Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Utility of V. O. Key's Black Population Density Theory in the Desegregation of Southern U.S. Public Universities 1948–1963

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Utility of V. O. Key's Black Population Density Theory in the Desegregation of Southern U.S. Public Universities 1948–1963

Article excerpt

Southern state colleges and universities' responses to African American applicants varied considerably from 1940 through 1963. Faced with qualified Black applicants backed by the NAACP, social movements, and federal authorities-some state and university officials admitted Black students with fairly little resistance, whereas others stonewalled, created new barriers, but eventually conceded. Arkansas was the first southern state to admit a Black student to a publicly funded state college, and South Carolina was last. What accounts for the sequence by which the eleven southern states admitted the first African Americans to state universities? This article provides an overview of the first Black entrants to southern state public colleges, analyzes the effects of United States Supreme Court rulings on higher education desegregation, and offers a provisional explanation for how state-level defenses to desegregation fell. The aim is to explain social and political factors that contributed to higher education desegregation in the 50s and 60s, thereby enabling individuals and organizations to formulate strategies to address present day inequities and injustices.

To that end, this essay investigates the utility of V. O. Key's (1984) analytical framework in Southern Politics in State and Nation. Key posited that varying rates of Black population density within and across eleven Southern states affected local and regional political development in the mid-twentieth century. In Black Belt counties where African Americans lived and worked in higher numbers, White supremacist elites controlled political institutions to protect their economic and social interests at the state and national level (Key, 1984).

Key's analysis showed that while race was part of the political debate, more importantly, the need to control labor in rural agricultural regions drove White elites to devise political strategies to resist federal intervention in southern state and local race-related policies. Elite Whites influenced national elections to ensure a unified bloc would veto Black civil rights legislation in the U.S. Congress. Key also noted that race was not a salient political factor in some areas of the southern states, particularly in cities, the highlands, and coastal areas, where the economy was not dependent on large-scale agriculture. Key noted that demographic and economic changes would eventually transform southern political culture.

If Key is correct that the percentage of Black population determined the nature of political control in southern states, then one can estimate that states with the highest percentage of Blacks should offer massive resistance to desegregation because White political elites will influence education policy decisions. Questions raised in this essay are: In the realm of higher education desegregation, does Key's demographic theory explain state level variation in resistance to federal desegregation rulings? Did other social, political, and economic factors affect the timing and circumstances of desegregation in different states?

The article begins with a brief history of southern Black education, a table outlining the first undergraduate or graduate Black applicant accepted into a southern public university in each southern state, a comparative analysis of state public universities' level of resistance to desegregation prior to and following the Brown v. Board Education (1954, 1955) rulings, and an examination of four case studies that represent all levels of state university resistance to desegregation. Not all of the first entrants remained at or graduated from these universities. In at least one case, the university accepted students on a segregated basis. This examination does not claim that higher education desegregation ended with the admittance of Black students as many institutions continued to find ways to exclude Black graduate and undergraduate students. The intent is to understand some of the social and political factors that impacted the initial puncture in southern public university desegregation. …

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