The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Schools desegregation: what happened before massive resistance?

I mentioned (December 14 2003) at the time of the Strom Thurmond/Essie Mae Washington farrago an interesting little book from 1964, Mr Kennedy and the Negroes by Southern liberal journo Harry Golden.

The advantage of such books is that not only are they full of hard-to-find anecdotes but they preserve like a fly in amber the temper of the times untainted by hindsight [1].

On the anecdotal side, I see a reference to our old friend Olin the Solon, Olin Johnston of South Carolina. Johnston it was [2] who,
listening to one of Senator Thurmond’s diatribes on the subject of civil rights, 'Listen to ol’ Strom. He really believes all that shit.'

Implying that the rest of the Southern Caucus were as indifferent as a Western Republican to the Negro Question.

Golden has this (p23):
In 1938, when [then Governor Johnston] tried to unseat Senator "Cotton Ed" Smith, he charged that the incumbent Senator was a "nigger-lover".

"Cotton Ed," said Johnston, "voted for a bill that would permit a big buck nigger to sit by your wife in a railroad train."

Cotton Ed retaliated by boasting to his constituents that he had walked out of the Democratic National Convention in 1936 when a Negro minister was asked to recite a prayer...

(Democratic National Convention? Those were the days when Northern liberal Democrats were happy for the greater good - chiefly their own - to rub shoulders with hoodlums like Tom Pendergast of Kansas City and white supremacists like - almost all Dixie Dems.)

Golden draws attention (p78) to an interesting (if true) phenomenon of Southern reaction to the May 17 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education: initially, there wasn't much.

Now, I'd understood that the border states had generally taken the decision in a mood of resignation. But, in some parts of the Confederacy, too, reaction was not hostile:
Governor Francis Cherry of Arkansas said: "Arkansas will obey the law;"...and Frank Clement of Tennessee said the Court was supreme "in interpreting the law of the land." Even Governor Thomas Stanley of Virginia, though he changed his mind six weeks later, promised he would call a meeting of state and local officials to "work toward a plan which shall be acceptable to our citizens and in keeping with the edict of the court."

Of course, Arkansas later gave us the ruckus at the Central High School in Little Rock; and Virginia, under Harry Byrd [3], was later a centre of massive resistance with the closure of the schools of Prince Edward County and so forth.

But - Golden argues - at the outset, there was a vacuum of leadership. He's suggesting that Eisenhower should have taken the initiative (not entirely in character with the man!) in leading the South towards integration. But, equally, one might wonder why the Southern Caucus in the Senate were not able to do take control and organise their countrymen with a view to achieving the opposite!

Chapter 4 of the Keith Finley thesis covers the period, but hasn't much: he soon skips forward to the Southern Manifesto was discussed in early 1956, and unveiled on March 12 of that year. That's 22 months after the in-principle decision in Brown!

Given that the schools desegregation cases (starting with Clarendon County, SC) had been progressing through the courts since 1950 (earlier pieces) - and were clearly the greatest threat to Jim Crow (aka the Southern way of life) - it's more than a little surprising that Southern senators, who were the main bulwark against encroachment, were so apparently ill-prepared.

Notably, between Brown and the Southern Manifesto came the Emmett Till case which so adversely affected Northern opinion.

The Caucus had already agreed that the way to go was to junk the old Bilboesque ranting (and Huey Long potlikker recipe filibusters) in favour of a calm and reasoned - and extremely leisurely! - defence of Jim Crow in the Senate in the face of measures like FEPC.

And had enjoyed success not only in stymieing all such measures, but in strengthening the filibuster by requiring two-thirds of all senators, not merely those present and voting, to pass cloture.

But when Der Tag finally arrives, courtesy of Earl Warren and his merry men, the Caucus goes off in all directions.


What if there had been leadership from the likes of Richard Russell to implement in the Southern states the plan of temporising and minimising that had been adopted for use in the Senate?

Is it possible that the South could have managed affairs in a way that would have slowed down the process of integration to a crawl for decades? I doubt it: the necessarily immense self-discipline required was lacking.

As ever, favourable framing would have been vital. The aim would have been to provoke violence from Negroes discontented with procrastination over desegregation: they would be seen by the Northern public as the ones endangering the stability of the Union, and would be punished for it [4].

As it was, of course, after Till, there was Little Rock and - the clincher? - the Bull Connor Show in Birmingham, which provided exactly the opposite framing: the Negroes were the dignified, peaceable upholders of the Constitution, the Southern whites the worthy heirs of Rhett and Yancey, threatening, with all the talk about interposition, a sort of semi-secession; and demonstrating the Southern zest for violence and fantasy, the one reinforcing the other.

(Was the footage of Connor's dogs and fire-hoses the first instance of the CNN effect, I wonder? The Till case, though huge, happened at a time when TV news coverage was less advanced. And, of course, unlike Connor's police going ape, the deed itself wasn't filmed.)

No, this, surely, was another Lost Cause - and that's the sort that they of the South like the best. (As recently demonstrated during the Schiavo Circus.)

  1. Both Gallica and the Million Book Project (the latter very much short of its target last time I looked!) have loads of such ephemera.

  2. According to a paper (PDF) From Defiance to Moderation: South Carolina Governors and Racial Change by Tony Badger.

  3. Stanley was presumably an emanation of the formidable Byrd machine. Did he clear that statement with the old man?

  4. The inner city riots in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere (that led to the Kerner Commission) happened just too late for the South.


There are a couple of theses on the desegregation of Virginia schools that may be useful (I haven't read them): one on schools in Danville, the other on schools in Southampton County.

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