Fifty Years Ago Today, a Massive Resistance

White high school students at makeshift school, Fall, 1958, The Charlottesville Daily ProgressWhen 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.
Black students entering Lane High School, Fall, 1959, The Charlottesville Daily ProgressOn 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.

Black students entering Venable School, Fall, 1959, The Charlottesville Daily ProgressI 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?


5 thoughts

  1. A law was passed in the past few years by the Virginia General Assembly establishing a scholarship fund for that county’s students who were denied an education. It seemed too little, too late to me. And really would have made more sense to award scholarship money to their children and grandchildren given their age, unless I misunderstood or misremember the bill that was passed. In other words, not much was done to make amends to them.

  2. Interesting post. I was still in elementary school in 1958, in Fairfax County. My parents (who were originally from the midwest) got involved in “Save Our Schools” in hopes of keeping our public schools open. Fortunately, our county schools did not close and eventually integrated successfully, albeit very slowly.

  3. dude i wish they would give scholarships to the kids or grandkids…second pic is my dad and my uncle and i could used some college help

  4. It’s hard to know where to start, Southern Boy. Are you Southern or Irish? I, too, am the product of Irish immigrants. But the English did not rape “my” country because my country is the United States. I have no experience as an Irishman, only as an American.
    I must say that my experience as an African American is severely limited, as well. Which is why I refrain, both privately and publicly, from telling those who have had that experience what it should mean to them.

  5. I’m an Irishman living in America. My people were not only discriminated against and enslaved by the early Americans, but at the same time, the British literally raped my country and starved my people in their own homes. Do I hold a grudge? Do I look for a handout? No it’s in that past. You’ve got to come to peace with it. You can’t spend your life looking for a hand out, you’ve got to work hard in order to get where you want to go no matter what happened to your people in the past. I got nothin’ against black people, but some of them just need to let this stuff go. IT’S IN THE PAST! As can be seen in “tini m”s comment, some of them just look at this kind of thing as an excuse for a handout…


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