Massive Resistance to Brown and Brown II

Aftermath of the bombing of an NAACP member's home c. 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the NAACP.

Michael Klarman argues in From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (2004) that the significance of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) – and the re-argument of that case in Brown v. Board of Education II (1955) – stems from the varied reactions to the case, from the already desegregated states in the North to the “massive resistance” to desegregation in the South. Brown “radicalized southern politics” as politics showed signs of a “retrogression” that reversed many of the desegregated facets of society already in place (389-92). The decisions in Brown and Brown II made a significant impact on the South, but in a way that emboldened segregation, ensured limited advancement for blacks, and created an atmosphere that encouraged extremism and diminished moderate perspectives.

Brown II offered a “prompt and reasonable start” to desegregation (355-6). No longer could public schools be deemed “separate but equal” as originally instituted, albeit in different terms, in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. Klarman explains how the decision showed only some promise of being enforced. Though the desegregation of public schools was upheld by varying southern judges (who, feeling torn between their professional duties as justices following the Supreme Court and personal feelings against desegregation, leaned toward the former) a larger segment of society began to take on extreme views against Brown and its enforcement. The organization and shaping of this sentiment became known as massive resistance, and its origins stemmed from both genuine and carefully crafted sentiments. Brown II sought to reinforce its decision to invalidate segregation, but this outright rejection in the South during the 1950s and 1960s impeded (or at least delayed) its implementation.

The violence inherent to the resistance was prevalent and notable, but several historians point to the significance of the massive resistance as an extension of the compact theory of the Constitution (i.e. the states sustain a contract with the federal government at their will). In The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950’s (1969), Numan Bartley attributed this immediate reaction against desegregation first to the South’s “cultural lag” – an impediment that encouraged racism and other prejudices to resurface quicker relative to other northern states. The other force directing the massive resistance lies with its leading figures, namely Harry Byrd (governor and later senator of Virginia) and James Kilpatrick (editor of the Richmond News Leader, now the Richmond Times-Dispatch), along with other figures that essentially constructed the principles of massive resistance.

These figures (referred by Bartley as “neobourbons,” a term that reflected their similarity to nineteenth century bourbons who sought the end of Reconstruction) are essential to understanding the origins and evolution of massive resistance. Other sources provide specific research on the subject including Tony Badger’s series of articles on the leading document of the resistance – the “Southern Manifesto”. Badger discussed at length in “Southerners Who Refused to Sign the Southern Manifesto” (1999) the identities of moderate opinion in relation to the radicals that attempted to unite southerners against the Brown decision.

In 2004, Richard Parkinson explored the role played by James Kilpatrick and manipulative ways the press brought momentum to massive resistance (“First from the Right: Massive Resistance and the Image of Thomas Jefferson in the 1950s”). His interest in Kilpatrick is matched by James Ely, Jr. who wrote The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance (1976) with a focus on Harry Byrd’s role in designing the move against Brown and the Supreme Court (available in Dickinson College library). This book demonstrated the unusual strategies taken by Byrd as a political leader in Virginia after Brown, as noted in a review by Francis Wilhoit (author of another noted secondary source,  The Politics of Massive Resistance [1973], which is also available in Dickinson’s library).

Byrd was the subject of a the “first full-length study” in Professor Ronald Heinemann’s Harry Byrd of Virginia (1996) (available in Dickinson’s library). Attention to Kilpatrick remains, especially after his recent death on August 15, 2010.

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