Goals of the Organization
One month after the Brown decision, prominent Southside Virginia leaders—such as state senators Charles Moses and Garland Gray, U.S. congressmen Watkins Abbitt and, and newspaper editor J. Barrye Wall of the Farmville Herald—began to hold meetings at a Petersburg firehouse in order to discuss ways of fighting the threat of public school integration. Wall wanted to create a white segregationist organization that would advocate for whites the way the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had advocated for blacks. Eventually, representatives from eighteen Southside counties joined the Petersburg firehouse group and began calling themselves the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. They selected Robert B. Crawford, of Farmville, as their first president. By September 1955, the Defenders had twenty-eight chapters and 12,000 members throughout the state.
On August 30, 1954, Governorcreated the Gray Commission (named for Garland Gray) to study the situation imposed by the Brown ruling and make necessary recommendations on future policy. When the Gray Commission unveiled its recommendations on November 11, 1955, it was clear that the Defenders had greatly influenced the commission. On June 8, 1955, the Defenders had issued their 7,500-word Plan for Virginia. Of the seven proposals outlined in the Defenders’ Plan for Virginia, the commission recommended two. The first was that the General Assembly be allowed to provide tuition vouchers for parents wishing to send their children to segregated private schools. The second was that the General Assembly enact legislation that would maintain segregated schools throughout Virginia and allow the state to withdraw funds from any integrated schools.
In the autumn of 1955, the Defenders successfully petitioned Governor Stanley to call the General Assembly into special session on November 30. The Defenders wanted a statewide referendum to determine whether Section 141 of the state constitution should be amended to implement tuition vouchers to allow public funds to go to private schools. (Section 141 stated: “No appropriation of public funds shall be made to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the State.”) On January 9, 1956, voters backed the Defenders-bred initiative by a vote of 304,154 to 146,164. Additionally, on August 27, 1956, the General Assembly enacted even tougher Massive Resistance laws, many of which had first been proposed by the Defenders. The most extreme of these ordered the governor to close all schools under an order to integrate and to cut off all state funding to any school forced to open as an integrated institution.
On September 8, 1958, federal district judge John Paul ruled that Warren County could not refuse to admit twenty-two black applicants into Front Royal‘s all-white Warren County High School. Judge Simon E. Sobeloff of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld this ruling on September 11, 1958. Warren County High School was soon closed under Chapter 9.1 of the Code of Virginia‘s newly enacted Massive Resistance laws. Eventually, under the same scenario, public schools were closed in both Norfolk and Charlottesville. By the end of September 1958, 12,700 white Virginia students were locked out of their respective public schools.
By the time public schools were closed in the autumn of 1958, it seemed evident that newly elected governorand Albertis S. Harrison, his attorney general, although publicly committed to Massive Resistance, were privately looking for a way out of the crisis. They realized that the school closings would not stand legal challenges and thus encouraged test cases to settle matters. So under the guise of supporting the legality of the school closings, together they implemented the lawsuits James v. Almond and Harrison v. Day in both the federal and state courts, respectively.
The Organization’s Decline
In the case of James v. Almond, the federal court ruled that closing schools was in direct violation of citizens’ equal protection of the law as established by the Fourteenth Amendment. In the case of Harrison v. Day, the state court of appeals ruled that both the closing of schools and the denial of state funds to halt integration in public schools violated the Virginia Constitution. The state court also added that tuition grants were unconstitutional and could not be paid. As of January 19, 1959, Massive Resistance in Virginia was dead, and the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties were now on life support.
The Defenders’ last stand culminated in the highly dramatic yet minimally effective event known as the Bill of Rights Crusade, which coincided with the reconvening of the General Assembly on March 31, 1959. The Defenders gathered five thousand angry Virginians to hear Defender spokesman Edward J. Silverman rile up the faithful to challenge members of the General Assembly and recommit to the fight against integration. By this time, however, most Virginians were weary and simply wanted to move away from the conflagration that had engulfed the commonwealth for nearly five years.
In the spring of 1959, the Defenders implemented a last-ditch strategy that focused on replacing moderate Democrats in the General Assembly with resister Democrats in the party primary to be held on July 14. The Defenders defeated a few moderate incumbents in the House of Delegates; however, of sixteen moderate senators targeted by the organization, only two were replaced, and both by other moderates. The results of the July Democratic primary were a complete repudiation of the Defenders and their agenda. Although the Defenders continued to function into the 1960s, the group never recovered its previous status. In 1963, Defenders president Robert B. Crawford resigned and was replaced by W. I. McKendree, of Norfolk. Four years later, on July 17, 1967, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties officially dissolved as an organization.