Prince Edward's `Massive Resistance'

By Hamilton, John Alfred | Nieman Reports, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Prince Edward's `Massive Resistance'


Hamilton, John Alfred, Nieman Reports


"Have you read the history of Prince Edward County?" belligerently demands the businessman in button-down collar. "Why, one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War was fought right over here at Sayler's Creek." He motions over his shoulder with a pencil, but all the visitor can see is a modern wood-paneled wall. Then, in the sluggish way residents of Southside Virginia have of figuring the passage of time, he adds, "These people are only a couple generations away from it."

Down the street, John C. Steck, Managing Editor of the semiweekly, segregationist Farmville Herald, checks some proofs brought to his desk. Steck represents Farmville on the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors which, back in 1959, cut off all funds for public schools when the county faced the threat of court-ordered integration. One of the original defendants in the set of cases which produced the 1954 desegregation decision, Prince Edward County today is the only county in the United States without any public schools.

Why was this desperate, last-resort action taken?

Listen to Steck:

"We're fighting for states' rights," he explains softly. "We're opposing federal usurpation of power and an illegal court decree."

Around the corner, in the shopping district of Farmville's Main Street, E. Louis Dahl swivel-hips between crowded tables and counters in his Army Goods Store, eagerly showing customers the latest in sporting goods, hardware and long johns for early morning plowing. A copy of The Citizens' Council, the segregationist publication from Jackson, Mississippi, rests on a counter of sweatshirts near a potbellied wood stove. Dahl serves as treasurer of the Prince Edward School Foundation, the group which has been providing private schooling for the white children since the shutdown of public schools.

From the start, the Foundation has been pressed for finances. Sometimes there have been enough pledges on hand--but hard coin?

"What do you want to know how much cash we have collected for?" Dahl asks, his eyes narrowing. "What kind of a story are you going to write?" And then, "I don't have to tell you how much money we have if I don't want to--and I don't want to." He turns quickly away and begins chatting with a customer.

This, tragically, is Prince Edward County, Virginia, a small, rural, pine and tobacco county 65 miles southwest of Richmond, 50 miles east of Lynchburg, in the "black belt," with a population of about 18,000 divided roughly half white, half Negro.

Virginia's "massive resistance" as a state program of last-ditch, close-the-schools opposition to integration died in 1959 after adverse court decrees and a bitter special session of the General Assembly. But "massive resistance" still lives today as a local option program and Prince Edward County has exercised this option.

My topic is "massive resistance," and I am expected to tell the story of Prince Edward County. Should I tell you what you want to hear? Should I tell you what any national audience expects to hear? Should I don libertarian lace, pluck delicately at the Harvard harp, and chant about the inequities of a segregated society?

As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, I have found too many others doing this sort of thing. The Lynchburg newspapers, with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, were the only Virginia newspapers to oppose from the first Virginia's plunge into "massive resistance." And from my desk at Lynchburg I have written critical editorials on the Prince Edward situation.

This approach, however, does not appeal to me here.

Nor will I attempt, as some sensitive Southerners have attempted, to foist on you a "true account," for most of what is said in condemnation of the South, of Ol' Virginny, is lamentably true.

But this brings me to my purpose, to my one complaint about Harvard, to the one tin slug that I have found amid a chestful of treasure. …

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