Standing in the Schoolhouse Door: The White Response to School Desegregation During the Civil Rights Movement

Standing in the Schoolhouse Door: The White Response to School Desegregation
During the Civil Rights Movement
Alan Cross
Pastor, Gateway Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama
Presented at Auburn University at Montgomery Liberal Arts Conference – Southern Cultural Studies
February 7-8, 2014
Session: The Ideal and Reality of Southern Education During the Civil Rights Movement
When Alabama Governor George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963 to symbolically block the entrance of African American students into the school, he was simply acting upon the wishes of the majority of the white populace of the state and was attempting to fulfill the pledge he made at his inauguration in his infamous “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever” speech just six months before. Segregation represented a “Way of Life” in the South as Southern white identity could only be maintained on the foundation of imposed black inferiority and racial separation. To mix races in any regard would represent the destruction of a whole society. Racial segregation was the symptom. Defending a broken “way of life” was the disease.
Psychologist Robert Coles in his assessment of the Deep South in the 1960’s said, “In Mississippi I have watched certain white people for nearly a decade, and I truly wonder even today what they do believe in. In fact, their beliefs are often less important to them than the continuity of their lives. When that comes under a shadow, they respond – and so do their beliefs.” (Sokol, 2006) What happened to public education and public life in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement involving the response of whites can be understood best when we look not only at the concept of racial hatred, but rather, at the idea that Southerners were defending an established “way of life” that used racial segregation as an identifying and controlling mark. Just as race-based slavery defined the Antebellum South, so did race-based segregation define the South for the next one hundred years.
Situation prior to Brown v. Board of Education – Separate but Equal? The journey toward Civil Rights for African Americans had been engaged since Emancipation and had always appealed to the courts for recognition, often with success. However, the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by the United States Supreme Court helped firmly established segregation as a tool that whites could use to enforce the idea of “Separate but Equal” in regard to public accommodations, including public schools. While separation was ensured by law and by force, if need be, equality was never achieved. In Alabama, for example, racism left its mark on the tax structure and upon local government as each county was allowed to determine how it would fund its school system and according to the Constitution of 1901, any raise in taxes for the purpose of public enhancements, including schools, had to be approved by the state legislature. Of course, the ones making the decisions about who received funds for schools and how the schools operated were white and had an interest in putting limited resources toward their own race.
Gordon Harvey speaks to this disparity when he tells us that in early 20th century Alabama, the “average length of the school year was 72 days for white students and only 34 days for African Americans students. The value of the typical school property for whites was $40,000, in contrast to black school property valued at only $1,000. The average annual salary for white male teachers was $863 and for white female teachers $422, whereas African American male teachers earned $480, and black women teachers earned just $140.”
These disparities along racial lines eventually led to a series of court cases that were brought together in what became known as the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954) case which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and declared it unconstitutional for states to establish separate public schools for white and black students. Because we were not only dealing with racial division here but the governmental de-establishment of the entire “way of life” for the American South, the angered reaction among whites was swift and severe.
When the Brown verdict was given, Southern politicians, often elected to preserve the Southern Way of Life in regard to race, reacted as their constituents desired. They appealed to “States’ Rights” and concepts retrieved from Civil War days, such as nullification and interposition. They proclaimed that they would never give in to a tyrannical federal government imposing its will on the sovereign states.
Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge responded immediately by saying, “The court has thrown down the gauntlet. Georgians accepts the challenge and will not tolerate the mixing of the races in the public schools or any of its tax-supported institutions.” His Lieutenant Governor Marvin Griffin said that the races would not ever be integrated in Georgia, “come hell or high water!” (Kruse, 2005). Attorney General Eugene Cook pronounced that what the Court said in Brown did not apply to Georgia and that they would not give up segregation until they were forced to. This sentiment prevailed throughout the South.
The “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” was drafted in February-March 1956 by 101 of the South’s 126 representatives in the Senate and the House. It became known as the “Southern Manifesto.” Southern politicians were coming together in a strategy that became known as “Massive Resistance.” They believed that they could rally the South to oppose the federal government and to develop ways to keep their separate schools for whites and blacks.
The “Manifesto,” written by Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Richard Russell of Georgia, said, in part,
  • We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the states and the people . . .
  • This unwarranted exercise of power by the court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the states principally affected. It is 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. 

  • Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states. 

  • With the gravest concern for the explosive and dangerous condition created by this decision and inflamed by outside meddlers. 

  • We reaffirm our reliance on the Constitution as the fundamental law of the land. 

  • We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachments on rights reserved to the states and to the people, contrary to established law and to the Constitution. 

  • We commend the motives of those states which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means . . .
In Georgia, segregationists had been planning for this day. Kevin Kruse says,
In 1953, a full year before Brown, Governor Talmedge advanced a constitutional amendment giving the General Assembly the power to privatize the state’s entire system of public education. In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would instead receive private grants to attend private, segregated schools. ‘We can maintain separate schools regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court,’ Talmedge promised, ‘by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision.’”
Kruse tells us that this plan, and others like it throughout the South, were the first shots fired in a movement to reshape American politics and social issues far beyond the issue of race. He continues,
Although its proponents framed their resistance as a way to stop the clock on racial change and preserve the customs of the past, in truth the movement represented the first significant step toward a new conservative politics more attuned to the future. For it was in their challenge to integration that white southerners in Atlanta, and across the region, first considered major changes that they otherwise might never have contemplated – including complete abandonment of public education, establishment of an ersatz private system in its stead, and introduction of a system of tax breaks and tuition grants to fund the scheme.
Whites in each of the Southern states were developing responses to integration based on their own particular situation. As blacks responded to the Brown decision by attempting to integrate public schools, Alabama drafted the Pupil Placement Act in 1957. J. Mills Thornton, III in Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma describes the Pupil Placement Act as prescribing “a list of nonracial psychological and sociological criteria that local boards of education were instructed to use in determining whether or not to approve a student’s application to transfer from one school to another. Among these were the desires of parents and children of the school to which the student would be transferring. The act also constructed an elaborate process for appealing an adverse decision of a board, to ensure that it would take years before an applicant could exhaust the available administrative remedies and be permitted to turn to the federal courts.”
Through protests, court filings, and other acts, and in the midst of violence, Birmingham would be moved toward desegregation by 1963. By July 12 of that year, the U.S. Fifth District Court ordered that Birmingham public schools begin to desegregate. Five students in all would be admitted to an elementary school and two high schools. Patricia Marcus and Josephine Powell were admitted to West End High School, specifically, and Richard A. Walker was admitted to Ramsay High School. The result was that on August 20, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of black integrationist attorney Arthur Shores. A group of one to two thousand black people gathered at Shores’ home and a riot ensued before black leaders could get the mob to disperse. But, that was just the beginning of the violence.
Thornton reports that as soon as Marcus and Powell were admitted to West End on September 11, 1963, “virtually the entire white student body of 1,440 walked out and commenced a noisy demonstration in the school parking lot. They were joined by some 200 adults … Some disorders developed, and 10 of the adults were arrested.”
My Mother-in-Law, Melanie Graham, was a student at West End High School in September, 1963 and was an eyewitness of what happened. She says,
“Two black students (girls) came to our school, West End High School, in Birmingham in 1963. When they came in, the students were all in the front of the school trying to boycott. There was a lot of noise and ranting and yelling. My parents were never prejudiced and they insisted that I go to school that day, but I was afraid. To stay home was to oppose integration. To go to school was seen as support. The cheerleaders, football players, and band were required to be there. Other than that, there were very few students who actually went to school that day as many stayed home or they came to the school to holler and yell at the entrance. I was called names because I went to school that first day. I was called a “Nigger Lover” and that scared me [this term was used as a way to intimidate and control whites who might have been breaking the color line]. I thought that these people were my friends, but they turned against me too. The white students in the classes that the girls attended moved their desks to the edges of the class up against the wall and left the two black girls sitting in the middle of the classes by themselves. People would throw things on them, not to hurt them, but to harass them, like liquids. I remember it being very scary. I was most afraid of the white students because they were yelling at me and I didn’t know if the school would be safe because things were turned upside down. It was something new and I was caught in the middle of it. If we did have a prom that year, I don’t remember it and whatever parties happened were private.
I had a great neighborhood that I lived in, but after this happened, ‘For Sale’ signs went up in yards everywhere and all of the whites moved out of the neighborhood and blacks moved in. A lot of the kids transferred out of the school and went elsewhere. There were rumors that our church was going to be integrated and the deacons were out on the steps of the church to keep that from happening. I remember seeing them there. My parents stayed there until 1991 because they did not believe that they should move just because black people moved in.”
Things continued to escalate and boycotts and rallies opposing integration began to occur over the next several days in Birmingham. By Sunday, September 15, several Klansmen placed a bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church downtown, a center for the black demonstrators who were marching earlier that Spring. When the bomb went off, approximately two hundred black worshipers were in the church with at least eighty children with them. Four girls, ages 11 to 14, were in the basement and were killed while 20 others were wounded. Violence spread throughout the city and two other black teenagers were killed by whites. Birmingham was in shock at what had been wrought.
Birmingham’s Mayor Boutwell issued a statement effectively declaring that things had gone too far. He begged that “the tragedy of this Sunday morning … not be compounded by more senseless trouble tonight. Let every citizen who is not required by absolute necessity to be on the streets, to stay at home. Let every one of them pray and think. Tomorrow, I urge as strongly as I know how, for the children of Birmingham to get about the business of their education and leave this fearful task [of dealing with integration] to the School Board and their attorneys, and to our law enforcement officers” (Thornton, 2002). With that, the schools in Birmingham were integrated as five black students took their seats after seven young black people gave their lives.
Perhaps the violence was not as acute, but stories of opposition to school integration played out in communities all over the South. A “Way of Life” was being turned upside down and the reaction was often strong. Religious leaders joined in the denunciation of integration as Christian theology had been employed to buttress racist rhetoric in the South for over two hundred years. This moment of crisis would be no different.
W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, had captured the mood of many Southerners and Southern Christians when he gave a speech in 1956 to the South Carolina Baptist evangelism conference. In the wake of the Brown decision, Criswell, not making a biblical argument, but rather making a pragmatic and emotional appeal, went on to say to those who would try to integrate the South and bring blacks and whites together in political, social, and even religious settings:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision . . . to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made it—a land of the free and the home of the brave.
This was the key concept. Southern whites wanted to preserve and protect their “way of life.” The actions of whites must be seen in that regard. Davis Paschall, Virginia state superintendent of public instruction in response to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals invalidating Virginia’s own “Massive Resistance” plan to shut down schools as illegal in 1959, said, “The vast majority of our people are struggling valiantly and honorably for survival of a way of life and . . . for the survival of their schools . . . they are inwardly confused, hurt, and torn.”
Because Southern whites were thinking first about themselves and how the deconstruction of their segregated society would affect them, many first reacted in anger and defiance, as we have discussed. In time, they would begin to accept the reality of their situation as inevitable. As desegregation continued and as more and more schools and public spaces integrated, the white Southerner began to recognize that his world was passing away, much as it had for his ancestors after the Civil War one hundred years before. Reporter Jimmy Breslin, watching from the lobby of the Jefferson Davis Hotel in Montgomery during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march said,
You have not lived, in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing “. . . we are not afraid . . .” and then turn and look at the face of a cop near her and see the puzzlement, and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over. The South as it stood since 1865 is gone. Shattered by these people in muddy shoes standing in the street and swaying and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
As one world passed away, another would be born, but it was not always the hoped for “Beloved Community” where black and white children lived and played and went to school together. The ultimate result of integration of public schools in communities throughout the South would be mixed. In some cities and towns, whites and blacks attended school together and things went well as schools and communities flourished. That was basically my own experience in an integrated high school in a small town in Mississippi in the 1980’s and 90’s. But, for many other communities, white flight to suburban towns and areas and the emergence of private academies from the late 1950’s onward throughout the South marked a re-segregation of the education system. Today, in cities like Montgomery, the public school system is well over 80% black as most whites have chosen alternative routes for various reasons. Separate and unequal seems to be the emerging experience, but because private choices are made and acted upon, the separation persists.
While no one is standing in the schoolhouse door to keep whites and blacks separated in our public schools, we must wonder how we are going to move and grow together as one society when our educational experiences, choices, and opportunities continue to differ as greatly as they do. As a society, we seem to continue to pursue our own “way of life,” often at the expense of others. We see this phenomenon occur amongst all races and socio-economic groups and the result is continued strife, conflict, and community breakdown. The legacy of the fight for school desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement points us to a potentially better story of sacrifice, respect for all people, and a common bond of shared humanity. When we seek to put the interests of others before our own and consider others better than ourselves, only then will we experience the benefit of communities made whole as we all live together as people made in God’s image.
Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. Vintage Books, Random House, New York. 2006.
Harvey, Gordon. “Public Education in the Early Twentieth Century.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved from
Kruse, Kevin M. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 2005.
“Southern Manifesto on Integration.” March 12, 1956. From Congressional Record, 84th Congress Second Session. Vol. 102, part 4. Washington, D.C.: Governmental Printing Office, 1956. 4459-4460.
Thornton III, J. Mills. Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL and London. 2002
Personal interview with Melanie Graham, February 7, 2014.
Freeman, Curtis W. “Never Had I Been So Blind”: W.A. Criswell’s “Change” on Racial Segregation.

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