One "Desegregated Heart": Sarah Patton Boyle and the Crusade for Civil Rights in Virginia

By Dierenfield, Kathleen Murphy | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

One "Desegregated Heart": Sarah Patton Boyle and the Crusade for Civil Rights in Virginia


Dierenfield, Kathleen Murphy, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


AT 9:25 P.M. on 29 August 1956, a strange light drew Virginia civil rights crusader Sarah Patton Boyle from her bed. When she peered out the window, a cross of flames greeted her. Startled for an instant, she "laughed aloud at the irony of an attempt to torment me with a blaze of loveliness formed in the symbol of eternal love." She quickly called her teenaged son to photograph this monument to her six-year-long desegregation campaign. Within days the Norfolk Journal and Guide displayed that picture above the headline "Mrs. S. P. Boyle Not Frightened by Mobsters"; the Charlottesville Daily Progress issued an editorial condemning "cowardly crossburnings and anonymous telephone threats"; and the Washington Post and Times Herald picked up the story to illustrate growing southern hostility toward integrationists.l Suddenly Boyle had a fresh opportunity to speak out and the charred facts to prove her case that Virginia's defiance of the 1954 Brown ruling was responsible for inspiring such lawlessness. This attack recharged the Charlottesville reformer's waning energy in the disheartening battle against segregation.

Magazine writer Sarah-Lindsay Patton Boyle (1906-1994) was the Old Dominion's best-known white liberal during the impassioned decade of the Brown decision. In 1950, after reading a letter in the Richmond TimesDispatch that decried the desegregation of the University of Virginia, she dashed off one of her own to the editor in which she asserted that most white Virginians were eager to help their black contemporaries. Convinced that the South was indeed ready for integration, she optimistically awaited letters and speeches echoing her beliefs. No one answered her call to action. Frustrated but intent on setting an example for others, Boyle endorsed immediate, overall integration in hundreds of articles and speeches. But her immediatist position and self-righteous tone were simply too extreme in tradition-bound Virginia, and few whites or blacks openly supported this provocative civil rights reformer in the 1950s. For her noteworthy efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr., praised Patty Boyle by name in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as one of a handful of white southerners who dared to plead for racial justice when fear and ignorance silenced the majority.2

King appreciated the valuable role played by southern white liberals in the early years of the civil rights movement. Scholars, on the other hand, have often overlooked or underestimated the significance of those players and focused instead on the segregationists, black activists, politicians, judges, or the white moderates who in the end had a greater influence in stopping massive resistance.3 This essay highlights the lesser but no less vital part played by southern white liberals in the civil rights movement by examining the career of Patty Boyle. As a Virginia patrician who publicly advocated integration, Boyle proved to northerners and southern blacks that there was not a "Solid South" intent on retaining segregation. She opened channels of interracial communication. She provided an example for white southerners to follow. She offered a symbol of hope to blacks that whites could change their attitudes. She generated criticism of the hard-line segregationists by publicizing their repeated harassment of her. Most important, her radical stance generated public discussion. Out of that discussion, the moderate argument for gradual integration gained acceptability as an alternative to the extremism of both segregationists and white liberals.

To grasp fully the significance of Boyle's actions, one must recognize how radical her views were at the time and how uncommon white integrationists were in Virginia during the heyday of massive resistance. The Democratic political machine held absolute control in the Old Dominion. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., with his powerful ally, House Rules Committee chairman Howard W. Smith, steadfastly thwarted integration from the national to the local level. …

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