When one considers the term massive–or “collective”–resistance, we might try and channel Thoreauian idealism and think of a movement by a downtrodden people to subvert or protest a tyrannical status quo. In the case of Virginia history, however, “Massive Resistance” was anything but a subversive movement for high moral principles. Massive Resistance was the political–and social–policy set forth by Senator Harry Byrd to effectively block the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which ruled that racial segregation in public education was “inherently unequal.” The Brown decision set off a firestorm of fear-mongering. Whites were terrified that the desegregation of public education would lead to “race-mixing,” “intermarriage,” and “the destruction of [white] culture” (whatever that is).
Today marks an unfortunate occasion in remembrance of this movement and its effect on Virginia’s mixed record of race relations. On September 19, 1958, in an act of “Massive Resistence” to prevent the desegregation of public schools, Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered the immediate closure of Lane High School and Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville. Charlottesville, however, was not the only locality to encounter such measures; in fact, it was neither the first nor last.
On September 8, 1958, at federal judge John Paul’s order to “desegregate” Warren County High School in Front Royal, Almond was compelled to close the school down and then on September 27 he was also compelled to shut down several schools in Norfolk. In all, Almond effectively locked out more than 13,000 students. Fearing that public education would be left in shambles, however, more moderate voices took up the charge to pressure Almond to shed the policy of Massive Resistance. On January 19, 1959–Robert E. Lee’s 152nd birthday–the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overruled the school closings and declared them to be in violation of section 129 of the state constitution that required the state to maintain free schools. While Almond admitted defeat, the lackluster solution to desegregate public schools fell as a burden on black parents who would have the “Freedom to Choose” where they would send their children.
Despite the death of Massive Resistance, whites in Prince Edward County found a loophole to ensure segregated education (and to actually keep the African American community entirely uneducated) for the next five years. In his entry on “Massive Resistance” for Encyclopedia Virginia, James Hershman writes:
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 … 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.
I know kids in Charlottesville’s public schools. Even here, even now, I hear about and see first hand the present-day effects of the unfortunate legacy that Massive Resistance helped create. Even though whites and blacks now intermingle with others under the same school roof, it is now in the hallways and classrooms where the lines of racial and class segregation are drawn and the paths of learning are preordained. And when I think about the generation of African Americans from Prince Edward County who were wholly denied their education, I wonder what amends were made to them?