Massive Resistance


Massive Resistance was a policy adopted in 1956 by Virginia’s state government to block the desegregation of public schools mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Advocated by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., a conservative Democrat and former governor who coined the term, Massive Resistance reflected the racial views and fears of Byrd’s power base in Southside Virginia as well as the senator’s reflexive disdain for federal government intrusion into state affairs. When schools were shut down in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk to prevent desegregation, the courts stepped in and overturned the policy. In the end, Massive Resistance added more bitterness to race relations already strained by the resentments engendered by the caste system and delayed large-scale desegregation of Virginia’s public schools for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Virginia’s defiance served as an example for the states of the Lower South, and the legal vestiges of Massive Resistance lasted until early in the 1970s.

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.

Protest Sign at Robert Russa Moton High School

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

Harry F. Byrd Sr.

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.

Oliver W. Hill at the General Assembly

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.

Governor Almond Signs the "Little Rock" Bill

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.

April 23, 1951
Under the leadership of Barbara Johns, fellow students at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County walk out of their school to protest the unequal conditions of their education as compared to those of the white students in nearby Farmville High School.
May 17, 1954
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, but fails to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation is to be achieved. The decision leads to the Massive Resistance movement in Virginia.
May 31, 1955
The U.S. Supreme Court issues a vague ruling outlining the implementation of desegregation to occur "with all deliberate speed," a ruling now commonly known as Brown II.
November 1955
Virginia state senator Garland Gray introduces the Gray Plan, which proposes the selective repeal of the compulsory school attendance law in an effort to slow desegregation in Virginia.
February 25, 1956
U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd calls for a strategy of "Massive Resistance" to oppose the integration of public schools in Virginia.
March 1956
U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd helps to author the "Southern Manifesto," which calls for opposition to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.
August 27, 1956
Governor Thomas B. Stanley announces a package of Massive Resistance legislation that will become known as the Stanley Plan. Among other things, the plan gives the governor the power to close any schools facing a federal desegregation order.
November 5, 1957
J. Lindsay Almond Jr. is elected governor of Virginia thanks to a platform that promises a continuation of Massive Resistance.
September 4, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. divests superintendents of Virginia schools of their authority to desegregate their schools; he also advises that if they go against his order they will be found in violation of Virginia laws.
September 15, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes Warren County High School, the first school held in violation of his statewide mandate against desegregation.
September 19, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes Lane High School and Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville to prevent desegregation.
September 27, 1958
Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. orders white secondary schools in Norfolk to close to prevent desegregation.
January 19, 1959
Both the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court overturn the decision of Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to close schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville, and Norfolk.
February 2, 1959
With Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr.'s barrier to desegregation broken by Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals, seventeen Black students in Norfolk and four in Arlington County peacefully enroll in white schools.
September 1959
Though Massive Resistance has already ended, the Prince Edward County School Board closes its public schools to resist desegregation.
Lenoir Chambers wins the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Editorial Writing for his 1959 campaign against Massive Resistance.
May 25, 1964
After Prince Edward County's public schools have been closed for the previous five years, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County rules that the county has violated the students' right to an education and orders the Prince Edward County schools to reopen.
May 27, 1968
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Charles C. Green et al. v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, that the New Kent School Board has to "convert promptly to a [school] system without a 'white' school, and a 'Negro' school, but just schools." The ruling quickens the pace of desegregation in Virginia.
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  • Egerton, John. Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
  • Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage, 2004.
  • Lassiter, Matthew D., and Andrew B. Lewis, eds. The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
  • Lechner, Ira M. “Massive Resistance: Virginia’s Great Leap Backward.” Virginia Quarterly Review 74 (Autumn 1998): 631-40.
  • Lewis, George. Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
APA Citation:
Hershman, James. Massive Resistance. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/massive-resistance.
MLA Citation:
Hershman, James. "Massive Resistance" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 07
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