The Segs by Carl Fisher, 1964

In late 1963, Esquire magazine was in trouble. It had lost $750,000 in pulled advertising due to the cover featuring the boxer and heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, as Santa Claus. The idea of a black man as Santa Claus offended many people and the magazine received many outraged letters.

The magazine’s editor Harold Hayes responded by saying Esquire was neutral on the question of race, citing several articles to prove his point and promising the upcoming January 1964 would include an article “The Segs” with “the candid and unqualified views of the five most influential segregationists in the south today.” His intent, however, was to give them long monologues and let them hang themselves with their own words.

For photos to accompany the article, Hayes sent Carl Fisher, the magazine’s star photographer to the south. Fischer excelled at putting an editorial spin on his portraits, usually unflattering, and he recalled:

“I remember going around the south photographing segregationist leaders. Harold Hayes said, ‘Don’t use your wise-guy wide-angle lens. We want to be fair to these people, even though we hate their guts. We want to appear to be fair.’ So I didn’t use my goddamn wide angle lens, I took straight portraits of them. Why closeups? Maybe that was my idea, I don’t know why. They had interesting faces. They were such nasty people that when I got back, I had shot it on a small camera and I enlarged it on 8 x 10 film on my studio enlarger, and I made it very contrasting so that the pores would stick out.”

The men profiled were Leander Perez, Roy Harris , Richard Shelton, Lester Maddox, and W. J. Simmons. In late 1963, the bill that would become Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still held up in the Congress (and was being threatened by a filibuster by the “Southern Bloc” of senators) and Esquire called these men: “the five most influential men in the southern resistance.”

Judge Leander Perez was then District Attorney and political boss of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana and was so virulently racist that the Catholic Church excommunicated him in 1960. He dominated life in the lower delta of Louisiana for over three decades, until he died from a heart attack in 1969.

Roy Harris (roly-poly Roy, as Esquire called him) was a politician who served twice as the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives. In 1964, he was running the Augusta Courier, a tabloid newspaper which he used to promote segregation and white supremacy, earning him the nickname “Mr. Segregation”. (Later, he reversed some of his views, supporting Ed McIntyre (who became the first African American mayor of Augusta) over a white opponent and serving as McIntyre’s attorney.

In 1960, Robert M. Shelton organized various Klan chapters called klaverns into the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. From 1961, he was imperial wizard of United Klans of America, which at its height in the mid-60’s, had 30,000 members and perhaps 250,000 supporters. It was United Klan members who were responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls.

Lester Maddox was yet to be the villian of songs and ballads in 1964. He was well known nonetheless, a perennial loser in various mayoral or state elections who managed to leverage his Atlanta restaurant into a focal point for pro-segregation views by refusing to serve black customers. Newsweek called him “backwoods demagogue out in the boondocks.” He would finally be elected in 1966 as the governor of Georgia, and surprising many, presided over integration of Georgia Department of Labor, farmer markets, the state patrol, and other government offices and appointed many African Americans to state-wide offices.

W. J. Simmons, described as “Dixieland apartheid’s number-one organization man,” was the administrator of Citizens’ Council, an organization that fought for segregation in schools. When the Citizens’ Councils of America moved its headquarters to Jackson in 1960, Simmons became its de facto head and serving as the editor and publisher of the Citizen, and administrator for its various offshoots, forums, and schools — a role he played until 1990.

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