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Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised Historically Black Colleges and Universities as pioneers in school choice. Allison Horrocks has already examined DeVos’s horrifying bastardization of the history of HBCUs, so today I wanted to shift focus onto the public schools and the resistance of white southerners to desegregation.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown vs. Board of Education, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The decision overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine from Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. In a unanimous decision, the Court concluded that segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause stated that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ordered that states desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The case was a landmark victory for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The victory, however, prompted Southern legislators to undermine and resist the Brown decision.

On March 12, 1956, approximately one hundred members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto on Integration” condemning the Brown ruling. These representatives and senators, the vast majority of whom were Democrats, came from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Noted segregationists and senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Richard Russell of Georgia took the lead in drafting the document. Three Democratic senators from the South: Albert Gore Sr. (father of the future vice president), Estes Kefauver, and Lyndon Johnson refused to sign on. A useful reminder: as Erin Bartram has written, these Democrats are not the same as the Democratic party of today. Thurmond, among others, later switched his allegiance to the Republican Party because of his support for segregation.


Strom Thurmond, noted segregationist and senator from South Carolina

The Manifesto claimed that the Supreme Court had exceeded its constitutionally granted powers in the Brown case. It stated that the “unwarranted decision of the Supreme Court in the public school cases is now bearing the fruit always produced when men substitute naked power for established law.” It attacked the Supreme Court for its “clear abuse of judicial power.” The Manifesto further stressed that the 14th Amendment did not address schools and should not apply in the case. Even more petulantly, the Manifesto pointed out that the doctrine of “separate but equal” originated in the North, not the South. It remained up to the states, the Manifesto stressed, to deal with their schools as they pleased.

The Manifesto also stressed the harm to Southern whites that would result from the case. It stated that the “separate but equal” doctrine “became a part of the life of the people of many of the states and confirmed their habits, customs, traditions, and way of life.” The doctrine relied on “elemental humanity and common sense, for parents should not be deprived by Government of the right to direct the lives and education of their own children.” In other words, white southerners, who grew up with segregated schools, should not have to send their children to integrated ones. The Manifesto went one step further accusing the Court of “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.” In the eyes of these senators and congressmen, ninety years of systemic racism, violence, Jim Crow, and segregation were actually years of “friendship and understanding” and “amiable relations.”

The Manifesto’s attacks on the judiciary were a part of a larger campaign by white Southerners against segregation. The tenor of the attacks—activist judges, overturning tradition, and a defense of white American culture—should ring a familiar bell, especially today.



Additional reading

John Kyle Day, The Southern Manifesto: Massive Resistance and the Fight to Preserve Segregation.

Joseph Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservativism.