I was a rookie reporter covering the Virginia state capitol 50 years ago for the Associated Press, and I vividly recall when the bulletin announcing the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education came over the wire: 1:20 p.m. May 17, 1954.
In response, the press descended on the office of Gov. Thomas B. Stanley. Stunned and shaken by the news of the school desegregation order, Stanley said he would make a statement after conferring with his top advisers. Three hours later we had our statement, which is a remarkable document even today.
Stanley did not condemn the court, threaten defiance or voice any stirring call to arms. The decision, he said, called for "cool heads, calm study and sound judgment." He promised to consult with leaders of both races to pursue a policy of adjustment "acceptable to our citizens and in keeping with the edict of the court."
His temperate tone was echoed by other state leaders. State schools superintendent Dowell J. Howard dismissed any notion that Virginia would defy the decision, declaring: "We are trying to teach schoolchildren the law of the land and will abide by it."
Most Virginia newspapers, while expressing dismay at the ruling, counseled against any radical response that might endanger the public school system. "This is no time for rebellion," editorialized the conservative Richmond News Leader. "We are not about to return to some dark, medieval nights of tutors and private schools for the well-to-do and illiteracy for everyone else."
But the conciliatory spirit did not last. Within a few weeks Virginia veered away from its moderate course and plunged down the infamous road of "massive resistance" to public school integration. Politicians from the predominantly rural Southside led the charge, expressing "unalterable opposition" to any change in the status quo. Militant segregationists sounded a "not now or ever" battle cry and hastily assembled a statewide organization, the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, to spearhead the fight.
The pressure proved too much for the well-meaning but weak Stanley. He buckled and soon joined with leaders of the state legislature in mobilizing the commonwealth's legal machinery for a full-scale assault on the decision. Emergency laws were passed that decreed the suspension of public funds to any white school admitting black pupils. A daring new weapon was rolled out, the theory of "interposition," a relative of John C. Calhoun's discredited doctrine of nullification, which claimed that states had the authority to disregard federal mandates.
With all of these challenges, Virginia was regarded as the key battleground in what had become a no-compromise struggle. If the pro-integration forces prevailed in Virginia, suggested the state's longtime Democratic leader, Sen. Harry F. Byrd, then "they can march through the South singing 'hallelujah.' "
Massive resistance turned out to be a massive failure as the state's roadblocks were struck down one by one by the federal courts. The ultimate capitulation came in 1958, when the public refused to accept the closure of schools in Front Royal, Charlottesville and Norfolk that had frozen out 13,000 white children rather than proceed with integration. That was too much for even the new hard-line governor, J. Lindsay Almond, who had vowed to "cut off my right arm" before permitting a single black child to enter a white school.
The battle may have been over in Virginia, but in much of the South the civil rights struggle raged into the 1960s. One can only wonder whether the new America ordained by the Supreme Court in 1954 would have emerged more peacefully had the Old Dominion's leaders followed their initial impulses to do the right thing.
-- Paul Duke