The Origins of Massive Resistance
At the midpoint of the twentieth century, Virginia maintained a legally sanctioned racial caste system. Its premise was that African Americans, slightly more than a fifth of the state’s population, were inferior to all whites. No legal ties of kinship could exist between white and Black Virginians, and all public activities were regulated by strict racial segregation laws. In the crucial area of public education, segregation was especially disadvantageous to Black students. The discrimination was egregious—school facilities, educational materials, teacher salaries, and transportation in the separate Black school system were markedly inferior to those provided white students. African American children under this regime were denied many of the opportunities for economic advancement provided by public school education and such conditions distorted the educational development of Black students.
Denied public support, African Americans were often forced to raise their own funds to build schools. So, beginning in the mid-1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by attorneys such as Oliver W. Hill and Thurgood Marshall, launched a legal campaign of “equalization,” challenging the material inequalities between Black and white schools. In 1950, however, the national NAACP decided to stop funding the equalization suits in Virginia and other states in favor of attacking segregation on constitutional grounds. In April 1951, a student-led strike protesting the poor quality of the Black Moton High School in Prince Edward County resulted in Virginia’s first direct legal challenge to school segregation, Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.
Virginia’s argument in favor of segregation, made by Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond Jr., prevailed in the federal trial court, but the NAACP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Davis case was grouped with three similar cases from other states under the heading of Brown v. Board of Education. Almond and the other lawyers representing Virginia made the most extensive counterargument to the NAACP’s case, but it failed to persuade the justices. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional.
From Local Option to Massive Resistance
Initially, Almond and Governor Thomas B. Stanley issued statements accepting the court’s ruling, but it was Byrd’s response, which declared the ruling an unconstitutional attack on states’ rights, that set the tone for events to come. As head of the Byrd Organization, Virginia’s dominant Democratic Party machine, the U.S. senator was an overarching leader who drew critical support from white voters in counties with large African American populations. In the autumn of 1954, white community leaders and local government officials from those areas formed a political pressure group, Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, to preserve racial segregation. Relying on its influence with the Byrd Organization, the group called for the use of all legal and political means to block enforcement of the Brown decision.
Although Stanley first spoke of appointing a biracial commission, he chose thirty-two state legislators, all white men mostly from the area south of the James River, to recommend a response to school desegregation. The Supreme Court gave little guidance in its May 1955 enforcement ruling, Brown II—only the ambivalent direction to proceed with “all deliberate speed.” The burden of desegregation rested on individual Black plaintiffs who had to bring enforcement suits in federal district courts. The goal of the governor’s commission—called the Gray Commission after its chairman, state senator Garland Gray—was to restrict desegregation and to ensure that whites who objected could avoid attending desegregated schools. Appearing in November 1955, the Gray Plan proposed selective repeal of the compulsory school attendance law, establishment of pupil placement criteria, and provision of state tuition grants to students leaving desegregated schools to attend private segregated ones. The Gray Plan’s underlying premise, local option, would permit some desegregation, however.
By the time the General Assembly met in January 1956, key Byrd Organization figures were advocating a coordinated effort to block any desegregation anywhere in Virginia. Leaders such as Congressman William Munford Tuck argued against local option; only a unified resistance, they held, could prevent the “mixing of the races.” When the Arlington County School Board members, headed by Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell, announced a plan of phased desegregation, the General Assembly reacted punitively, depriving them of their special elective status. In a series of lengthy editorials, James Jackson Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, expounded on the idea, drawn from antebellum southern ideology, that the state could “interpose” its power to stop implementation of federal court rulings. Acting on this belief, the General Assembly adopted a resolution of interposition. Late in February, with segregationist momentum building, Byrd made a public call for a campaign of “massive resistance” against Brown.
In August 1956, Governor Stanley took the next step in defiance when he convened a special session of the General Assembly to act on a package of Massive Resistance legislation. Supporters of the new plan, dubbed the Stanley Plan, argued that the question resolved into a simple either-or proposition: just as one was either white or Black under the caste system, one supported either segregation or integration. There was no middle ground. Most of the state’s major newspapers, with the exception of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and its editor Lenoir Chambers, backed the uncompromising stance of Massive Resistance. As a first line of defense, the Stanley Plan created a state Pupil Placement Board to block the assignment of Black students to white schools using racial criteria. Next, the Stanley Plan enacted what would become the three strategic components of Massive Resistance. First, the governor would close any school facing a federal desegregation order. Second, the state government would attack the NAACP’s ability to bring suits and harass Black parents willing to serve as plaintiffs. Third, supporters of the policy created the Commission on Constitutional Government. With James J. Kilpatrick as publications director, the commission defended segregation and states’ rights in the court of public opinion. With Confederate flags waving in the galleries, the legislators passed the Massive Resistance plan, though a significant minority favored staying with the local option.
The Courts Intervene
As several local desegregation suits worked their way through the federal courts in 1957 and 1958, Virginia elected a new governor in an atmosphere dominated by Massive Resistance. Two special committees of the General Assembly held hearings in each locality where there was a suit. Although the committees called the Black plaintiffs to testify, few were intimidated into withdrawing from their cases. Making speeches fulminating against the federal judiciary, Almond won the 1957 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. His Republican opponent, state senator Theodore Roosevelt Dalton, rejected Massive Resistance in favor of a plan of restricted desegregation. A skilled communicator, Almond convinced white Virginians that they could have both continued segregation and stronger public schools. Almond won the governorship with 63.2 percent of the vote.
The inevitable collision of Massive Resistance with the federal courts came in September 1958. Federal district court judge John Paul ordered Black students admitted to Warren County High School in Front Royal and to a high school and elementary school in Charlottesville. In Norfolk, U.S. district court judge Walter E. Hoffman issued a desegregation decree affecting six white schools. Almond closed all nine schools, locking out nearly 13,000 students. For the white majority, the terms of the debate changed: instead of segregation versus integration, now it was desegregation versus closed public schools. The attempt to substitute segregated private academies for the closed public schools was totally inadequate in the face of Norfolk’s ten thousand displaced students, while in the smaller communities of Charlottesville and Front Royal, a sharp fight among whites ensued, pitting pro-public school parents against backers of the segregated private efforts. White parents in Arlington, Norfolk, and other cities formed large public school committees and joined together on December 6 to form the Virginia Committee for Public Schools, which developed into the largest citizen organization involved in the school matter.
In addition to the middle-class parents in the school committees, Almond began to hear more influential voices of dissent about the school closings. At a December 1958 dinner meeting in Richmond, twenty-nine of the state’s leading businessmen told him that the crisis was adversely affecting Virginia’s economy. Almond chose to wait until two cases challenging the closing laws were decided—one in the federal courts and the other in the state’s highest court. Ruling on the same day, January 19, 1959, both courts found the closings unconstitutional. Almond made a fiery broadcast in reaction to the decisions and called a special session of the General Assembly. Supporters of Massive Resistance expected a defiant last stand, but Almond surprised them with a measure to repeal the closing laws and permit desegregation. Accordingly, on February 2, 1959, with national press coverage, seventeen Black students in Norfolk and four in Arlington County peacefully enrolled in white schools.
To formulate a new plan, Almond appointed a legislative commission headed by state senator Mosby G. Perrow. This commission contained a majority who backed Almond’s acceptance of limited desegregation in place of Massive Resistance. Their program, called the Perrow Plan, left the burden of desegregation on Black parents with its “freedom of choice” concept, repealed the compulsory attendance law, and relied on the Pupil Placement Board, using ostensibly nonracial criteria, to keep desegregation to a minimum. At the April 1959 special session, Almond declared that it was time for the General Assembly to retreat from Massive Resistance and adopt the new plan. Over the strong protests of Massive Resistance advocates, Almond’s plan narrowly passed. An attempt by Massive Resistance forces to defeat Almond’s supporters in the Democratic primary that summer failed.
Though Massive Resistance by the state government was over, Prince Edward County’s school board chose to close all its public schools rather than desegregate in September 1959. Using state tuition grants, whites established a segregated private school, while Black students lacked any educational facility in the county. Not until 1964 did a U.S. Supreme Court ruling finally reopen the public schools in Prince Edward County. In the state as a whole, school desegregation proceeded at a very slow pace for almost a decade after the state officially dropped Massive Resistance. Only after the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, overturned the “freedom of choice” plan did large-scale desegregation take place.
Massive Resistance and its aftermath left a deep and lasting negative imprint on Virginia’s system of public education and race relations in the second half of the twentieth century. By delaying effective desegregation until late in the 1960s, during which a decade and a half of extensive, racially segregated suburban development had occurred, it permitted the perpetuation of mostly segregated schools in the state’s major metropolitan areas. In several rural counties, it provided time for substantial numbers of white students to withdraw to private, usually all-white, academies. The commitment to integrated public schooling was delayed and, in many cases, undercut. One positive outgrowth of the mobilization of parents against the school closings was the inclusion in the 1971 revision of the Constitution of Virginia of one of the strongest provisions on public education of any of the fifty states.