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International Socialist Review, Winter 1959


Lois Saunders

The South’s Dilemma


From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1959, pp.8-12.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Shall education be sacrificed to the racist fetish of segregation? Doubts begin to affect ‘massive resistance’

* * *

THE United States Supreme Court on September 29, 1958 told the South to end its obstruction and to get on with the task of integrating its schools.

It thus set the legal framework within which the continuing battle of the Negroes for equality in educational opportunities must unfold. For the first time the question was posed to the South as a choice between the alternatives of admitting a limited number of Negroes to all-white schools or closing down the schools entirely: integration or no education.

The Court made it clear that henceforth the South must accord the same rights to Negro children as it does to white children. “The constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color,” stated the unanimous decision, “... can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers, nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted ingeniously or ingenuously.”

In an unusual move, the Court gave advance warning that it would hold unconstitutional any legislation or plan that seeks to subvert its orders. The decision continued:

“State support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds or property cannot be squared with the [Fourteenth] Amendment’s command that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This emphatic “No!” was the Supreme Court’s answer to an appeal from Little Rock officials for postponement of the token integration enforced there last year after federal troops put down riots officially inspired by Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus. The request for a two and one-half year delay was a stratagem calculated to nullify the Court’s previous rulings and bring integration to a halt.

Had the Court backed down and granted the delay, it would have meant putting off school desegregation to an indefinite future throughout the South. Little Rock was the symbol and the testing ground, and this was universally recognized. In fact, federal judges in Virginia and elsewhere held up judgments in other school cases pending the Little Rock decision. The granting of the delay there would have been an invitation to racists everywhere to foment riots in the Faubus fashion, and then use the resulting violence and tension as an excuse for preventing court-ordered integration.

Even more was at stake, however, than the fate of integration; the authority of the federal government had been brought into question. By the time school opened in September, the South had gone too far in its defiance to permit the Court to yield to the Little Rock appeal. The South again, as in the period before the Civil War, was asserting the supremacy of the states and accusing the federal government of exceeding its powers by intervening in the matter of race relations. By choosing States Rights as its battle cry, the South threatened the foundations upon which the government is based. Successful defiance of specific federal court orders in one sphere opens the way for defiance elsewhere and weakens the entire governmental structure. Faced with a fundamental challenge to its authority, the Court had no alternative but to insist that its orders be carried out. This was the same issue that a year earlier had impelled the reluctant Pres. Eisenhower to send federal troops into Little Rock.

In the ruling of September 29, already referred to, the Court made it clear that it took a serious view of the challenge to its authority. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the decision, quoted from two of his predecessors, Chief Justice John Marshall who served from 1801 to 1835, and Charles Evans Hughes who was Chief Justice from 1930 to 1941, to restate the basic concepts of government that have guided the United States throughout its existence.

He quoted Marshall as follows:

“It is emphatically the province and the duty of the judicial department to say what the law is ... If the legislatures of the several states, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the Constitution becomes a solemn mockery.”

From Hughes, Warren quoted:

“If a governor can nullify a Federal Court order it is manifest that the fiat of a state governor, and not the Constitution of the United States, would be the supreme law of the land; that the restrictions of the Federal Constitution upon the exercise of state power would be but impotent phrases.”

Can It Be Enforced?

In denying the delay sought by Little Rock, the Court spoke out with unmistakable clarity. Yet its order was insufficient to send a single Negro child to. a white school. In the normal course, the Supreme Court has spoken, its decision is final and the disputed issue is settled. This does not apply, however, to cases involving race relations in the South, for these cases reflect a basic clash between antagonistic social forces. Demands of Negroes for equality even in limited spheres can be satisfied only by weakening the Jim Crow structure of society, the system which assures the continued rule of the white supremacists. To settle cases that involve struggles of such sweep, something more than a Supreme Court verdict is required. Some means must be found to enforce the verdict.

This is the essence of the problem. Can the Supreme Court decision be enforced? And if so, how?

Negroes say that the decision can be enforced and that it must be enforced now. They regard it as a monstrous crime against their children that they continue to suffer the degradation and disabilities of segregated, inferior schools in defiance of the clearly enunciated law.

Open the schools!

They are right, of course. Justice cries out that their demands be met. Concern for human dignity, for the education of the millions of Negro children growing up in the South, for their modest but intense striving merely to be treated as equals, dictate that the court decision should be enforced.

But like the court ruling itself, such considerations carry little weight with white Southern leaders. Instead of complying, the South insolently defied the Court, challenged the decision and organized systematically to oppose it. Since May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its initial school decision holding that segregation in itself equals discrimination and is unconstitutional, the Southern states have passed close to 200 laws to prevent integration in the schools.

They have devised endless delaying tactics; they have organized and activated the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan; they have resorted to economic boycott and terror against Negroes who seek their rights, and economic pressure and social ostracism against whites who are unwilling to conform to the Southern dictate and obey its taboos. They have thus sought to organize the totality of white society into the “massive resistance” policy of which they boast.

The South has made it abundantly clear that it is prepared to use every resource it can muster in defense of segregation. In following this course, it is doing what every ruling class or group has always done and always will do. It is fighting to preserve its own special privileges.

Those in power in the South owe their elevated position to the denial of rights to Negroes. This is true of the US senators and representatives, the state governors, the state and city administrations and the courts. It is also true of the landlords who exploit the sharecroppers and of the manufacturers who benefit from the open-shop, low-wage situation that results from division of the workers along race lines.

This “way of life” is based upon the myth of Negro inferiority. Segregation is one of the means whereby the myth is perpetuated. Separate and inferior schools are part of the Jim Crow pattern and in turn supplement and reinforce the degrading effects of segregation.

Any gains made by Negroes, no matter how small, tend to destroy the myth. Give the Negro an adequate education, equal opportunities for employment, the right to vote and to hold office, and the myth will explode. Once Negroes acquire equality of status, the arbitrary rule of the white supremacists and the advantages they reap from that rule will come to an end.

Integration – In Ten Centuries

T’he effectiveness of the South’s resistance is reflected in the statistics on school integration. Up to the present time, not a single elementary or high school anywhere in the Deep South has been integrated, and there has been only a trickle of integration in the Middle South. The important gains have occurred in the border states, but even here the process has slowed to a virtual halt.

The first two years following the 1954 Supreme Court decision saw many thousands of youngsters attending mixed schools for the first time – in Washington, D.C.; in Wilmington, Delaware; in Baltimore; in much of Kentucky and most of Missouri.

Then integration bogged down. By the fall term of 1956, some 700 school districts, almost a quarter of the approximately 3,000 in the South, were desegregated. In 1957, only 57 new districts were involved. This September the number of newly desegregated school districts dropped to 12, involving only 307 Negro children.

In the whole state of Tennessee, one of the states of the Mid-South, a total of 117 Negroes were enrolled in formerly all-white classes up to the end of school last spring. If Tennessee were to maintain that rate, it would take about 1,000 years – ten centuries – to integrate its 133,740 Negro students.

The battles now convulsing the South are not being fought over full integration, but over token integration. Only a small number of Negro children in what is called “integrated situations,” that is, school districts where some integration has taken place, are attending formerly white schools. This does not, however, minimize the importance of the present conflicts.

The resistance of the South surprised no one, least of all Negroes who know what it means to feel the lash and the torch of racist rule. Negroes, however, did believe that the federal government was bigger than the South and that, moreover, it spoke with one voice. They assumed that the President “of all the people” had the power to force the South to obey and the will to use that power. They were to learn otherwise.

The Sage of Burning Tree

The President of the United States enjoys great moral authority. Had Eisenhower spoken out at any time during the past four years in defense of integration, or had he at any time made it clear to Southerners that they must admit Negroes to white schools or suffer the consequences, much of the South’s defiance would have crumbled. Those individuals who are prepared to obey the law whether they agree with it or not would have acquiesced. The lawless elements who carry out the reactionary tasks set set them by the Faubuses, the Almonds, the Eastlands and the Griffins would think twice before dynamiting a school, or a Negro church or home, or a synagogue, if they would be punished for their actions.

But time and again when Negroes have appealed directly to the President for support, he has been too busy shooting quail in Georgia, or fishing or playing golf to answer their appeal. A singularly glaring incident occurred on October 25 when Eisenhower snubbed 10,000 students who participated in the Youth March on Washington. Leaders of the demonstration had written in advance to request a hearing, but when a small delegation arrived at the White House, Eisenhower was not at home, nor were any of his aides. The delegation went away empty-handed, leaving its prepared statement with a police guard. The President, they learned, had spent the late morning at the Burning Tree Golf Course.

On those few occasions when Eisenhower has mentioned integration, it was to urge Negroes to be patient, repeating the old bromide about how you can’t change men’s hearts by passing laws. This is the language of the South, spoken by the President of the United States. It begs the question, for Negroes are little concerned about what goes on in the hearts of Southern whites. Let the Southerners hug their hate to themselves as tightly as they like – but also force them to comply with laws that guarantee Negroes their rights.

The farthest Eisenhower has ever gone in his speeches was to deplore the bombing of synagogues after the dynamiting of a Jewish temple in Atlanta in October. When he sent troops to Little Rock in September, 1957, he was careful to explain that he did so only because Faubus had openly defied a federal court order. Even in that tense situation he made it clear that he was not taking sides publicly on the integration issue. Instead of supporting the Negroes in their demand that the law be enforced, Eisenhower has given encouragement to the South in its resistance to the law.

Congress, the third branch of government, could have passed laws increasing the power of the Justice Department, but Congress, like the President, has refrained from taking action to back the Supreme Court ruling. In the Civil Rights bill which it passed in the summer of 1957 – the first such legislation since Reconstruction – Congress carefully extracted from the measure those sections that would have strengthened the enforcement powers of the federal government.

The fact is that, despite appearances, neither the President nor Congress serve the interests of the people. This is true whether those in office belong to the Republican party or the Democratic party. Both parties are controlled by finance capital which has ruled the country ever since it gained ascendancy in the Civil War, and it is, by and large, the interests of Big Business that are served by the lawmakers and the executive. Control of Congress is exercised primarily through a bloc between Southerners and Northern conservatives. Within this bloc, the most stable group is that which comes from the Deep South. Wall Street, despite the fact that its publicists keep assuring us that Marx’s theories have been disproved, has a clear understanding of the conflict between its interests and those of the workingman, whether he has a white skin or a black skin. It has, therefore, a profound distrust of any congressmen or senators who show a tendency to “coddle” labor, including the Negro, for it recognizes that not all the legislators are equally pliant and reliable servants. When Pres. Eisenhower in his campaign speeches prior to the November elections lashed out against what he called the “radical” wing of the Democratic party, he was not merely indulging in campaign oratory; he was also voicing the apprehensions of the financial rulers of the country.

The strange phenomenon of the Supreme Court enunciating a policy which neither the President nor Congress is prepared to enforce reflects the contradiction faced by Big Business. It is determined to impose its policies through control of the executive and the conservative bloc in Congress. At the same time, it is bedeviled by Negro pressure at home and damaging criticism of American race relations in foreign countries. It is also faced with the changing economy of the South where industrialization is beginning to supplant the plantation in importance, with the resulting increase in the demand for semi-skilled and skilled labor.

To satisfy these conflicting needs, Wall Street finds it convenient to speak with two voices. The Court says proceed with integration; the President counters with an admonition not to proceed too rapidly. With one hand it giveth; with the other it taketh away.

We can expect, therefore, that the extension of Negro rights will be held to a minimum, and that, as a corollary, the gains that Negroes make will be in proportion to the amount of pressure exerted both here and abroad.

“Massive Resistance”

The crisis that has built up in Little Rock and in Virginia and which will develop elsewhere stems in large part from the dual policies of the government described above. Astute politicians like Faubus are emboldened to defy the Supreme Court by the sympathy they find in high places. When the Court this fall issued what amounted to an ultimatum, Faubus replied by putting into operation the “massive resistance” laws passed by a supine legislature, and proceeded to close the city’s high schools. Little Rock’s educational system was thrown into chaos. For two months some 3,500 students were deprived of their right to attend classes. Since then makeshift private schools, poorly equipped and inadequately staffed, have been limping along, giving a sketchy education to some of the white students. No provision has been made for the Negroes.

A similar, though somewhat calmer, development took place in Virginia. There Gov. J. Lindsay Almond also closed the schools rather than permit token integration, and they have remained closed. He shut 10,000 white students out of Norfolk schools rather than allow 17 Negroes to attend classes with them. He closed schools in Charlottesville affecting 1,700 white pupils and in Front Royal, where about 1,000 white youngsters were involved. The court had ordered 12 Negroes integrated in Charlottesville, 22 in Front Royal. In Little Rock only six Negro students were ordered admitted to Central High School.

The logic of the elaborate plans the South has worked out during the past four years made the closing of the schools inevitable. Yet this act was decisively different from all those which had preceded it, for now for the first time a segment of the dominant whites was injured just as much as were the Negroes.

Encouraging Signs

As a result, cracks and fissures have appeared in the South’s smooth facade of white supremacist. Up to now the division has been along race lines, with divergent views among the white population smothered in a common anti-Negro unity. With the cracking of that unity, the differences that have existed beneath the surface, including class differences, begin to manifest themselves.

Already we are hearing voices that sound strange in the South. When Fau-bus, after ordering the high schools to remain closed, called for a referendum to decide whether the schools should be kept closed or opened on an integrated basis, white women of Little Rock organized a “Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools,” and conducted a house-to-house campaign to get their neighbors to vote in favor of integration. One member of the committee commented: “It’s ridiculous to try to retain the ways of old grandad in this age of sputniks and missiles.” During the same campaign, 63 of the city’s leading lawyers, many of whom number railroads and other large corporations among their clients, took out ads in the daily papers, urging a vote for integration.


In Charlottesville, Virginia, last June, when school closing was threatened but had not yet become a reality, a poll was taken of PTA members at Venable Elementary School, one of those affected by the court order. Of the 305 parents who replied, 177 favored “limited integration,” against 128 who preferred closing the schools rather than admit a few Negro students. When the school was finally closed this fall, the townspeople were split in two. Two committees were formed, one for integration, the other for segregation.

A sizeable section of Virginia’s teachers also are prepared to accept integration. At its state convention October 30, the Virginia Educational Association heard an address by Gov. Almond and then voted a resolution asking him to convene the General Assembly and pass laws to reopen the schools. A softening resolution was tabled by a vote of 650 to 151.

The American Federation of Teachers likewise took a fine stand at its convention in Milwaukee and set an example that other unions should copy. The convention refused to reinstate its all-white Chattanooga local and upheld its constitutional provision that prohibits any local from “limiting its membership on account of race or color.”

It also called upon the federal government to take over and run on an integrated basis all schools that have been closed. This same proposal has appeared in a number of places and gives some evidence of developing into a popular demand.

Another proposal that seems likely to spread is one for “local option,” that is, letting the residents of a city or town ordered to integrate decide by referendum whether they prefer to close the schools or admit Negro children. One such referendum has been held in Norfolk, Virginia. A threat to close schools next year in Atlanta, Georgia, has brought forth a similar demand from the mayor there. Let the people vote on the issue, he urged.

An action that is highly unusual in the South – if, indeed, it has ever occurred before – took place in Norfolk in October when a group of white parents filed a lawsuit against the governor and other state officials asking that the state’s segregation laws be ruled unconstitutional and that the six schools that have been shut down be reopened.

The press, too, here and there, is showing signs of shifting its position. On October 5 the Roanoke (Virginia) Times commented editorially:

“The program of massive resistance has now come to the bitter and inevitable finality ... [Yielding to the court is onerous] but to deprive Virginia’s children, white and colored, of education or to give them a defective education is an even greater evil.”

There has occurred, also, a beginning of political activity in favor of integration. In Virginia, a white woman, Dr. Louise O. Wensel, the mother of five children, ran as an independent candidate in the November 4 election against Sen. Harry F. Byrd and his tightly knit, pro-segregation machine. In her campaign, she charged Byrd with using “dictatorial control” to impose an unconstitutional program of massive resistance. She obtained an unprecedented vote equal to one-third of the total. Her strongest support came from those cities immediately affected by integration orders: Norfolk, 42 per cent; Arlington, 38 per cent; and Charlottesville, 37 per cent. A special referendum two weeks later on November 18 confirmed the election results. In voting on the school issue, 41.2 per cent of Norfolk’s citizens preferred accepting integration to keeping the schools closed.

In Houston, Texas, in the November elections, a Negro housewife, Mrs. Charles E. White, upset all expectations and won election to the city’s school board, after campaigning on a clear-cut pro-integration platform. She could not have been elected without white votes.

Of special interest among these first voices raised against the monolithic anti-Negro refrain are the voices of the youth. At the height of the agitation in Little Rock this year, a group of teenagers gathered at Hall High School and solmenly drew up a petition asking that the schools be reopened and stating that they had no objection to attending classes with qualified Negroes. In Norfolk, when the schools were closed there, about 100 students gathered in a parking lot near the Northside Junior High School and collected signatures on a petition which stated: “Not as segregationists or integrationists but as students who want an education we ask you to please keep our schools open.”

In Van Buren, Arkansas, in the western part of the state, a 15-year-old girl, Jessie Angelina Evans, president of the Student Council, put her elders to shame when she stood up before a turbulent school board meeting and asked segregationist parents: “Have YOU thought what you make those Negro children feel like, running them out of school?” To hostile questions, she replied: “Negroes have a right to attend school just as much as anybody. If we don’t object, why should anybody else?”

These are as yet only scattered voices in a wilderness of reaction, for the most part neither pro-Negro nor pro-integration, merely pro-education. In almost every case those who have spoken out in favor of integration have prefaced their remarks with the accepted ritual of the South: “I am opposed to integration ... but” or “I dislike the Supreme Court decision as much as anybody ... but”. Thus the prejudice remains, even while segregation tends to break down in fact – proving again the Marxist theorem that outworn social ideas often persist after the institutions which nourish them have disappeared.

The numbers involved in this incipient opposition to the South’s “massive resistance” are as yet too few to give the needed assistance to the Negroes who, as a minority, must find allies in order to carry their fight to a successful conclusion. The logical alliance is with the labor movement, but the cooperation that exists between Negroes and labor is limited and sporadic.

It would be incorrect to say that the labor movement has done nothing to further Negro demands for equality. The industrial unions formed in the militant thirties, especially in such areas as Detroit, have an excellent record in this regard and have demonstrated what can be done when workers unite. The unions have fallen down miserably, however, where their support is needed most, in the heartland of Jim Crow. In most instances the white workers of the South, instead of mobilizing on behalf of Negro rights, have formed an unnatural alliance with their class enemies against the Negroes, while their national leadership, grown conservative, has buckled under segregationist pressure and has failed even to discipline its own members. (There have been some exceptions. One, already noted, is the American Federation of Teachers; another is the Packinghouse Workers Union.)

Insistence on the part of the national union leaders that their locals in the South support the Negro fight for integration would, moreover, bring them into conflict with the politicians of the South and would pose the need for forming a labor party, in opposition to the Democrats as well as the Republicans. Such a perspective runs counter to the intentions of the union leadership which is busy courting the Democrats in the false hope that they can resolve the problems facing the working class by putting in office the political representatives of the capitalists.

Negro leaders have been preoccupied with efforts to steer a course towards victory in the fight against segregation, while at the same time avoiding the horror of a racist massacre, and have shied away from organizing along political lines, even when such a development seemed possible, as in the march on Washington on May 17, 1957, the third anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.

They didn’t call the demonstration a March on Washington. Instead, they referred to it as a “Prayer Pilgrimage,” and the choice of name was significant. The leaders did not conceive of the demonstration as an inspiring beginning of a mass movement, national in scope, spearheading the formation of a new political alignment. Had the Rev. Martin Luther King, the acknowledged leader, called upon that demonstration to reject both Democrats and Republicans and take steps, together with white workers, to initiate a new party, he would have set in motion a political force that could eventually have challenged Jim Crow rule. Those in charge of the demonstration chose to contain it within safe limits and channel it into a prayerful supplication, pleading for understanding and love, then dispersing quietly and inconspicuously.

In the main, Negroes have chosen to carry on the fight through legal contests, where they have won singular successes. Both the Negro leaders and the Negro people have given inspiring examples of integrity, courage, devotion and persistance. They demonstrated these qualities in the Montgomery bus boycott where the entire community under the leadership of the Rev. King and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, organized itself to walk for more than a year in order to win the right to “sit up front.” A heroic example was set also by the “Little Rock nine” who faced the mob and the bayonets of the state troopers and who then stood up to the jeers and insults and taunts of white students throughout the school term. Their heroism has been matched by that of students in other test cases, and of countless other individuals in every section of the South.

But heroism, even when backed by a Supreme Court decision, has proven insufficient to overcome the entrenched power of the Southern rulers. They maintain their power through political control and it is only through political action that they can be dislodged. In other words, we can expect that the Supreme Court decision will be enforced in the Deep South only when a political realignment has taken place of such proportions as to make possible a successful bid for power by forces in opposition to the white supremacists.

It is for this reason that the rift within the white population of the South brought about by the closing of the schools is of such special significance. Integration in places like Norfolk has become a live political issue instead of merely a dirty word used to inflame passions and instigate violence. There is now activity where before there was dead calm.

It is too soon to predict future developments, but this much can be said: the more Negroes challenge white supremacy, the more the division within the white South will deepen, and the greater will be the opportunity for the liberal forces and the white workers to line up alongside Negroes so that together they can strike a decisive blow against segregation and for equality.

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