“The Special Session’s Aftermath” (September 23, 1956)


In this editorial dated September 23, 1956, Lenoir Chambers, editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, criticizes the Stanley Plan, named for Governor Thomas B. Stanley, as unconstitutional, damaging to the public education system, and administratively challenging. The Stanley Plan was adopted by the General Assembly on September 22. This came months after Harry F. Byrd Sr. rejected the Gray Commission report because it allowed for some desegregation: giving localities the power to desegregate schools by assigning students to schools. Chambers was a constant critic of Massive Resistance, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials in 1960.



The full impact of the General Assembly’s legislation adopted in the special session under the Stanley program, so called, is impossible to measure in the first hours of its existence. In scope and detail it presents an exhausting series of proposals dedicated to the single proposition that no Negro pupil shall be allowed to attend anywhere in Virginia a school reserved previously for white pupils. The state’s administrators, the local school officials, the courts will need time to examine this extraordinary program. But some judgments are possible now.

This is a program of extreme constitutional doubt. It is revolutionary in its attempt to wrench the control of local schools away from localities and place it in the hands of unseen and unknown authority in Richmond, to the certain impairment of local government. It presents administrative tasks of great perplexity for which, at best, solutions will have to be worked out by trial and error, to the harm of the schools. It accepts as of small importance—though this is a matter on which the educational leadership of the state has worked for decades with faith and pride—the impairment of the standards of the schools.

This is a program that has to be supported, in the opinion of the legislative majority, by a series of harassing bills designed to make it more difficult for Virginia citizens to obtain what they believe to be a redress of their grievances in the courts. It is difficult to find, in the state of Thomas Jefferson, a companion piece to this latter body of legislation in its possible effects on the rights of men.

As a practical matter it is by no means certain that the so-called Stanley plan will stand up any longer than the time required for parts of it to come under court review. A considerable body of belief was expressed in Richmond that the General Assembly would have to meet in six months to patch the demonstrated defects of what it has done this time.

These doubts were reflected many times by leaders of the legislative forces which rewrote many times the series of bills. They include the doubts expressed last winter by Dean F. D. G. Ribble of the University of Virginia Law School about the tuition payment plan. They include numerous expressions on the floor of the House or Senate in Richmond that the Legislature should do what it thought effective and if the courts knocked it out should try something else.

The evidence of this kind includes also Governor Stanley’s statement that he wasn’t asking the legislators to decide the constitutionality of his proposals, although that is, in normal legislating, the primary question. The evidence includes the emphatic private statements of judges and eminent lawyers in Virginia that the program wreaks with constitutional doubts at point after point.

Even if constitutionality could be assumed, the transfer of local school control from the counties, towns, and cities under this legislation breaks Virginia tradition, violates elemental concepts under the Virginia system of government, weakens government at the very point where (as many of the legislators themselves have been saying) it needs most to be strengthened, and creates administrative difficulties of such size and perplexity that no one—literally, no one—knows now whether or how they can be solved.

This legislation would set aside cynically many of the laboriously hammered out methods for raising the standards of education in Virginia. It would abandon compulsory schooling as if that slowly arrived at principle were of no account. It would assume that private school education of comparable standards with those existing now is to be bought by the tuition payment plan for private schools that do not exist. It would close schools by automatic action or by the palpably unjust withholding of state aid as if schools could be turned on and off like water at the faucet with no impairment to education. It would weaken every local school board from which it seized the responsibility for assignment.

Such evils are inherent in a program which assumes that every part of Virginia is like every other part and that one body of rigid control can apply to such a fundamental as education—precisely the same way everywhere. The facts run to the exact contrary. Virginia has localities with widely varying conditions. The best educational thought in Virginia, and elsewhere, recognizes the need of flexibility and the deplorable harm and injustice of trying to fit every city, town, and county into the same mold.

If such a philosophy and such a leadership as those on exhibition in Richmond during the past four weeks were to prevail forever, the cause of public education in Virginia would risk mortal wounding. The hope that rises from the special session is that its very extremism will bring closer the time when the more moderate and wiser and more intelligent spirit of Virginia will make itself felt in the struggle with the complex and disturbing educational problems that confront us.

Let us not forget that the minority in House and Senate presented its argument with clarity and firmness and in conspicuous instances stood its ground and proclaimed its conviction. Let us not forget that much thoughtful testimony was given at the public hearings by men and women who were taking some risk, in the political climate of today, to stand up and be counted. The state has absorbed some education thereby.

Nor can the state ignore the existence of a formidable minority in both houses, including some of the General Assembly’s finest spirits and most respected legislators. It was far stronger and firmer than the current political leadership of Virginia had thought possible. That leadership had called for a 90 percent “mandate” vote. It got nothing of the kind, and in the Senate it got little more than a bare majority. In the creation and maintenance, and often in the leadership, of this formidable minority and over all record of the Norfolk and Portsmouth legislators is a matter of great pride.

From such factors the state can take courage. There is a long and difficult struggle ahead to find the best system of public education and see that it prevails. The special session provided no permanent answers. But in time Virginia will.

APA Citation:
Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk. “The Special Session’s Aftermath” (September 23, 1956). (2023, June 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk. "“The Special Session’s Aftermath” (September 23, 1956)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (28 Jun. 2023). Web. 16 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 11
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