Benjamin Muse (1898–1986)


Benjamin Muse, a journalist based in Manassas, Virginia, emerged as one of the state’s most prominent white liberals during the period of the Massive Resistance movement, which opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Through a weekly column in the Washington Post, Muse criticized what he perceived to be the undemocratic practices of the Byrd Organization, the Virginia political machine led by U.S. senator and former governor Harry F. Byrd Sr., a Democrat. Muse also charged that Massive Resistance represented a desperate gamble by rural leaders to preserve the state’s one-party system. Throughout the five-year crisis, Muse insisted that Virginia must comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and he championed the efforts of white moderates and liberals from the cities and suburbs who opposed the state’s plan, which amounted to abandoning public education rather than accepting any degree of racial integration. In 1959, after federal and state courts invalidated Virginia’s school-closing scheme, Muse became the director of the Southern Leadership Project in order to spread the message of compliance with Brown to other states across the region.

Benjamin Muse was born in Durham, North Carolina, on April 17, 1898, and was educated at Trinity College (now Duke University) and George Washington University. He volunteered under the British flag in World War I (1914–1918), after which he served fourteen years as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department. In 1935, Muse won election to the Senate of Virginia as a Democrat from Petersburg. After initially supporting the New Deal, however, he began to oppose the policies of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, he resigned his seat in the face of heavy Democratic criticism, ran again as an Independent, and lost. He received the 1941 Republican nomination for governor with a platform of abolishing the poll tax, among other liberal reforms, but lost to the Democratic nominee, Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr. After enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–1945), Muse moved to Manassas with his family and began publishing a small newspaper. In the 1950s, as the civil rights movement accelerated the campaign against legal segregation, Muse achieved national renown through

his “Virginia Affairs” column in the Washington Post and his commentary on southern racial politics in liberal magazines such as the Nation and the New Republic.

Farmville Students Protest School Closings

After the Brown decision, Benjamin Muse labeled himself a “fighting moderate” who advocated the “invaluable process of gradualism” in order to save public education while complying in good faith with court-ordered integration. When Virginia’s political leaders instead adopted the Massive Resistance policy of closing public schools to evade Brown, Muse denounced their actions as “impetuous, immoral, and dangerous.” He called racial integration a “matter of conscience and Christian principles” and repeatedly attacked influential segregationists such as Byrd and James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader. At the same time, Muse lamented that leaders of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) had become “uncompromising and unrealistic advocates of sweeping desegregation,” especially by pushing for prompt action in rural Prince Edward County. In an effort to resurrect the middle ground, he proposed to begin integration immediately in the cities of northern and western Virginia, which he hoped would be a peaceful demonstration that would eventually reduce the fierce segregationist resistance in the Southside and Tidewater areas.

In the autumn of 1958, white opponents of Massive Resistance formed the Virginia Committee for Public Schools, evidence of the political uprising of formerly “silent moderates” that Muse had been predicting since the beginning of the crisis. After Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed public schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk, state and federal courts struck down Virginia’s Massive Resistance policies in January 1959. Muse quickly wrote a book, Virginia’s Massive Resistance (1961), to counsel white leaders in other southern states that defiance of the Supreme Court would not succeed. Between 1959 and 1964, as head of the Southern Leadership Project established by the Southern Regional Council, Muse traveled across the region, advocating voluntary compliance in visits with hundreds of political and civic leaders. Muse initially believed that moderate white leaders acting in good faith could bring about peaceful and meaningful school desegregation, but by the mid-1960s he had recognized that pressure from civil rights groups and intervention by the federal courts were also necessary to defeat Jim Crow.

Benjamin Muse continued to chronicle the civil rights movement through the 1960s, writing two works, Ten Years of Prelude (1964) and The American Negro Revolution (1968). In 1982 he published a memoir The Twentieth Century As I Saw It. He died in Reston on May 4, 1986.

Major Works

  • Virginia’s Massive Resistance (1961)
  • Ten Years of Prelude (1964)
  • The American Negro Revolution (1968)
  • The Twentieth Century As I Saw It (1982)
April 17, 1898
Benjamin Muse is born in Durham, North Carolina.
Benjamin Muse volunteers under the British flag during World War I.
Benjamin Muse wins election to the Senate of Virginia as a Democrat.
Benjamin Muse switches parties and becomes a Republican because of his opposition to the New Deal.
Benjamin Muse receives the Republican nomination for governor, though he would later lose to his Democratic opponent, Colgate W. Darden Jr.
January 1959
After Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes public schools in resistance to desegregation, state and federal courts strike down Virginia's Massive Resistance policies.
Benjamin Muse writes Virginia's Massive Resistance in an effort to persuade other southern states not to resist desegregation.
May 4, 1986
Benjamin Muse dies in Reston.
  • Bartley, Numan V. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950’s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
  • Lassiter, Matthew D. and Andrew B. Lewis, eds. The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
APA Citation:
Lassiter, Matthew. Benjamin Muse (1898–1986). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/muse-benjamin-1898-1986.
MLA Citation:
Lassiter, Matthew. "Benjamin Muse (1898–1986)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 May. 2024
Last updated: 2022, March 07
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