Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Virginia's Pupil Placement Board and the Practical Applications of Massive Resistance, 1956-1966

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Virginia's Pupil Placement Board and the Practical Applications of Massive Resistance, 1956-1966

Article excerpt

Throughout the mid-1950s, southern states informally worked together to creare laws that, if not capable of permanently warding off the racial integration of public schools, would at least stem the tide temporarily.1 Although historians delve into the history of massive resistance to determine its origins, its influence, and its consequences, there is not much to be found on the social, legislative, and administrative experiments that resulted.

Of all the massive resistance laws, the Virginia Pupil Placement Act (VPPA) and its governing body, the Virginia Pupil Placement Board (VPPB), are the most intriguing. In 1956, a number of other southern states, including North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama, were in the process of creating their own antidesegregation legislation, including pupil placement laws.2 These states created placement laws in order ro remove rhe responsibility of placing pupils in schools from local school boards and place it with the state government.

Virginia's pupil placement law was initially a small part of an aggressive legislative package that called for tuition reimbursement for white students who attended private segregated schools as an alternative to integrated public ones. Though not the most well-known or popular part of the massive resistance agenda, the VPPA lasted the longest. Despite having been declared unconstitutional by federal district courts less than one month after its inception, the VPPA and its administrative board remained active until 1966, years after every other massive resistance law ceased to exist. The key to its survival lay in die subtle way the law was written. Unlike the other laws, the VPPA did not specifically refer to race, which made it exceedingly difficult for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to challenge. The VPPB served as a guide to Virginia's leaders as the state moved away from massive resistance toward minimal compliance with school desegregation in the 1960s.

Despite its crucial role in shaping Virginia's modern race relations, the VPPB receives almost no attention from historians. Although a number of scholars, including Benjamin Muse, Robbins Gates, and James Ely, briefly mention the board in their works as a part of the larger massive resistance movement, Robert Pratt is thus far the only historian to devote more than a few lines to the history of the agency.3

The VPPA was part of a group of massive resistance laws developed as the result of two years of political wrangling on the part of the Byrd organization, which had controlled Virginia politics for the better part of three decades. Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the organization had been in decline, but the 1954 ruling provided the perfect platform for maintaining control of Virginia politics.4 A committee of Byrd legislators created the moderate "Gray Plan," named after the director of the committee, Sen. Garland Gray of Sussex County. The Gray Plan permitted localities to determine the degree to which their schools would be desegregated, and this plan of action gained popularity statewide.

By the time the Virginia General Assembly met for a special session in the late summer of 1956, however, Byrd legislators had changed the "local option" legislation so that it no longer resembled the original proposal. At the same time, the NAACP filed desegregation suits in Arlington, Norfolk, Newport News, and Charlottesville, strengthening the resolve of the ardently segregationist Byrd Democrats. Although the new bill, dubbed the "Stanley Plan" after Gov. Thomas Stanley, kept some of the features of the first proposal, such as tuition grants for private schools, there were new, more drastic measures included. The most controversial bills would remove state funding from schools permitting integration and allow the governor to close any school in danger of being desegregated by court order. The state legislature, which only months before had favored the moderate Gray Plan, now committed itself to shutting down entire school systems if district courts threatened even token desegregation. …

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