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In the Shadows of Brown


Our nation commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on May 17, acknowledging the intent and gravity of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. Many celebrated the lives enriched by fuller and more inclusive access, as well as the courageous young people who faced White mob violence and open hostilities to integrate schools. The story of the Massive Resistance that followed Brown rarely takes shape though. And, so, The Acumen Group provides for you here, a few liner notes of the Brown and Brown II decisions.

As with the legal decisions to emancipate and offer full citizenship to formerly enslaved Blacks following the Civil War, proponents of the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas decision found that the government could not legislate the hearts of men.  After its decision in Brown declared racial discrimination in public education unconstitutional, the Supreme Court convened to issue directives that would help implement its new mandates.  While Brown addressed the legality of segregation and was believed to ring the death knell of legal segregation in America, the oft-overlooked Brown II decision, would blueprint the remedy and implementation of integration.  Brown II, however, saw Supreme Court justices move to sidestep their previous ruling of immediate integration in Brown by permitting segregated schools to desegregate with all deliberate speed – or in layman’s terms, at the pace set by local school boards. 

Gradual desegregation and a flexible implementation meant that the same local governments that instituted segregation could determine how, in what manner, and at what rate their schools would integrate. 

Legal historian Michael J. Klarman called Brown II “a solid victory for white southerners” and wrote in his landmark work “From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality,” that white school boards across the nation enacted deliberate measures to resist, delay, and avoid significant integration for years — and in some cases for a decade or more.

“[Brown II] permitted a wide range of outright evasions such as closing down school systems and using state money to finance segregated private schools, stalling tactics, and subterfuges such as token integration where a few Black children are admitted to "white" schools but the vast majority are forced to remain in underfunded, unequal Black schools,” he wrote.

Richard Kluger, author of “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality,” said the Court faced a dilemma: “It was one thing to reach a judgment on principle… If [they] do it in a way that's too abrupt, too harsh, too confrontational, the South will rise up and really oppose [them]… It could work out so badly that (the Court) would be reduced in stature and the country could be thrown into chaos,” Kluger said.

Some lawmakers silently plotted against the Brown decision, while others, like Virginia Senator Harry Flood Byrd, considered the federal government out of line and offered a public battlecry “If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”

Operating under the moniker the “Byrd Machine,” Byrd, a former governor (1926-1930), instituted “Massive Resistance" strategies to maintain school segregation that were adopted by school boards and state governments throughout the South, with more than 100 southern office-holders signing the manifesto.

Virginia's Prince Edward County (site of the Student Strike at Moton High) became a model for Byrd’s “Massive Resistance.” A new and larger Moton High School was built in 1954 to demonstrate the school board’s compliance with Brown.  In addition to building a new larger facility, the old Moton High buildings were converted to a Black elementary school. Simultaneously, however, Prince Edward County resisted actual desegregation by refusing to assess and collect the school taxes for the 1959-1960 school year, effectively shuttering the public school system. 

Tuition grants provided to White students through the Prince Edward School Foundation allowed them to attend private schools at taxpayers’ expense. Black students, who were not eligible for the grants were forced to leave the state or rely on correspondence courses for five years (1959-1963) to educate their children.

Other jurisdictions supported the Brown decision on paper -- if only to identify and retaliate against Black families who would venture out of prescribed social spaces. 

“Mississippi was among the worst offenders when it came to retaliating against Black families who sought to desegregate schools,” said historian Beulah Bell.  “Between the White Citizen’s Councils, law enforcement, and the Klan, the Brown decision when coupled with the Brown II decision, made it almost impossible to take advantage of the letter of the Supreme Court’s decision."

White Citizens' Councils (WCC) offered a real and present danger to desegregation.  To defend white supremacy, resist integration, and suppress all efforts on the part of Blacks to improve their lives, WCCs used economic retaliation including firings, evictions, and foreclosures, public condemnation, economic boycotts, and legislative lobbying.

“The Councils had a lot of money and influence and their members had control over the lives of Blacks through intimidation and employment.  Blacks were helpless in many cases against that type of all-sweeping power.  Their efforts bring into focus how the slow desegregation of schools – placing their children a few at a time, in harm’s way – took an amazing level of courage and conviction,” Bell said.

The “Massive Resistance” to school integration that originated with the Brown II decision continued until 1964 when the Supreme Court overturned its Brown II decision and revoked all deliberate speed by ruling in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, that “...the time for mere ‘deliberate speed’ has run out.”


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