Never forget

Published 10:12 am Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fifty years have now passed since the dark days of Massive Resistance, when public schools in some Virginia localities were shuttered rather than integrated.

Virginia has had an overall proud and constructive history; yet except for the original sin of slavery, Massive Resistance is the most indelible stain on the state’s soul.

When today’s young people are told about the school closings, they are astonished. In retrospect, it is almost unbelievable — even for those of us who lived through the era — to accept that public education ceased in order to prevent “the mixing of the races.”

But the nightmare was all too real. I was a young boy growing up in Norfolk when my father told me that my cousins were no longer able to attend school. Even as a youngster I had noticed the commotion, as well as the separate water fountains and the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards. One Sunday, an African-American serviceman came to religious services. As he sat down, every white person in the pew moved. I was five or six years old, but I still vividly recall the anguish and humiliation on the man’s face. This happened in a church, and this gentleman was serving our country.

These were the times. Society was sick with the plague of racism. And instead of helping to cure the disease, Virginia made it worse — much worse.

The state’s elected leadership refused to accept Brown v. Board of Education, the breakthrough Supreme Court decision in 1954, which held that separate, segregated schools were inherently unequal.

Barbara Johns, a brave 16-year old in Prince Edward County, had helped to precipitate Brown in 1951 by organizing a strike to protest the disgraceful condition of her all-black high school. The resulting lawsuit was one of five cases the Supreme Court heard under the name Brown v. Board of Education.

Virginia’s reaction to Brown was the “Southern Manifesto,” championed by

U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., and signed by more than 100 significant officeholders in the South. By 1956 Byrd-led Virginia decided to fight, and the General Assembly passed a state law that cut off funding and closed any school that agreed to integrate.

In September 1958, several schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County were on the verge of integrating because of court orders, but the state seized and shut them, creating the “Lost Class of ‘59.” Some black and white students were tutored privately, but many others never made up the lost ground.

Reason gradually prevailed. Virginia’s business leaders, many of them segregationists, nonetheless nudged the state toward integration, fearing the results of an uneducated workforce. This modest progressivism was not without cost. In Norfolk, hard-line segregationist mayor, Fred Duckworth, reportedly kept a list of these “soft” businessmen on his office door and turned away any who dared to come by.

Finally, the federal and state courts acted, and on Jan. 19, 1959 (ironically, Robert E. Lee’s birthday) the school-closing law was overturned. In early February, a handful of black students integrated the schools, though not in Prince Edward County, where the public schools tragically remained locked until 1964.

Soon federal civil rights laws turned outcasts into voters, and Virginia gradually gave up most vestiges of segregation. Blacks won local offices and General Assembly berths, and the state led the nation by choosing the first elected African-American governor, Douglas Wilder, grandson of slaves, in 1989.

By 2008 Virginia voted for Barack Obama by a wide margin and the first African-American president swept all localities that had closed schools, save for small Warren County.

Some Virginia leaders have also tried to face the legacy of the 1950s head on. In 2004 a much more enlightened General Assembly created a scholarship fund to provide educational opportunities for those damaged by the earlier legislature’s actions.

This past February, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim apologized from the heart on behalf of his city to an emotional gathering of Massive Resistance survivors.

Massive Resistance may seem to be ancient history, but it should never be forgotten — a classic case of leadership gone awry and irrational fears shaping public policy. And there are many lessons to be learned and applied to today’s politics.