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Virginia's "Massive Resistance" to School Desegregation
William G. Thomas
University of Virginia


The Civil Rights movement in Virginia began well before the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, that "separate but equal" facilities were inherently unequal. Earlier in the decade, certain African American high school students in Virginia had sounded the clarion call for better schools. When the Brown decision was announced, it was clear that the highest court in the land sided with them. The leading white politicians and public men of Virginia, however, resisted the change and fought to maintain Virginia's system of segregated education by closing down several public schools. The situation was dramatic and complex, and the African American population of the state was by no means united on the proper response. The struggle to find a workable path towards school desegregation in Virginia would continue for more than a decade after the Brown decision.

Promises and Risks of Challenging Segregated Education

The Brown case actually capped various court challenges to school segregation from the 1930s through the 1950s. The NAACP led the fight to integrate, and its original strategy for doing so involved attacks on the poor quality of educational resources and facilities provided by the Southern states for their black student populations. This strategy of "equalization" aimed at forcing the states to live up to their promises of separate but equal, and black educators threw their whole-hearted support behind it. After World War II, though, the NAACP took advantage of the changing political and cultural climate to attack the notion of separate schools per se, shifting its strategy to a direct attack on segregation itself.

Black teachers and principals became nervous about the new tactics because they believed that the jobs of all black teachers--not just those who were activists--would be threatened by the closing of separate schools. Given the tortured history of race relations in the South, they knew that whites would not tolerate a situation in which black teachers, especially black male teachers, taught white children, and white girls in particular. If the school systems merged, and all-black schools disappeared, black teachers and administrators might be out of work. In 1953, the superintendent of the Topeka school board--correctly anticipating the Brown decision--refused to renew the contract of a black teacher because, as he said, "the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ Negro teachers next year for white children." One black teacher said that when cases were brought for integration, "the Negro teachers are cut adrift without any consideration." The black community thus welcomed the Brown ruling with a degree of ambivalence.

African American Student Strike

One of those lower court challenges leading to Brown grew out of protests in Farmville, Virginia. Beginning in 1951, a number of black students, led by seventeen-year old senior Barbara Johns, demanded that they receive a schooling equal to that afforded white students. Johns and other student leaders at Robert Russo Moton High School staged a "student strike" and led a protest to the Prince Edward County School Board. Later, as the protest intensified within the community, Johns called Oliver Hill, the NAACP civil rights attorney in Richmond. Hill took the case and argued it before the lower courts in Dorothy Davis et al. V. County School Board of Prince Edward County. The case went to the Supreme Court as a part of the Brown v. Board of Education docket, where it was argued by Thurgood Marshall, the primary lawyer for the NAACP. In its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court found that the racially based segregation of public school children deprived those in the minority group of equal educational opportunities. The NAACP legal team found its strategy amply justified when the Court concluded that, "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Virginia's Rejection of the Brown Ruling

The case was instantly controversial in the South and triggered a response in Virginia which shaped the contours of the state's social and political landscape for years to come. The Virginia state legislature established an official board--the Gray Commission (named after state senator Garland Gray)--to consider its alternatives after Brown. Recognizing the wide differences across the Commonwealth's counties and regions, the Gray Commission recommended giving localities "broad discretion" in meeting the requirements of the new law. Still, Virginia's white leaders, like many across the South, were unsure how to handle the Brown decision. Governor Thomas Stanley called for "cool heads, calm study, and sound judgment," but not all agreed on the proper approach to the decision. The Crewe PTA, for example, preferred "as the lesser of two evils, the end of public education, rather than unsegregated schools." Garland Gray urged Governor Stanley to fight the decision; if not, he argued, white Virginians would be facing "the destruction of our culture" and "intermarriage between the races." Many wondered how the Brown decision could or would be enforced.

Virginia's "Massive Resistance" plan emerged out of an August 1956 special session of the legislature called to consider these issues. The session pulled Virginia away from the Gray plan of local options and into a statewide program of defiant resistance to federal desegregation orders. When the legislature mandated that the state close any school under desegregation orders from the federal courts, it was clear that Virginia would hold the line on segregated schools everywhere, regardless of local opinion on the matter. By 1956, Virginia's senior U.S. Senator and political leader Harry F. Byrd pushed the Massive Resistance tactic as a political maneuver. He considered it an opportunity for Virginia to lead the South once more against a grasping, overreaching federal government. "We face the gravest crisis since the war between the states," Byrd thundered. The integrationists were "working on the theory that if Virginia can be brought to her knees, they can march through the rest of the South." Byrd found a supporting cast of politicians and editors who echoed him. James J. Kilpatrick of the Richmond News Leader considered the Brown decision bad law, a violation of states' rights, and the work of outside agitators. His editorials on "interposition"-the idea that a state government can interpose itself between its citizens and the actions of an overreaching federal government-helped sustain the segregationist cause in Virginia and across the South.

White Moderates' Opposition to "Massive Resistance"

It seemed to many that white leaders throughout the state closed ranks and fully endorsed Massive Resistance. In the Virginia Senate, however, the package of reactionary laws passed only in the face of surprising opposition. On one crucial piece of legislation the vote split 21-17, with moderates believing that the Massive Resistance laws were too severe in their application and too defiant in their tone. Still, in the fall of 1958, Governor Lindsay Almond adhered to the new laws reinforcing Massive Resistance and closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County--locales where federal judges had ordered the desegregation of white public schools. Over 10,000 white students were left without schools, and parent scrambled to provide makeshift education in their homes, churches, and community centers. Black schools, however, remained open.

The crisis peaked in the winter of 1958-59 as Virginia business leaders pressured Governor Almond to open the schools and resolve the matter. Later in 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court ruled the school closings unconstitutional. Governor Almond himself grew disenchanted with the fight and called for an end to Massive Resistance. Even editor Kilpatrick wanted "new tactics" after the courts ruled against Virginia, though he failed to retract his earlier stance on interposition. Only one Virginia locality decided to continue Massive Resistance. Prince Edward County-where the Moton high school students had begun the case that Oliver Hill and the NAACP took to the U.S. Supreme Court-closed down all its public schools, refusing to appropriate any funds for the local school system rather than bow to integration. The schools remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. White students attended a private educational academy with tuition grants from the locality. Unfortunately, black students were left to fend for themselves. Some found a measure of relief in "volunteer" schools staffed by teachers from different parts of the country, but others had to move in with relatives in order to attend schools in separate counties.

Assigning Blame for a Failed Policy

Following the end of Massive Resistance, writers and analysts were quick to blame the Byrd Organization for leading Virginia astray. In Virginia's Massive Resistance (1961), Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse described Virginia's political elite as dangerously overzealous in their reaction to Brown. "Organization leaders," he wrote, "were more extreme in their opposition to school desegregation than the people of the state were." Muse thought that while most white Virginians opposed the Brown decision, they were committed to the rule of law and would have backed the decision if given the means to do so. Muse argued further that a gradualist plan for Virginia, similar to the one followed in North Carolina (which would have allowed such areas as Fairfax County to begin immediate integration while giving the majority black Southside counties longer to adjust), would have garnered the full support of Virginia's white population.

Perhaps the most influential book on the subject is J. Harvie Wilkinson's Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945-1966. In Wilkinson's view, Massive Resistance was linked to the changes in Virginia's demography and politics. He considered the tactic a "twilight performance" for the Byrd machine, a last ditch show of force to hold onto power. Wilkinson's book-full of demographic tables and roll call voting tables-argues that the Byrd machine was undone long before the advent of Massive Resistance by larger forces, including World War II, industrial growth, and the urbanization of Virginia. Wilkinson depicts a rural-urban struggle over taxes, roads, and education, and he pits the Byrd agrarians against suburban and urban anti-Organization Democratic political leaders, as well as against a growing Republican Party. Massive Resistance "was more a calculated maneuver than an emotional imperative," according to one Byrd lieutenant, designed "to keep us in power another twenty-five years." In Wilkinson's interpretation, Byrd and other white leaders miscalculated; their racism, however, an ever-present but ill-defined feature of their program, did not govern their actions.

Other writers have challenged Wilkinson's thesis. In his Crisis of Conservative Virginia, James Ely writes that the Byrd Organization, far from being on its deathbed or under assault, was in complete control of the state throughout the 1950s. Ely considers Massive Resistance not a calculated political move to strengthen the Byrd voter base but a gut reaction rooted in the twin causes of states' rights and white supremacy. Those two causes, supported by the vast majority of white Virginians, were to form the backbone of Byrd's challenge to the Supreme Court. According to Ely, the Byrd Organization thought it could face down the Supreme Court's order and that white Virginians would rally to the causes of states' rights and white supremacy. Ely suggested that the vast majority of white Virginians, like Byrd, were deeply committed to those two ideals.

Desegregation-Slowly but Surely

Virginia took several decades to desegregate. The Brown decision was preceded by years of protest and litigation and followed by a long process of further resistance and slow change. In September 1960, just 170 out of 204,000 black students in Virginia were enrolled in white schools. By 1963, the situation, as reflected in the state's capital, was not much better-of the 26,000 black students in Richmond, only 312 were enrolled in 12 formerly all-white schools. In Prince Edward County, where public schools remained closed for five years, the situation was particularly difficult.

Virginia and other Southern states resisted desegregation through a wide array of tactics, especially the development of "freedom of choice" plans. It is not surprising that many black students chose to stay in their familiar schools rather than attend white schools. "Freedom of choice" plans perpetuated highly segregated school systems and brought only token integration. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, on the other hand, and the 1968 Supreme Court decision Green v. New Kent County, Va., helped to end these means of avoiding desegregation as schools across the South integrated gradually during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Study of "Massive Resistance" Movement Highlights Wider Issues

Beyond an analysis of the Brown decision itself, then, scholarship on school desegregation explores Virginia's response to Brown, highlighting the gulf it engendered between Virginia politicians and their constituencies. That response, known as Massive Resistance, appears in the literature as both cynical and sincere, with some regarding it as an exercise in political opportunism and others as a knee-jerk response to federal and racial encroachment. White reaction to desegregation, however, seems most clearly a process rooted in Virginia's political and economic transformation. Historians working on the end of school segregation are providing more than just a recitation of case law and a chronology of events; they are adding helpful insights to the on-going debates about race, power, and institutional change. Scholarly work on rural-to-urban/suburban migration, the decline of rural political machines, and the increasing demands of world capitalism on Virginia's political economy reveals many of the paths that converged in the late 1950s and 1960s. In highlighting the complexity of these dynamics, historians of the Civil Rights era have demonstrated once again that racial matters are rarely all black and white.

Works Cited

Ely, James. The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: the Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.

Muse, Benjamin. Virginia's Massive Resistance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945-1966. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1968.

Copyright 2005

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