May 16, 2024 - News

How Massive Resistance delayed school desegregation in Virginia

White children stand in the bed of a crappy pickup holding anti-school busing signs.

A 35-vehicle strong anti-busing caravan drove from South Richmond to Oregon Hill in Aug. 1970. Image: Courtesy of the Valentine museum's Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection

Friday may mark 70 years since the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board decision, but Virginia schools wouldn't see desegregation in any meaningful sense for nearly two decades.

Why it matters: The architect of Massive Resistance — the concerted political effort to thwart racial integration of schools by any means necessary — was Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., the powerful Virginia politician whose influence stretched into state and local governments.

The big picture: A former state senator and Virginia governor, Byrd and his family essentially controlled state and local politics for more than half of the 20th century through what was dubbed the "Byrd Machine."

  • His sway helped usher in sweeping policies throughout Virginia immediately after Brown v. Board that had one shared goal: to preserve racial segregation in schools.

Zoom in: Those policies in Virginia included:

  • A statewide policy that made school attendance optional.
  • A law allowing parents who opposed integration to receive public funds via tuition grants to use in private schools.
  • The creation of the Pupil Placement Board — a three-person statewide agency of Byrd Machine-backed governor appointees that assigned students to schools and approved — or denied — transfer requests using race as the only criteria.
  • The denial of state funding to any public school that attempted to integrate. This resulted in the governor closing still white-serving schools in Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk in 1958 after a federal court ordered them to integrate.

Meanwhile, under Byrd's influence, most newspapers in the state took up the Massive Resistance cause and through editorials "relentlessly championed" it, to use the words of the 2009 editorial in the Times-Dispatch apologizing for their role.

All of this happened despite the fact that one the the cases wrapped into Brown was a lawsuit out of Virginia: Davis v. Prince Edward County, the case in which 16-year-old Prince Edward student Barbara Jones led a protest to integrate schools.

  • Prince Edward County, in turn, would close its schools for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than integrate.

Yes, but: The 1958 school closures in Norfolk and beyond left 13,000 Virginia students without a school to attend, which turned public opinion and marked the beginning of the end of Massive Resistance in Virginia — at least formally.

Worth noting: A statue celebrating Barbara Johns and her work to integrate Virginia schools was unveiled on Capitol Square in Richmond as part of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in 2008.

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