In late 1956, over the course of several months, LIFE published what the magazine itself described as “a series of major articles on the background of the crisis brought about by the school segregation decision [Brown v. Board of Education] of the Supreme Court. . . . Although the ground that is to be covered in the series is not wholly new to Americans, it is unfamiliar as a subject of moderate and unprejudiced consideration.”
The series in question, ambitiously and simply titled The Background of Segregation, explored the emotionally and politically charged issue at a time when the Civil Rights movement was barely in its infancy. For one especially riveting (then, as now) segment of the monumental five-part series, “Voices of the White South,” LIFE dispatched the legendary Margaret Bourke-White to Greenville, South Carolina, where she documented citizens from varying walks of life who wholeheartedly—and unapologetically—supported the legacy and the practice of open, legal segregation.
Here, in striking color photographs that, at times, convey an unsettling intimacy, Bourke-White’s work opens a window on an era that, for better and for worse, helped define 20th-century America. There is courage to be found here, and dignity and a cruelty that—in the guise of a patronizing benevolence—shaped the destinies of black and white America for decades, and still echoes in our national conversation today.
The “Voices of the White South” article, which won praise and awards when published, was extraordinary for, among other things, the utterly non-sensational methodology and tone of its reportage. While much of the national debate over desegregation was dominated in the mid-1950s by the language and actions of strident and often hateful zealots, “Voices” was a measured take on the entire issue. Far from emphasizing its own pro-integrationist sensibility, LIFE allowed Southerners to discuss their own pro-segregationist views—in their own words, at length—and created a portrait of the South far more nuanced than the depiction usually found in the liberal “Yankee” press.
The article was not, in the end, an anti-segregationist screed, but instead an honest glimpse into the heart of a culture proud of its fraught heritage, and frightened of what the future might hold.
“Outside the South,” LIFE wrote, “the white Southerner who believes in segregation is sometimes pictured as a latter-day Simon Legree who now does with law what used to be done with a whip. If he no longer runs around wearing a bed sheet and setting fire to crosses, he doubtless belongs to a ‘Citizens Council,’ which Hodding Carter [then a prominent newspaper editor from Mississippi] has described as ‘the uptown Ku Klux Klan.’ There are Southerners who fit this picture, but there are many more who are thoughtful, pious gentlefolk—and who are still in favor of segregation.”
LIFE’s Dick Stolley, who would go on to become the magazine’s managing editor and the founding Managing Editor of People, among many other roles, worked on the Background of Segregation series as an Atlanta-based correspondent for the magazine. He told LIFE.com that, considering how despised the magazine was across the South for its solidly pro-integration editorial stance, he was “astonished at the time, and I remain astonished today, that I was able to find five Southern whites who were willing to talk to LIFE about their reasons for so adamantly opposing integration.”
While the “Voices” article was striking not only for its powerful color photographs and the (largely) subdued tenor of its language—especially in light of the politically and emotionally explosive nature of the topic at hand—a few of the observations made in the piece, encountered six decades later, are beyond jarring. Some of them, in fact—even when read with an awareness of the era in which they were written—are nothing less than shocking to contemporary ears. For example: “[Whites in the South] may call the Negro a ‘Nigra’ or a ‘nigger,'” LIFE bluntly noted at one point in the article, and followed this with the assertion that the same people who routinely use those inflammatory terms “have long since ceased meaning any harm or insult by it.”
LIFE reminded its readers that ex-Governor Herman Talmadge of Georgia was only one of countless prominent Southerners “who feel that segregation must be preserved.” Talmadge, LIFE wrote, believed that “to destroy segregation would be to destroy the South. . . .”
[His] viewpoint is traditional and has, in the eyes of many white Southerners, the honor that attaches to a great past. “God advocates segregation,” Governor Talmadge maintains. “There are five different races and God created them all different. He did not intend them to be mixed or He would not have separated or segregated them. Certainly history shows that nations composed of a mongrel race lose their strength and become weak, lazy and indifferent. They become easy prey to outside nations. And isn’t that just exactly what the Communists want to happen to the United States?” This is a viewpoint that has been expressed by generations of southern political leaders and remains widely accepted in the rural South today.
In the “Voices” article, a 38-year-old white sharecropper in North Carolina summed up his support of segregation and his views on his black neighbors and fellow farmers this way:
“We’re working to own our farm. We want to hurry up and get someplace. But they just don’t work. They just don’t care. All they’re looking for is the end of the week when the landlord will shoot ‘em a little money. [T]hey take a bath once a month, and their fields don’t look like they’s hardly tending them.” At the same time, according to LIFE, the sharecropper’s approval of segregation was “based as much, or more, on personal pride than notions of color. He would rather have a Negro living next door than he would a white ‘redneck’ or ‘peckerwood.’ In his view, ‘there’s nothing sorrier than a sorry white man.'”
The white sharecropper’s wife, LIFE wrote, “also approves of segregation and will not let her 9-year-old daughter play with an 8-year-old Negro neighbor. This is the reason she gives: ‘If our landlord came down here and saw her playing with a colored boy, he wouldn’t respect us. Only poor class whites do that. We’re trying to keep our self-respect and keep the highest level socially we can. We’re willing to work with the Negroes, but that’s as far as we’ll go.”
Another quote from the article that shares the sentiment and even the vocabulary of pronouncements that for decades have sent chills through men and women involved in the struggle for justice and equal rights came from Greenville’s white mayor, Kenneth Cass. “There is no race trouble here,” he told LIFE, “and there won’t be, unless an agitator comes in and stirs it up.”
One man quoted at some length in the “Voices” article was Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. “‘There are those who insist that segregation protects the ‘integrity’ of both races,” McGill said. “There are others who believe, with deep sincerity, that Negroes are ‘better off’ under it. Conceivably this might be argued with some logic. It does not matter. The world . . . has moved on. Segregation by law no longer fits today’s world…. Segregation is on its way out, and he who tries to tell the people otherwise does them a great disservice. The problem of the future is how to live with the change.'”
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.