's his view on blacks:

Why was it that the negro was unable and failed to evolve and develop? Water does not rise above its source, and the negro could not by his inherent qualities rise above his environment as had other races. His inheritance is wanting. The potential did not exist. This is neither right or wrong; it is simply a stubborn biological fact.

Judge Brady's Black Monday pamphlet was a call to arms. "If in one mighty voice we do not protest this travesty on justice, we might as well surrender," Brady went on to write. Among the proposals that Brady advocated were the abolition of the public school system and the creation of a separate black homeland. And in keeping with a historical running theme among the racist right, Brady blamed the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision on a "socialist conspiracy."

Among those who responded to Brady's clarion but racist call was Robert P. Patterson of Indianola, Mississippi. A plantation manager in that Mississippi delta town, Patterson organized the local business community and formed the first Citizens' Council in July 1954. Originally he called it White Citizens' Councils but in an effort for respectability, the "white" was dropped and a geographical prefix was added. Nonetheless, the aim of these groups was to preserve the Southern way of life. Among the early supporters of the effort was Mississippi Senator James Eastland, a staunch segregationist.

Still these Citizens' Councils might not have gone anywhere but for the fact in 1956 the Mississippi state legislature formed the State Sovereignty Commission. The Sovereignty Commission contributed funds to the Citizens' Councils and formed a covert network that tracked blacks and whites. Blacks in favor of integration or seen trying to register black voters would lose their jobs, their homes, even their lives. White businessmen would face boycotts and politicians would lose votes if they were believed to be sympathetic to African Americans' efforts at integration.

Patterson also was a prolific writer publishing annual reports and a large number of brochures. By 1956, Patterson had developed an eight point platform that today would easily read as a Tea Party/Nullification manifesto.

From the preface:

The wheel of federal oppression has many spokes. Beginning with a slow roll in the thirties, it gathered speed and power through the forties and fifties. It now threatens to wipe out the individual will to resist and to grind us to grist for a greedy, socialist-minded dictatorship in Washington.

Throw in an Obama or two and you've brought it up to date. The eight point platform goes on to affirm the integrity of the Constitution as it was originally drafted, to call for a return to "moral law," for "halting the present trend of national leadership toward socialism," to "resist the growing tendency of the federal government to foist 'benefits' upon a large segment of our populace at the price of federal control," and to reaffirm "the sovereignty of the states."

Through the mid 1980s, the group published a monthly magazine called The Citizens' Council. In their first issue, the group endorsed a resolution of "interposition" that was proposed by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the then Mississippi Congressman John Bell Williams (he was later Governor) and Judge Tom Brady. Interposition is the doctrine that a state has the legal right to nullify a Federal law. It is this that ties the nullification movement to a racist past.

These Citizens' Councils remain active though they have now transformed themselves into the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that promotes "the interests of European Americans" and is now based in St. Louis. If you so chose, you can glance at their now 14 principles and decide for yourselves whether they are racist or not.


A note on sources: If you are interested Sara Diamond's The Road to Dominion: Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, Neil McMillan's The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction 1954-1964 and Leonard Zeskind's Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream have more detail on the Citizens' Councils and their espousal of the doctrine of interposition. These works were the sources of this essay.

Tags: US History, Right Wing Movements, Racism in the United States, nullification (all tags)



RE: The Racist Roots of the Nullification Movement

Wow, John C. Calhoun lives! The Confederacy is alive and well and living in the minds of historians who don't know much about history. The reason the Nullification Doctrine is associated with racism is that it IS racist, i.e., it has traditionally been used to legitimize State-sponsored racism. In the 1780s, adoption of the Constitution was opposed by the anti-federalists because they believed -- correctly --that the Supremacy Clause in Article VI would give the Federal government the power to enact statutes abolishing slavery. Later, the doctrine was revived by John C. Calhoun as a justification for opposing the growing anti-slavery sentiment in Congress. Eventually, the Southern States used this as a justification for secession. And a century later, this same argument was adopted by Southern governors such as George Wallace and Orville Faubus to defend their opposition to Federal efforts to end segregation.  In short, since the beginning of the American Republic, every time the nullification argument has been raised, it has been used to justify legalized, institutionalized, State-sanctioned discrimination. And every time this argument has been raised, it has lost. Earth to teabaggers, get over it -- the laws of the federal government are, and will continue to be "the supreme law of the land."


by fradiavolo 2010-07-10 09:19AM | 1 recs
Thanks for this review of southern racism since 1954. We periodically need to be reminded of what we are up against.

Although I believe that the racist card has shifted to Hispanics, and that the White Citizen's Council and its transformations has pretty much devolved into a NeoNazi minority, the Republican party and the Tea Partiers alike depend on white supremacy as its core belief. It is something that we need to understand if we are going to change this country, at last.


by MainStreet 2010-07-10 12:12PM | 0 recs
Nullification is not racist by definition, only by association.

Nullification has been used by racists and white supremacists in the past for various nefarious purposes, but that does not mean that the entire principle of nullification is racist by definition.  It has been cast in that light by pundits, but to say that all who support nullification do so intending to roll back civil rights is irresponsible at best, and sinister at worst.

The practice was used to nullify fugitive slave laws in northern states prior to the Civil War, and is also being used today in states that allow Medical Marijuana despite federal law prohibiting its use and denying its medical value.  The idea that the federal government is the single arbiter in determining what is constitutional is absurd.  Progressives should not react like this to nullification.  It will be possible in the future just for a Conservative Theocrat to come to power in this country, and Nullification would be a method that could be used to stop the encroachment of the Government on civil liberties.  States have a right to resist when the federal government oversteps its constitutional authority.  In fact, following the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris, the 13 states were recognized as independent nations.  They later formed the federal government via the constitution to be there agent in assisting with common goals.  The federal government was never intended to turn states into subservient vassals in the federal fiefdom.

by Jake Barnett 2010-07-10 05:56PM | 0 recs
these self-styled constitutional scholars

on the right are so weird. I recently learned that the Republican Party of Iowa adopted a plank in the platform calling for the "original" 13th amendment to be ratified. This was the Titles of Nobility Act of 1810--apparently there's a cottage industry on how it should be considered ratified.

by desmoinesdem 2010-07-10 09:04PM | 0 recs


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