The Moderates' Dilemma

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Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis, eds. The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1998. Pp. ix+251. ISBN 0-8139-1817-0 (pbk.).


Through a series of six essays, Matthew Lassiter and Andrew Lewis attempt to spin Virginia’s story of massive resistance to school desegregation through the study of moderates rather than through the ideas of the radical followers of the Byrd machine who initiated the closure of some Virginia’s schools rather than to allow even minimal desegregation. While the Byrd followers attempted to show leadership to the entire South by charting a path to keep separate education facilities for blacks and whites in spite of court ordered desegregation, moderates were leading Virginia through the inevitability of school integration.

The essayists picked by Lassiter and Lewis describe moderates as persons who supported the continuation of public education in Virginia, who believed that court orders must be obeyed, and who held racist beliefs that tended to differentiate among blacks according to class. Thus, moderates were willing to allow school desegregation to keep public schools open but were also likely to support ability tests for blacks before they were accepted into white schools. On the other hand, the essayists describe the Byrd machine radicals as believers in cast racism that marked all blacks as being inferior to all whites. Therefore, any desegregation of schools was unacceptable. Cast racists predominated in Southside and Tidewater Virginia where the black population was equal or greater than the white population in many counties. Class racists tended to be more numerous in northern and western Virginia where blacks were a much smaller percentage of the population.

Although there is no adequate measure of which group had the greater support among the white population of Virginia, the radicals’ message of resistance dominated state politics after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The essayists attribute this dominance to three root causes. First, Virginia politics was dominated by Democrats with little opposition from Republicans. This dominance was maintained by Democratic gerrymandering of the General Assembly that allowed greater representation of rural areas at the expense of the fast growing urban areas, particularly in northern Virginia. Second, within this downstate center of Virginia political power, the root ideas of massive resistance were planted by right wing columnist, James J. Kilpatrick, of The Richmond News Leader. Kilpatrick offered the doctrine of interposition, a twentieth century version of nullification in which the state would interpose itself between the federal courts and local school boards to prevent desegregation. Third, the earliest challenge to segregated schools in Virginia came in Prince Edward County, a part of Virginia’s Southside where cast racism was the strongest. Kilpatrick’s ideas were published shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that included Prince Edward County in that initial Supreme Court decision. Opposition to the decision among Virginia’s leaders was immediate and quickly turned to extreme positions.

In 1956, radicals managed by a thin margin to pass its agenda in the General Assembly which crafted a law that allowed the state to take control of any white school that allowed blacks to attend the school. The state then was to close the school to avoid desegregation. In addition, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the state to pay tuition grants to parents who wished to send their children to private schools to avoid integration.

By the fall of 1958, the state’s massive resistance plan was put into play as federal courts ordered desegregation in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County. Affected schools were closed in each jurisdiction. In Charlottesville, the move had the effect of rallying moderate parents who opened alternate schools that were to be closed as soon as the public schools reopened. This defeated the concept of a separate whites-only private school system. A similar movement occurred in Norfolk, and business leaders in both communities soon joined the parents in warning of the problems of closed public schools. Parents in Arlington and Alexandria who were facing similar court orders banded together to save their public schools. The moderate agenda moved to the forefront of state politics only after Virginians focused on the destructiveness of school closings. On January 19, 1959 (Lee Jackson Day in Virginia), the massive resistance plan was declared unconstitutional by both the U. S. and Virginia Supreme Courts. Schools in Norfolk, Arlington, and Alexandria were desegregated within weeks and reopened without incident.

Lassiter and Lewis have offered their essays to explain that it was the actions of white moderates that rallied parents to keep their children in Virginia’s public schools after desegregation rather than allowing a separate white-only private school system. With that moderate support, desegregation in Virginia progressed without violence or wholesale abandonment of public schools. In the last essay in the book, Lassiter also explains that through Benjamin Muse, a retired columnist for The Washington Post, the Virginia message of moderation was taken south to the hard core black belt states, but Muse’s message found little support among whites of the Deep South.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

The editors of this book have chosen an interesting title, The Moderates’ Dilemma. After all, support for the rule of law and public education does not seem to present much of a dilemma in post-Civil War America. But, depending on how the message was crafted in the 1950’s, people who held such views could easily be branded as integrationists and lose their appeal to much of the southern white population. Whether cast racist and class racist, the vast majority of Virginians did not believe in wholesale mixing blacks and whites. In order to have a voice in Virginia politics, moderates had to accept that reality. In crafting a message that would appeal to those Virginians who believed that mixing of whites and higher class blacks was acceptable, moderates found a way to manage the desegregation of schools in Virginia. The strength of this book is delineating the gradations of racism practiced by southerners. With this understanding, the relative peaceful integration of Virginia as opposed to areas in the Deep South comes into focus.

Lassiter and Lewis have done an excellent job of picking topics for the essays to make a coherent argument in the book. By their own admission, they included two essays that do not reflect moderate views. An essay on the ideas of James J. Kilpatrick is included to allow the reader to understand the basis for the radicals’ arguments for closing public schools. An essay on the closing of schools in Prince Edward County provides the background that moderate views did not prevail in Southside Virginia even after massive resistance was declared unconstitutional. The Prince Edward school board argued that the Supreme Court order only applied to state government and did not disallow the county from closing its public schools. Therefore, schools were shut in the county in the fall of 1959 and stayed closed until 1964 when federal courts finally declared the county’s actions unconstitutional. So while integrated classes operated without incident in parts of Virginia, black belt counties remained segregated until the ruling on the Prince Edward matter.

Although the views of moderates are well-covered by the essays chosen, the story of Lenore Chambers of the Norfolk Virginian Pilot is conspicuously missing. Chambers used his position as editor of the paper to stand fast against the closing of Norfolk schools. This voice of moderation was important in diffusing a very difficult situation in Virginia’s largest city. Chambers story, which is told by Alexander S. Leidholdt in his book, Lenoir Chambers and Virginia’s Massive Resistance to Public-School Integration (The University of Alabama Press, 1997), is maybe more impressive than the story of Benjamin Muse because Chambers worked for a Virginia newspaper serving a part of Virginia included in the black belt. The Chambers story shows that voices of moderation could be found in all parts of Virginia during the massive resistance era.

Lassiter and Lewis have shown that although it was left to blacks to use federal courts and public persuasion to end Jim Crow laws, it was the cooperation of moderate whites that paved the way towards a peaceful transition to an integrated southern society. The history that the editors portray is from the perspective of whites only. Stories of black civil rights leaders such as Oliver Hill are not included. The omission of the voice of blacks is unfortunate since the story of Virginia’s school desegregation is one in which leadership was left on the sidelines as the state’s citizens, both black and white, paved the way for a new way of life in Virginia.

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