New Directions in Virginia's Civil Rights History

By Pratt, Robert A. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

New Directions in Virginia's Civil Rights History


Pratt, Robert A., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


IN his comprehensive and illuminating historiographical essay, Brent Tarter has produced a concise and analytical overview of what currently exists on library bookshelves about Virginia history, and he offers suggestions how this collection, vast though it is, may be supplemented with new interpretations as well as new areas of inquiry. One facet of Virginia history that has long been ignored is the commonwealth's place in the black civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. The modern civil rights movement is one of the most compelling and monumental episodes in our nation's history. Virginia, like the rest of the country, particularly the South, played a significant part in it. And although the events in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama, as well as those in Little Rock, Arkansas, Albany, Georgia, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, truly represented the defining moments of black America's struggle against white supremacy, the events taking place in Virginia during those years, even though they were not always in the national spotlight, were no less pivotal in the remaking of an American society committed to the ideals of racial equality and social justice. Many of Virginia's civil rights activists have never appeared in the history books, and many contemporary issues, such as the current state of race relations in the Old Dominion, have never been the subject of scholarly inquiry. To date, no such comprehensive history of Virginia has been written.

Virginia's reaction to the 1954 Brown decision has been well documented. Richard Kluger's masterful Simple Justice provides a rich social and legal history of the events leading up to the Supreme Court's decision, including a detailed analysis of Virginia's involvement in the case by way of Prince Edward County. Massive resistance, which eventually became Virginia's official response to school desegregation, has been analyzed and debated extensively.(1) Yet, despite the voluminous literature that has appeared on the subject, questions remain whether massive resistance was an instinctive and inevitable reaction or a contrived political strategy. Although some have argued that massive resistance was an aberration and was inconsistent with Virginian modes of civility,(2) others (myself among them) have maintained that organized resistance to school desegregation allowed Harry F. Byrd, Sr., and his supporters to retain political dominance for another fifteen to twenty years. Rather than encouraging a good faith acceptance of the Court's ruling, the Democratic Organization effectively exploited racial tensions by mobilizing white sentiment against school desegregation. Indeed, Michael J. Klarman's conclusions about the South's response to Brown seem to fit Virginia perfectly, inasmuch as he argues that the controversy over integration produced a political climate in which racial demagoguery flourished.(3) Clearly, there were Virginia politicians who made their careers by pledging their unwavering commitment to white supremacy. Did the Brown decision then resuscitate a political organization that some have suggested was teetering on the brink of collapse? If so, how was Virginia's political landscape altered as a result? No study has yet emerged that seeks to examine the overall effect of the Brown decision on race relations in Virginia.

Despite the racist and reactionary rhetoric that characterized state politics during this era, the voices of moderation, although never able to shout above the segregationists, were never completely silenced. While most of the attention has been focused on those who staunchly supported segregation, little research has been done on the white dissenters. A few of Virginia's moderate politicians of the 1950s, such as Armistead Boothe, have received some long-overdue attention lately, but more remains to be done.(4) No study has been made of the Virginia Industrialization Group, an alliance of business, professional, and civic leaders that worked quietly to end massive resistance. …

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