It was the winter of 1956 and the Virginia General Assembly was up in arms. The furor over the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education had reached its hysterical crescendo, as die-hard segregrationists from Southside thundered their defiance of the judicial "race-mixers."
The young James J. Kilpatrick gave the cause its intellectual trappings with his galvanizing editorials against desegregation in the Richmond News-Leader. The late Sen. Harry F. Byrd provided the political leadership with his edicts from Washington against any form of capitulation.
Thus was born "massive resistance"--the last-ditch stand against school desegregation that was to sweep through the Old Confederacy and delay full implementation of the Supreme Court's decision for well over a decade.
Caught in the middle of this uproar was Arlington County, which alone had dared to countenance the idea of integration. In January, while planning a bond issue to relieve school overcrowding, the county's elected school board informed its New York bond counsel that it planned to comply with the hated court order.
The vengeful legislators responded in a rage. Overriding the objections of the county's delegation, they overwhelmingly voted to strip Arlington of its right to elect its own school board members.
"I was outraged, everybody was," recalled Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington), a veteran civic activist. "Arlington was the only county in the state that had an elected school board, and we just loved it."
But in Richmond, Marshall added, "we were looked on as traitors to the state."
Ever since she came here in 1966, Marshall has been introducing bills in the General Assembly that would overturn what she calls the "last vestige of massive resistance" by restoring the county's right to elect its own school board. This week, for the first time ever, success seemed within her grasp.
In a 10-to-8 squeaker, the House Privileges and Elections Committee passed Marshall's bill to hold a county referendum on whether Arlington wants to return to an elected board of education or retain its present system by which the county board appoints school board members.
The issue of elected versus appointed school boards is, in many respects, a perennial one here and not necessarily unique to Arlington. The National School Boards Association says that Virginia is the only one of the 50 states that has no elected school boards within its borders. But bills to give individual counties the right to elect their own boards have been routinely blocked by senior legislators who view the idea as an affront to sensible government.
"They (school board candidates) could campaign all they want on all these wonderful school issues, but if they don't have the taxing power, what good would it do?" said Del. Claude Anderson (D-Buckingham). "It would be a sham. You shouldn't elect school board members if you don't give them any responsibility."
Underneath that rationale, though, are more subtle political factors. In most parts of the state, School Electoral Trustees named by circuit court judges appoint school board members. One delegate notes that this system gives the legislators "circuitous political control" over school boards since the judges are, in turn, selected by the General Assembly with the concurrence of local delegates and senators.
Whatever the larger political arguments, though, Marshall insists that Arlington is different. For 9 1/2 years, from 1947 until the historic session of 1956, the county did have an elected school board that had received nationwide prominence for its efforts in upgrading the county schools, she said.
"We are not asking for a new experiment," said Marshall. "We want returned to us what we once had."
Whether that will come this session is, of course, still very much in the air since Marshall's bill faces rough sledding on the House and Senate floors. The echoes of massive resistance are no longer heard, at least not overtly, in statehouse corriders. But resentment of maverick Arlington, and for that matter the rest of Northern Virginia, has never gone away.
"It's still a very much 'we versus they' attitude," said Del. Thomas M. Moncure (R-Stafford), whose grandfather, the late Del. Frank P. Moncure, introduced the bill that robbed Arlington of its school board.
"I still remember what Granddaddy used to say," said Moncure, who laughingly makes it clear that his own views are somewhat more moderate. "He said that all of Northern Virginia was made up of 'pinks, crackpots and fly-by-nighters' and that 'all the kooks who hadn't moved to Los Angeles were in the Washington metropolitan area.' "