Massive Resistance

American society has long resisted the idea of creating a truly egalitarian society. This was first noted in the early nineteenth century in one of the earliest comprehensive studies of the United States when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that America’s ability and willingness to confront its racial and color divide would deter mine its very survival. Toqueville’s study took on added meaning later in the century as North and South engaged in a bloody civil war, largely over slavery. Closely connected were issues related to the industrialism of the North versus the agrarian economy of the South, the belief that all powers should be centralized in Washington versus the idea that the US Constitution sanctioned a federal system which guaranteed specific rights to the states (states’ rights), and the jockeying by both the North and South for political power and supremacy which had plagued the United States since its very inception.

If there were moments evoking an optimism leading toward greater equity and egalitarianism in the decades following the Civil War (the Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments designed to free the slaves, grant them citizenship, then give them the right to vote), this optimism would soon be shattered by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision (Cruse 1987; Bell 1992) which sanctioned and legalized racial inequality and would be the judicial framework for a national and comprehensive ”separate but equal” view which undergirded a policy of racial segregation and exclusion. Plessy v. Ferguson would prevail until challenged and delegitimized by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which denounced the dual school system and ordered the desegregation of formerly segregated public schools.

Most white Southerners  and politicians reacted with horror to the Brown decision and vowed to follow a policy of non compliance. For this reason, between 1954 and 1965, 97.75 per cent of black children continued to attend segregated all black schools (Black & Black 1987). While average citizens and politicians simply sulked, denounced the court decision, declared themselves advocates for states’ rights, and were content to play a waiting game, Virginia’s US Senator Harry F. Byrd, the leader of the infamous and politically powerful ”Byrd Machine,” stepped into the limelight and became the leading opponent of the Brown decision under the banner of ”massive resistance.”

Prior to the call for massively resisting the Brown decision, Virginia proposed numerous measures to circumvent it. One was the Gray Plan (Sartain & Dennis 1981), named after Senator Garland Gray and made public in November 1955. This plan pleased very few, including some of the massive resisters. Under this plan, (1) tuition grants were to be given to white children to attend private schools if their schools were ordered to desegregate; (2) a pupil placement plan would allow local school boards to assign students to specific schools, thus slowing the pace of desegregation; and (3) the Virginia Constitution would be amended to eliminate compulsory education, thus no child would be forced to attend a desegregated school.

Senator Byrd sounded the call to arms which initiated the Massive Resistance Movement on February 24, 1956 (Moeser & Dennis 1982) when he contended: ”If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order [Brown decision] I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.” That Byrd and Virginia would lead the fight against the Brown decision, and thus become deeply involved in racial matters, was unusual in that historically Virginia generally sought to distance itself from the more rabidly racist states of the Deep South such as South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, though like the white public and politicians throughout the South, Virginia was ideologically committed to the myth of white supremacy. But as Sartain and Dennis (1981: 211) asserted, ”geographically there are many states further South, but ideologically none is farther South in culture and tradition than Virginia. Richmond is a major focal point for the spirit of the Old South. Here are located the Museum of the Confederacy and other reminders of the days of Richmond’s greatest era of fame, such as the Robert E. Lee House and the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

The Virginia General Assembly met for a special session in August 1956. The session was designed to address two issues: to apply political, social, and economic pressure on the local chapter of the NAACP and its members and to enact measures to thwart the school desegregation order (Sartain & Dennis 1981).

Regarding the former, pressures were brought on black parents to refrain from soliciting to have their children attend  white schools, attempts were made to seize the records and membership of the local and state NAACP chapters, and individual NAACP members were fired from their jobs if they applied to enroll their children in white schools. The legal underpinnings of massive resistance were established by the General Assembly in three areas: (1) a State Pupil Placement Board was established which would be responsible for all pupil assignments and transfers; (2) the governor was given a mandate to close any school ordered to desegregate and reopen such schools only on a segregated basis; if this failed, state funds would be withdrawn from all schools operating as desegregated schools; (3) state supported tuition grants would be awarded to white children whose schools were closed due to the desegregated order.

Though Harry F. Byrd had issued the ”massive resistance” battle cry in February 1956, the legal battle for the movement began with the August 1956 special Virginia General Assembly session. The Assembly set the mood and tone for the opposition to the desegregation order, and even if many Southern politicians and white citizens sought to circumvent the decision, only Virginia would actually defiantly close its public schools in a show of massive resistance to desegregation. J. Harvie Wilkinson (1979: 83) indicts Senator Byrd for the social, educational, political, and economic pain inflicted upon Virginia and the South, and asserts that Byrd was determined, in his last years, to ”reap the drama and glory of another Lost Cause.” And it would be a lost cause (Wilkinson 1979: 83-101), though before the battle was over, Prince Edward County, a small rural and impoverished county, when ordered to desegregate, closed its schools from 1959 to 1964, deschooling more than 1,400 whites, the vast majority of whom were educated in churches, synagogues, homes, and other places. The 1,400 blacks were not so fortunate, and more than 800 would be denied any formal education. In Norfolk, Virginia six white high schools closed rather than desegregate, and more than 2,000 to 3,000 black students were without formal education. The legal rebellion came to a close in January 1959 (Sartain & Dennis 1981), when a panel of federal judges declared Virginia’s laws opposing desegregation to be illegal and unconstitutional. Two important movements and themes emerged out of the Massive Resistance Movement. One was the Committee to Save Public Schools, an inter racial movement which would have an impact in the area of political alliances and coalitions for blacks and whites in the major cities in Virginia. The other was the creation, by young black professionals, of the Crusade for Voters, an organization designed to rally and develop black political power in urban areas. The Crusade (Dennis & Moeser 1982; Moeser & Dennis 1982: 34) would become the most important black political group in Richmond and the surrounding areas. It would change and reorder the political landscape in the city and state by ”first increasing the political consciousness of blacks and then translating that consciousness into voting power.”


  1. Bell, D. (1992) Race, Racism, and American Law. Little, Brown, Boston.
  2. Black, E. & Black, M. (1987) Politics and Society in the South. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Cruse, H. (1987) Plural But Equal. William Morrow, New York.
  4. Dennis, R. M. & Moeser, J. (1982) Metropolitan Reform and the Politics of Race in the Urban South, 1960 1980. Western Journal of Black Stu
  5. dies 6, 1 (Spring). Moeser, J. & Dennis, R. M. (1982) The Politics of Annexation. Schenkman, Cambridge, MA.
  6. Sartain, J. and Dennis, R. M. (1981) Richmond, Virginia: Massive Resistance Without Violence. In: Williw, C. V. & Greenblatt, S. (Eds.), Community Politics and Educational Change. Longman, New York.
  7. Tocqueville, A. de (1966) Democracy in America. Harper & Row, New York.
  8. Wilkinson, J. H. (1979) From Brown to Bakke. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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